BY JIM WELLS
He is a nature lover, a body surfer, a connoisseur of fine wine, a man who doesn’t own a car, a world traveler with an appreciation for the histories of the nations he visits. He can also live on a few bucks a day because he is a person who will commune with the disenfranchised and yet converse at any level, even in Spanish, which he acquired during nearly four decades of wintering on an isolated Mexican beach.
You can find this secret hideaway (it’s located in the state of Oaxaca) if you are willing to endure primitive conditions and follow a goat path to get there. Mark Stancato might enjoy fine wine but he can survive quite well at a most basic level, as the lack of an automobile might affirm.
Most of the racing community knows those things about Stancato, since 1985, with the exception of three meets, the affable stall superintendent for Canterbury Park, among a host of other duties that popped up continuously during a season. There are many things many people don’t know, however, about the source of the man’s interest in horse racing, about his love of the game he is about to leave, at least on a workaday level.
Did you know for example that Senor Stancato has had contact with some of the greatest racehorses in American history? Did you know that the contact was up close and physical so that he could one day claim that he actually touched Triple Crown champion Citation, the great Kelso and the inimitable Bold Ruler, who sired Secretariat and was grandfather to numerous great horses.
He made it a point to touch the marvelous speedster Dr. Fager, and even the uppity and dangerous Ribot, the European marvel and two-time Arc de Triomphe winner. After badgering the horse’s groom for permission, Stancato had to retrieve his arm quickly from Ribot’s stall when the horse demonstrated a taste for his flesh.
Stancato was once given the shoes from Native Dancer after he was reshod. He was there the day Dr Fager beat Damascas in the Suburban and the day Secretariat set a world record in the Marlboro Cup. Oh, and he touched Nashua, Round Table, Swaps and Majestic Prince.
The opportunities to meet all of the marvelous greats of racing history were a direct result of his father’s business. Born in Italy and later a graduate of Penn State, Stancato’s father, Frank, was the general manager/agent for one of two prominent horse shipping businesses in the country during the 1960s and 1970s. “I knew that I would one day become involved with horse racing in some way,” Stancato recalls thinking.
Yet, most Canterbury horsemen and office personnel will recall Stancato upon his upcoming retirement for the unruffled, pleasant natured style he displayed while solving problems with stall assignments or other issues in Canterbury’s stables.
“I don’t know what I can say about the man,” quipped HBPA president Tom Metzen. “The biggest problem I had with him was that he liked to drink wine with my wife. But we’re going to miss him big time. If a trainer or horseman didn’t want to be in the same barn with an individual he disliked, the two would be best friends by the time Stancato got through with them.”
Placing judge and clerk of course Peggy Davis has worked with Stancato since the track opened in 1985 and recalled a barn issue left to Stancato to solve during those hectic first days. The doors to the stables had been mis-designed and wouldn’t open. Stancato to the rescue. It seemed he could solve anything. “He is the most original person I’ve ever come across,” she said. “It doesn’t seem right that he’s leaving. It’s actually sad.”
Pressbox media relations director Jeff Maday, always looking for the up-to-date news, regarded Stancato as his greatest source. “He also knew who was coming here or what was going on back there before anyone else,” Maday said. “He was a crucial player for me.”
Quarter horse trainer Jerry Livingston has dealt with Stancato at other tracks in addition to Canterbury and regards him as the most efficient, best organized arbiter of barn issues in the business. “Bar none,” Livingston said.
Jockey agent Richard Grunder says that Stancato is simply “the best stall man and morning line maker I have ever been around. I think he did an outstanding job,” said Grunder. “To put those odds together three days ahead of time is a tough, tough assignment and he did it for a long time.”
And, of course, there were those heated issues that required resolution. “Some horseman would come in there ready to start a pissing match and Mark never once raised his voice. “They came in kickin’ and screamin’ and always left with a smile on their faces,” Grunder added.
Stancato left Shakopee on Sunday, headed for Florida to assist his mother, now in her nineties. For many years the two of them traveled to this country or that in Europe and beyond. He’s not through yet. At some point, he plans to spend time in the red rock country of Utah, or perhaps return to Mexico, or maybe to Europe or to….
“There are many countries I still have to see,” he said.
Upon retirement, the world awaits.