It was a close finish, but when Admirals War Chest charged under the wire at Laurel Park on Oct. 17, Stephen Sinatra felt his efforts as a Maryland horse breeder and owner had finally paid off.
In this fall's Maryland Million Classic, Sinatra got to watch the 4-year-old, Darlington-bred Admirals War Chest narrowly hold off Bullheaded Boy to bring capture the $150,000 feature race on the annual Maryland Million Day.
"I was ecstatic," Sinatra said about the Classic. "It was just a great race because he raced against good company. There were a lot of significant horses in that race."
The owner of Sinatra Thoroughbred Racing and Breeding LLC at Darlington's Berkley Farm, Sinatra, 69, has worked with horses since he was 24.
When prominent Harford horse breeder and owner Allan Murray died in 2013, Sinatra, a Connecticut-based cardiologist, bought one of Murray's Darlington properties, off Berkley Road.
Horse racing, Sinatra said, is all about "the agony and the ecstasy."
"You dream about these horses, but one bad step and suddenly, your dream is gone," he said. "With Admiral, he is just a horse that loves to run."
Sinatra, working with trainer Corby Caiazzo, was eager to channel Admiral's energy, bucking the common racing philosophy of urging the horse to conserve its energy so it has power to sprint at the finish.
"Every once in a while, you come across an animal that just wants to perform for you," Sinatra said. In this case, he said, "if a horse wants to lead, give it to him... That's where I believe Admiral has superiority, because he wants to lead."
Admiral is the son of the stallion Elusive Charlie and the mare Cut a Check out of Polish Numbers. Sinatra owns the stallion.
"The interesting thing about Admirals War Chest is, I bred him myself," Sinatra noted.
Medical in Maryland
A New York native, Sinatra grew up on Long Island and remembers going to the races at Belmont Park with his father.
He began boarding horses at Darlington's Murmur Farm, run by husband and wife Allen and Audrey Murray, and came to greatly admire their passion for horses.
"They became very good advisors. They are very smart people," Sinatra said. "Allen had a vision of the Berkley training center."
After Allen Murray's death, "I wanted to take their vision about the training center and make it a reality, because I guess he never finished his dream," Sinatra said.
"I was a big supporter of the New York [horse] program and then, when the Maryland program started to really improve, I decided, with the purchase of the farm [Berkley], I would be 100 percent not only motivated but dedicated to Maryland," he said.
With that, Sinatra said he became committed to using his medical background to help the horses in his charge.
A cardiologist for 35 years who founded the New England Heart Center in 1987, Sinatra has appeared on major TV shows like "The Dr. Oz Show" and "The Doctors," where he has promoted his view that high cholesterol does not cause heart disease.
He still lectures around the country and has spearheaded four clinical studies on horses that he began doing about a decade ago.
At Berkley Farm, he uses organic food that is not genetically modified and does "a lot of concierge-type care for the equine," such as massage therapy and acupuncture.
"One of the things we do at the farm is a lot of lung support, and we put fans in the barn. We try to power-wash the stalls, we turn [the horses] out in the fields," he said. "We are trying to make the horses as comfortable as possible."
Sinatra wrote a book on "grounding" or "earthing," the act of walking barefoot on earth to cure inflammation.
He said he had a horse with a bowed tendon and he just took off its shoes, using "the natural energy of the earth" to heal the animal.
"Whatever I do for people, I do for horses," Sinatra said, explaining he wants to help the animals as much as possible without pills.
"I am trying to heal these horses with anything from food to love to magnetics, whatever it takes," he said.
"When Allen [Murray] owned the farm, one of the things we showed is, these horses are so inflamed just from their training," he continued. "When I did my own research, I really underestimated how inflamed they are. That is why it's hard for a Triple Crown winner to win the crown. They need more than two or three weeks of relaxation."
One of Sinatra's papers showed the importance of Vitamin E, for example.
"I am hoping someday to really reduce the inflammation in these animals so they can perform better without pharmaceutical drugs," he said.
The medical side of horse racing "is rocket science," Sinatra explained.
"I hope to make the training center a premiere center in Maryland; I really do," he said.
'The secret sauce'
Despite his passion for medicine, Sinatra credited much of his success to his partnership with trainer Caiazzo and his relationship with the Murrays.
"Two days after the Maryland Million, [Caiazzo] called me up and he said, 'You've got to see the Admiral, he was rolling over [with happiness],'" Sinatra said. "The reason why the horse is so happy is because the human finally got to give the horse the lead."
"I really feel if it wasn't for the Murrays, I wouldn't have won the Maryland Classic," he said, adding the Murrays were "all in about doing the clinical study."
"Allen wanted to win the Preakness," Sinatra said. "I think I can win the Preakness. That's my dream, is to fulfill his dream."
A staff of seven to eight people supports the roughly 60 horses Sinatra has at Berkley Farm. He said he paid $2.1 million for the 160-acre farm, which features a 5/8-mile training track and three barns.
Caiazzo and Sinatra have worked together for about nine years; Sinatra called him "a really solid individual with a lot of integrity."
The 42-year-old Caiazzo, a Howard County native who lives on the farm with his family, said he worked in Florida for eight years before coming to help the Murrays and Sinatra about nine years ago.
Having worked with Admirals War Chest since he was a yearling, Caiazzo smiled as he recalled the results of the Maryland Classic.
"It's pretty cool having a horse like him," Caiazzo said as he helped take Admiral out of his stall on a recent chilly morning. "He's got, like, a mind of his own. He tries to do things on his terms."
About the race, Caiazzo said: "I was so happy, because that's my first stakes winner. That's a very special day. I feel like a lot of work paid off."
Caiazzo called Admiral "a neat horse" who "always showed us he could run a little bit" and really brought his game to the Classic.
Admiral is headed to another stakes race the day after Christmas.
"We are looking forward to next year," Caiazzo said, then: "we are going to give him a year or two off. He's run hard for us. He deserves a break."
Caiazzo noted all the horses on the farm are hand-grazed and turned out in the fields every day. The goal is to "just let them be a horse."
"It's good for them to roll and get their body back in place and get a massage," he said.
Working with Sinatra "is awesome," Caiazzo said, adding he helped with the research on horse inflammation.
"We work real good together and it's like a team effort," the trainer said, crediting the farm's staff as well. "Everybody works hard; they work really long hours. Everybody is part of the team. My kids love to go to the races; they watch [the horses] train."
Asked about the future of horse racing and the financial struggles of race tracks nationwide, Sinatra said one problem is the sport is dominated by older men.
"What I am trying to do is to get more women involved," he said. "What the sport needs is, it needs new blood. It needs people who realize this is a tremendous sport."
One of the main benefits that anyone can offer is love.
Sinatra recalled the night Admiral came home, when Caiazzo's 9-year-old daughter decorated the horse's stall with balloons and "Welcome Home Admiral" signs.
"When you have that child's energy matching that equine energy, that's love," he said. "That's the secret sauce that I am trying to bring to the industry as well."