2002-07-04 / Sports

Cat Manzi to be inducted into Harness Hall of Fame

By jane meggitt

Catello "Cat" Manzi can’t find the words to express how he feels about his induction into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame.

Inductees are notified far in advance, and Manzi, of Freehold Township, the third highest-winning driver in harness racing history, said, "[The Hall of Fame] gives you a year to get used to it. I can’t get used to it. It’s the best thing that could happen to me in the sport."

The ceremony takes place today in Goshen, N.Y. Manzi has more than 9,000 career victories and has earned $86.1 million, making him the fifth-highest money earner.

Manzi, 52, grew up in Sullivan County, N.Y., in a harness-racing family. The family lived in a house his grandfather built.

"All I remember is horses being around," recalled Manzi. "My earliest memories are carrying water buckets and helping with horses."

His father, Alphonso, was a trainer, and Manzi remembers picking up rocks off the their exercise track and, with his brother Steve, sitting on the homemade harrow to provide weight for the tractor. He and his cousins, including Ed Lohmeyer, now a top trainer in Cream Ridge, used to ride their bikes and pretend they were harness racers.

By the fall of 1968, Manzi had left college and started driving horses for his father at Monticello Raceway. Back then, said Manzi, drivers and trainers were often one and the same.

"Now it’s more specialized. Some people train, others drive," he said.

His family, including his father; his uncle, Richard Manzi; and Lohmeyer, gave him good horses to drive.

"I didn’t do this by myself. People helped me along the way, providing horses," Manzi said.

When asked about his favorite horses, he mentioned Winky’s Goal, who "won almost every time I raced her." Another was Pacific Fella, trained by Lohmeyer, who did 1:48 at Hoosier Park.

Manzi admits, "I’m not sure I have favorites. There are even some cheap horses I love jogging."

Other well-known horses he has driven include Direct Current, Nuclear Siren, Trutone Lobell, and Cam’s Magic Trick. He does have some favorite races. In 1990, he was driving Harmonious in the World Trotting Derby, "where you have to win two heats. The first heat, the horse jumped and finished last. We won the second heat and then the race-off."

Another great race was the 1993 Kentucky Futurity for Fillies, when Winky’s Goal, trained by Chuck Sylvester, was "terrible in the first heat. Her shoes were pulled for the second heat, and we came from last to win, and we won the race-off."

This was his only Breeders Crown win, and he won it with a barefoot horse. Some of the most memorable days of his career include Aug. 21, 1973, when he won six out of six races at Monticello Raceway.

"That was the first great thing that happened to me in harness racing," according to Manzi. "What made it even better was that three of those were my father’s horses."

Since then, he has twice won seven out of seven at Freehold Raceway.

In 1999, Manzi had a serious accident during a race. He was knocked out and suffered brain trauma.

"I thought I was all done with driving," said Manzi. " I could hardly walk properly. But I started to improve, and I’m back as good as I’m going to be. I’m not perfect, but I wasn’t perfect before, either."

Manzi has no plans for retirement, and intends to drive "as long as I can do it." When the time comes to stop driving, he will continue to work in the harness racing industry.

Manzi’s wife, Ellen, a real estate agent in Millstone whom he met at the track, has a young horse she hopes her husband will drive. The 2-year-old Ambro Astral is now doing the baby races. Manzi, who has three children with Ellen and three from a previous marriage, has two of his children competing on the quarterhorse circuit. Perhaps another generation of Manzis will find their niche in the equine world.

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