It was the highlight of a career that spanned four decades and it had a clear impact on Bango, who was astonished, pleased and grateful all at once after Superman Can, owned by Dana Issacson, collected the biggest check of his career, and Bango’s, too in the $50,000 race.
“It was one of the highlights of my career,” said winning rider Scott Stevens. “Three weeks before the race he wasn’t planning on running him, but the horse got good at the right time and ran the race of his life.”
Funeral services for Bango, a regular on the backside in Shakopee since the opening of Canterbury Downs, are scheduled on Tuesday in Phoenix, Arizona, his home state since the early 1970s.
Bango died on Thursday evening at his Phoenix home after battling cancer the last several months. A vigil is scheduled Monday evening at Menke Funeral Home in Phoenix. A mass of Christian burial is scheduled Tuesday at St. Rafael’s Catholic Church. Burial will take place in Holy Cross Cemetery.
Bango alternated his stable between Turf Paradise in Phoenix and Canterbury for several years after one time racing at tracks in the East, where he first became enamored of the sport.
He was elected president of the Arizona Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Assn. last spring. “It was a short presidency,” said his widow, Mary. “He was kind of a troubleshooter there for a few months while he was able.”
Bango, 74, was a native of New Haven, Conn., and operated a radiator shop. Racing was his love. “He was always interested in racehorses,” Mary said. “He would attend the races at the New York racetracks.”
Bango would conclude every season at Canterbury with the announcement that he was either retiring or intended never again to train in Minnesota. His family grew accustomed to his season-ending proclamations and took them with a grain of salt.
“We would just say, ‘Ok, George,’ ” Mary said. “Then the next year I’d pack his bags for him and he’d be off. It was really hard last year when he finally realized he couldn’t keep up, that he didn’t have the stamina and couldn’t continue.”
According to Mary, George had a friend who went to Arizona every winter. “Then one day George sort of announced that he thought all of us should move to Arizona,” she said. “I think his friend was a real big influence.”
George made the move from Connecticut to the Grand Canyon state in 1969 and Mary followed shortly after with their six children. The move also preceded his serious entry into training, some time in the early 1970s. He had a radiator shop for a while in Phoenix and worked also as a district circulation coordinator for the Arizona Republic before turning to training full time.
Stevens and Minnesota HBPA president Tom Metzen were among the final visitors at Bango’s home. “It was a Godsend,” Metzen said. “I saw him on Wednesday and I don’t think he knew me.”
Stevens drove nonstop after the meet ended at Canterbury on Labor Day and arrived in Phoenix late Wednesday afternoon Sept. 3, and visited with Bango that evening. “I went back again on Friday (Sept. 4) and he didn’t look the same at all,” Stevens said.
Stevens rode the last horse Bango saddled to victory on closing day at Canterbury in 2007. “Hills of Ireland was the last horse he ever trained,” Stevens said, then recalling a footnote to the victory.
“George was in the winner’s circle and he said he was retiring, that he wouldn’t be back,” Stevens said. “I had heard that before and thought it was just George. But he had tears in his eyes. He must have known then.”Bango is survived by his wife and six children, all Arizona residents: George, Jr., Nancy Banks, Patricia O’Brien, Regina Davis, Karla Maines and Jessica Szabo.