A Memorable Year Continues for Anthony Spinazzola, Winner of $210,623 in the 2023 Spa & Surf Showdown

Anthony Spinazzola has laid a lot of tile in his day. Each morning, the 59-year-old Mesa, Ariz., resident wakes up and heads to the flooring company that he has owned there for the last twenty-something years. 

While flooring pays the bills now, his first love has always been the horses, and it almost couldn’t have turned out any other way.

He grew up in Michigan, where his father Frederick owned and trained Thoroughbreds, primarily at the old Detroit Race Course and Hazel Park. Young Anthony loved the racetrack life—and loved hanging around his dad. 

“He instilled in me a strong work ethic and a love of horses,” Anthony said.

The elder Spinazzola would often ship during the winters to Turf Paradise, and when he got older, Anthony decided to make Arizona his home. He even tried following in his father’s footsteps, training a string at Turf Paradise in the early 2000s, but success was elusive.

“All my life, I’ve been around cheaper horses,” Anthony recalls. “Occasionally there’d be some allowance horses, but that was about it.”

The good news was that one of his father’s horse clients had taught Anthony how to lay tile, and just as his prospects in the horse business seemed to be diminishing, his flooring business in Mesa was beginning to flourish.

“It made it so that I could afford to take a couple chances now and then,” he said.

With his wife Barbara’s blessing, Anthony raced horses on a small scale, and he liked to keep an eye out for nicely bred—but affordable—horses that might be available at auction. For the 2022 Two-year-olds-in-training sale at Timonium, Spinazzola arranged for $50,000 in credit and gave his trainer, Mark Salvaggio, a list of 8 or 10 horses to check out, hoping that one of them might go for $50,000 or less.

None of them went that cheaply.

Disappointed, Anthony reviewed the sales results online and noticed that a Not This Time filly had RNA’d for $49,000. 

“That horse’s page had caught my eye when I first reviewed the catalog,” he said, “but I figured there was no way a Not This Time would sell for less than $50,000, so I didn’t even put her on my list.”

As Anthony moved his computer cursor over the consignor’s name, a phone number popped up…so Anthony dialed it. When someone picked up, Anthony asked how much they wanted for the Not This Time filly.

“$50,000,” came the reply.

Spinazzola couldn’t believe his seeming good fortune. He sent Salvaggio and a vet to check out the filly and they both gave her a thumbs up. A short time later, the deal was done.

Anthony was so excited about his new purchase that he traveled all the way to Arkansas the following February for her career debut at Oaklawn Park.

That is Anthony standing with his filly in the Lynn Chleborad barn on the morning of her first race. She didn’t win, but she ran a nice third. 

Her second race was even more promising.

It wasn’t the most prestigious Maiden Special in the world…since it was restricted to horses that had gone through the sales ring for $75,000 or less, but horsemen liked the way Anthony’s filly, Sacred Wish, won it. Spinazzola’s phone had rung a time or two after her first race—but now it was ringing off the hook.

Anthony decided to do the prudent thing and sell a majority interest in Sacred Wish, but he did retain a minority share so he could still share in the excitement…

Sacred Wish on the inside, finishing second by a neck to Wet Paint in the recent Coaching Club American Oaks (photo credit: Spencer Tulis, The Saratogian)

…like when she ran a bang-up second in the $500,000 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga.

Now Anthony gets lowest billing, rather than sole billing, when Sacred Wish’s owners are listed.

That doesn’t matter to Anthony, though. He now has the kind of horse he’s dreamed of since he was a child. What commands his attention instead are thoughts of the Breeders’ Cup.

“I’m planning to go to it for the first time ever,” he said. “We’re hoping to run Sacred Wish in it. How great would it be for her to run…and for me to be playing in the BCBC?”

Like campaigning stakes horses, playing contests is a relatively new phenomenon for Anthony. About seven years ago, he tried it…briefly.

“I think I played about 10 contests. I won site credit in one of them, but that was it. Then about three years ago, I really started playing them actively.”

Anthony has participated in the last two NHCs. In the most recent one, he had two entries and finished Day 1 in 13th place. 

“After that, I fell apart and finished out of the money. That memory was haunting me as I began Day 2 of the Spa & Surf Showdown.”

Actually, Spinazzola finished 13th in the 2022 edition of the Spa & Surf Showdown. He also took home the top Day Money prize on the second day, earning about $21,000 in total. Things didn’t start out promisingly for him in 2023, however.

All Spinazzola had to show for the first 14 contest races were a couple of place collections—one of them realized only because of the horrific Maple Leaf Mel breakdown.

But then lightning struck…twice.

“I liked both of the Chilean horses trained by Amador Sanchez in that Del Mar race,” Spinazzola said, “and since I had two entries, I decided not to choose between them…I used them both. At the same time that I was making that decision, I also decided to go for two first-time-turf horses in the last race at Saratoga. ‘First-time turf’ isn’t really a big angle for me, but I was so far behind at that point, that I had to look for prices. The really lucky thing for me was that Yuki and Fair Dinkum wound up on the same entry. Now all of a sudden, my name went from the last page of the leaderboard to 16th place.”

Over the final seven Saturday contest races, Spinazzola tacked on 2 winners and 2 runners up. He finished the day in 9th place.

