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From Seabiscuit to Maryfield

As Hollywood was putting racing's most famous rags-to-riches story down on celluloid in the Seabiscuit movie, caterer to the stars Nick Mestrandrea made sure that the cast and crew never went hungry. That's how he learned the story of a horse who got turned over to a new trainer, rose from obscurity and went on to compete at the highest levels of the sport. A few years later, Mestrandrea is living a similar tale.

Maryfield may not exactly be another Seabiscuit, but there are some similarities to their stories. She was claimed out of a $50,000 claimer two Januarys ago at Santa Anita by Doug O'Neill and has since become a major stakes winner. So far, the highlight of her career has been a win in the Grade I Ballerina at Saratoga, but she's got an even more important date on her calendar. In just a few days, she will start in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, much to the delight of her co-owner, Nick Mestrandrea.

"The whole thing, it's just been so exciting," Mestrandrea said. "Especially when I came into this knowing nothing about horse racing. Now, we've got a horse running in the Breeders' Cup, running against the big boys."

When Mestrandrea got a call from a producer asking him to work on the Seabiscuit movie he almost turned down the offer. Because the movie was shot at several racetracks across the country, he wasn't sure whether or not he wanted to traipse from track to track and be away from his family. His job is tough enough as it is. Keeping people fed on a movie set often involves an 18-hour day. But he agreed to take the job, possibly the smartest decision he ever made.

Before he got involved with the Seabiscuit movie, Mestrandrea, 36, knew absolutely nothing about horse racing. He thought Seabiscuit was a Triple Crown winner and had never set foot on the grounds of a racetrack until he worked at Fairplex during the filming of the movie.

Though he's working in the background when it comes to the movie industry, Mestrandrea has a way of getting noticed. Variety once referred to him as "the industry's coolest catering guy," noting his habit of wearing food-related costumes to work. For instance, if chicken is on the menu, he might just show up wearing a chicken suit.

Gary Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey who played George Woolf in the movie, and jockey Luis Jauregi, a stunt rider in the movie, took a liking to Mestrandrea and introduced him to horse racing. Seeing that they had a willing student on their hands, Stevens and Jauregi suggested that Mestrandrea claim a horse.

"Luis told me that when they turn for home and your horse is moving to the lead, it's unlike any other feeling in the world," Mestrandrea said. "I told him, 'C'mon.' Now, I know exactly what he was talking about."

Mestrandrea put up $5,000 and went in with some buddies on a horse named Court Shenanigans, claiming him with trainer Jeff Mullins for $16,000. For his new owners, Court Shenanigans won first time out of the box, and Mestrandrea was hooked.

There were a few more horses after Court Shenanigans, some of them good, some of them not so good. Along the way, Mestrandrea also made the decision to switch to trainer Doug O'Neill.

It was O'Neill who spotted Maryfield when she was dropped into a claimer at Santa Anita. He called Mestrandrea and suggested he go in with owners Mark Gorman and Jim Perry. Mestrandrea agreed and took a 30 percent share in the mare.

Under O'Neill's care, Maryfield kept getting better and better. She won her first start for her new connections and won a small stakes in her next outing. Now 6, this has been her best year. She won the Grade II Distaff Breeders' Cup Handicap in March at Aqueduct and, two starts later, finished fourth in the Grade I Princess Rooney at Calder.

She was overlooked in her next start, going off at 16-1 in the Ballerina. But she came through, nipping Baroness Thatcher at the wire by a nose. For Mestrandrea, it was his first visit to Saratoga since he worked there on the Seabiscuit movie.

"When we won the Ballerina in Saratoga it was surreal," he said. "I hadn't been there in three years and the last time I was there I was in the grandstand cleaning up after everyone had eaten. Now, I was standing in the winner's circle."

She hasn't run since the Ballerina, but has been training forwardly leading up to the Breeders' Cup. Mestrandrea, who just got done working on the set of Indiana Jones 4, will get a rare day off and come to Monmouth to watch Maryfield run. She's in tough, but, at the very least, she should be competitive. After the Breeders' Cup, she'll be sold at Keeneland's November Breeding Stock Sale.

With the mare being a Grade I winner, Mestrandrea and his partners should reap a windfall profit. It's been a great run. All because of Seabiscuit.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.