Vincent Viola, who was part owner of 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, is back at Churchill Downs for this year’s Derby with Vino Rosso, a 12-1 shot who will race from the No. 18 post.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — His father had passed away 18 years earlier, but it was his voice that cut through the wall of noise that engulfed Churchill Downs and hammered against his son’s ears as the horses thundered down the back stretch.
It was his voice that cautioned the jockey, Johnny Velazquez against the danger of making the move too soon. It was his voice that channeled the final message that “Now was the time” — and Vincent Viola still hears it.
That’s how it was when Vincent and a boyhood pal named Anthony Bonomo won the 2017 Kentucky Derby. And in the emotional aftermath, it was the son who honored the father in the post-race press conference when he said with great emotion:
“This was a victory for $2 bettors.”
“Well, that’s who my dad was,” Viola said yesterday, just before the draw for the 2018 Kentucky Derby. Viola, who is part owner of the 12-1 Vino Rosso, spoke of the way things were between him and his dad.
“He would to the track every Saturday when I was five or six, and my mother would sit me in front of the TV set and I would watch the telecast of the races because I knew he was there.”
And then he was nine and his father told him that he was taking him with him to a brand new world, where he introduced his son to the king of that world — a magnificent superstar named Kelso.
He remembers everything about that day, everything about his dad, everything about Kelso. It was, for him, a kind of graduation day. His father told him about Kelso, who was then the greatest active race horse in the world. He explained he was a gelding and what that meant. He told him he was looking at a finely tuned athlete, one with intellect and heart.
And then he slipped away for a quick trip to the bar, but before he left he told the boy: “I want you to count changes in odds on the tote board. When I come back you tell me what you saw. The volume and the changes can teach you what might happen in the race.”
That day forged a bond between father and son that remains unbroken. Every Saturday was theirs to share.
John Viola had a lot sharing to do, As an infantryman, he had fought through World War II from the invasion of North Africa to Sicily and Salerno and finally, in one horrifying sequence, The Battle of the Bulge.
After the war, John became a trucker but from that single pathway John’s “other world” of horses was special to them. If Vinnie didn’t have a football game to play on Saturday, there was always a trifecta for which to reach.
At 17, Vincent left for West Point. The day he reported, his father drove him from Williamsburg to the Academy.
It is a day every plebe can recall — a tangle of nerves, excitement and a little fear as well. Just before they said goodbye, there came a moment that the son would never forget.
His father turned to him and erased all doubt.
“Listen,” he said. ”I want you to know I can come back for you in four hours or four years. It doesn’t matter to me, but it will matter to you.”
After five years in the army, Vincent Viola came home because he was needed there. He had always been analytical. West Point gave him the math and the ability to focus without being distracted. The combination led to financial success. But these were tough time for John Viola. He always had a blue-collar work ethic and rock solid blue-collar value.
But now after several massive heart attacks, he was locked into a wheelchair.
Vincent found an obvious answer for them: Horses. Vincent bought two, and John was a part of the new life until he passed away 19 years ago.
Now Vincent is back at Churchill Downs. His colt, Vino Rosso, is one of four Derby entries trained by Todd Pletcher. What brought to Louisville was victory in the Wood Memorial. But he has a long way to go.
Promises made are not necessarily promises kept — especially in horse racing.
”He is like a high school athlete with skill and talent, but in desperate need of good coach. That’s where Todd (Pletcher) comes in. I don’t know what he will do Saturday.”
Vino Rosso drew the No. 18 post among the 20 thoroughbreds who will run.
“I would have liked a post in the middle for him. He’s in 18. It’s not impossible. I know American Pharoah won from there.”
And, oh how he’d like another blanket of roses for John.
Jerry Izenberg is Columnist Emeritus for The Star-Ledger. He can be reached at email@example.com.