The Saturday day-money prize leader was Paul Cush, who edged himself past Max Schnepf with an assist from the Del Mar stewards, who moved Cush’s Del Mar race 12 pick, Precocious Times, from 3rd to 2nd via a disqualification that seemed like a 50/50 call. The $6.00 place mutuel with Precocious Times got Cush the top, $14,602 day-money prize, while Schnepf had to settle for a Saturday bonus of $8,761. Joe Migliore ($4,380 bonus) and Dan Shugar ($1,460) rounded out the Saturday top four. 

In 9th place, Spinazzola went to bed unable to shake the memory of his Day 2 fade in the NHC five months earlier. It wasn’t long on Sunday before it was that memory that got put to bed.

Anthony came out with guns blazing, nailing Christophe Clement-trained first-time starter Ozara, who scored at 12-1 on the lawn (while the lawn was still open). Not long after came a more modest winner plus a runner up. He now trailed only Max Schnepf, who also managed to carry his strong Saturday play right on into Sunday.

In the 7th at Saratoga, another $26.00 horse came in, and Spinazzola had that one as well—Can’t Keep Me Down. He was now in the lead…but then Schnepf reclaimed it…and then Spinazzola took it back. It was a real seesaw battle.

Heading into the 6th at Del Mar, Spinazzola was nursing a slim $4.60 lead over Schnepf, the pride of Schaumburg, Ill. Then Spinazzola connected with Baristan the Bold ($16.60, $7.60) to finally create some separation between himself and “Schaumburg Schnepf”.

Schnepf could still cause plenty of trouble, of course. So could Frank Okasaki, who was $35.80 back in 4th place. And double trouble was Frank Gryboski Jr., whose two entries sat in 3rd- and 7th-places, respectively. In fact, it was only in that 6th at Del Mar that Gryboski finally used different horses on his two entries. Prior to that, all 38 races displayed identical Gryboski selections.

Race 7 featured a contest player’s dream—a $29.80 victor that wins by a pole. The weird thing was…you had to drill all the way down to Jim Cuzzupe in 26th place to find someone who respected that 13-1 winner — which was named Mr,. Disrespectful. The unpopular winner moved Cuzzupe into the top 10. Meanwhile, Spinazzola had dodged a gigantic bullet.

There were now four races left and Spinazzola’s lead was $38. At this point, his late-game strategy was clear.

“I just kept trying to block people, looking to use the most likely horse that was 10-1 or higher”

The next three races broke well for the leader—not because he got any of them right, but because the winners went off at 2-1, 3-5 and 3-1, respectively. Spinazzola still led by $29.40.

A scare was looming in the final race, though.

Spinazzola opted to try and “Anthony Munoz” his opponents with #4 Bluegrass Ryder, who was 11-1. Somewhat surprisingly, Gryboski went with a 5-1 shot (#7 Hard Times) on both of his entries in an attempt to retain 2nd and 3rd places. (Gryboski was insurmountably ahead in the tiebreaker over 4th-place Max Schnepf thanks to having 16 winners to Schnepf’s 8), The player down in 5th place, however, Frank Okasaki, went for the win with 22-1 My Brother Mike (#8). 

Nearing the end of the turn of the 7-furlong maiden claimer, Spinazzola did not like what he saw.

“My heart sank,” Anthony admitted.

Unfortunately for Okasaki, the horse on the outside in the maroon colors with the gold cap, 3-2 favorite The Key is Unity, started taking two strides for everyone else’s one at this point. 

The finish wasn’t close. Another favorite had won, and Anthony Spinazzola had captured the $210,263 grand prize.

“What a feeling!” Anthony exclaimed. “I was elated.”

So was wife Barbara…and dad Frederick, who is now 83. 

Among others who called Anthony to offer congratulations was 2020 Spa & Surf Showdown champion Scott Fiedler.

“He sat at my table at the last NHC,” Anthony commented. “He’s a really good guy.”

Immediately behind Anthony in the final standings was Frank Gryboski Jr., who collected a total of $127,618 for finishing both 2nd and 3rd and for having the 4th-highest Day 2 score. (Caleb Knight earned the top Sunday Day Money prize of $14,602 for his $177.80 tally on Sunday.) Max Schnepf played a fabulous tournament throughout. He earned $40,300 for finishing fourth in the overall standings and second at the conclusion of Day 1. Like his final pick My Brother Mike, Frank Okasaki finished fifth. Okasaki took home $26,283 for his skillful two days of handicapping.

As for the 2023 Spa & Surf Showdown champ, he has no grandiose plans for his windfall. He does look forward to playing in the upcoming Kentucky Downs Turf Handicapping Challenge and the Keeneland fall competition, and he hopes to earn a second BCBC entry along the way to go with the one he already has…and the filly that he hopes will accompany him there.

Beyond that, Anthony Spinazzola has only his sights set on the 2024 NHC, to which he is already double qualified.

“It’s just such a thrill to compete in that setting against the best horseplayers in the country and the world,” he said.

Of course, the humble Arizona-by-way-of-Michigan horseman and horseplayer can tell people that, despite a late start, he has now done that many times over—and, one time, he beat them all.