By Mike Kane/Thoroughbred News Service
USA: Surprises, for sure, Sole Volante and his co-owner, Andie Biancone, both have the genetic make-up to be competing in the important races on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
Versatile Sole Volante takes his deep, classy pedigree – albeit for distance and turf – into Saturday’s G2 Tampa Bay Derby on the dirt at Tampa Bay Downs. He has already proven his ability on the surface at Tampa Bay, coming from off the pace to win the G3 Sam F. Davis on February 8.
Like Sole Volante, Andie Biancone was born into the sport. She works for her father, the accomplished international trainer Patrick Biancone, who gave her the gift of the then two-year-old colt he purchased for $20,000 on her 22nd birthday in April.
Andie Biancone, now a fourth-generation horsewoman, said the present from her father was completely unexpected. “I was shocked,” she says.
“At first I was like, ‘Whoa. That’s so cool.’ I was very excited about it. Just to own any horse is amazing – just to have that opportunity. We thought he was going to be a little for-fun horse. That was my impression.
‘I can’t believe I have a horse that could go to Kentucky’
“When he had his first start at Gulfstream Park West, I was at Keeneland and I was thinking, ‘Oh, he’s going to need a race, he’s a little bit immature. And he just won so impressively. It was crazy. And to see my silks, which my dad and I designed together, was really special.
“I can’t believe I have part of a horse that could potentially go to the Kentucky Derby. That’s just crazy. Even to work with him every day is a blessing. It’s awesome.”
Sole Volante won his first two starts on turf before finishing third in his first try on dirt. Then came the Sam F. Davis.
Patrick Biancone chuckles as he talks about his present, which he felt would help his daughter understand the challenges and costs that are part of owning a racehorse.
“It was a good birthday gift,” he grins. “She was turning 22. I said: ‘OK, if I gave you $1,000 a year since you were born you would have $22,000 and you’d buy a horse.’ We bought him for $20,000 and what I saved, $2,000, was great!”
The team of Sole Volante and Andie Biancone make up one of the more unlikely and interesting stories of this year’s quest to reach America’s most important horse race on the first Saturday in May.
With another big performance, Sole Volante could join his Biancone stablemate Ete Indien in the Derby on May 2. Ete Indien picked up 50 Derby qualifying points last weekend with a front-running victory in the G2 Fountain of Youth – which typically is enough to make the Derby field – and is expected to compete again in the Florida Derby on March 28.
From the first crop of 2014 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Karakontie, Sole Volante sold for a mere $6,000 as a yearling and Patrick Biancone acquired him as a two-year-old at a price far below what most Triple Crown prospects go for.
‘Sometimes you pay and they turn out to be no good’
Although he has already picked up $196,310 in purse money, his on-track success has yielded even more profit to the Biancones. They sold a half-interest to Limelight Stables and after his first run on dirt, the partners sold a controlling interest, a total of 60 per cent, to Reeves Thoroughbred Racing.
When Sole Volante went through the ring as hip 270 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sale, Patrick Biancone’s thoughts were not heading towards the dirt. Indeed, he thought he saw similarities with his 1984 Arc winner Sagace.
“He’s not the same color but the same conformation, a typical European kind of horse,” says the trainer. “He had a great pedigree for me because I’m European, but that may not have attracted the other people. We got him for what we got him. Sometimes you pay a lot and they turn out to be no good, and sometimes it goes the other way.”
Sole Volante, bred in Kentucky by the Niarchos family’s Flaxman Holdings, is out of the Kingmambo mare Light Blow, who produced Explode, winner by disqualification of last year’s G3 Canadian Derby on dirt.
‘I didn’t like him at first’
Andie Biancone laughs as she explains her take on the horse as she and her father inspected the OBS offerings. “I didn’t like him at first,” she says.
“He was a very nervous horse. He was kind of on the leaner side. He had very long pasterns. I didn’t really like him and right from the get-go my dad just absolutely loved him.”
It didn’t take long for the Biancones to understand why Sole Volante was edgy and unhappy. “His testicles were twisted, which was causing him pain and why we gelded him,” Andie Biancone explains. “We gave him a rubber bit and did a bunch of things with him. Just to see the change in him from the horse I saw all washed out in the ring at OBS to the confident, calm, cool, collected guy that he is today, that has been my favorite part more than anything.”
Since Karakontie means Flying Sun in the indigenous Mohawk language, Patrick Biancone used Flying Sun in Italian to name Sole Volante. “I was going to do it French,” he says, “but I was scared that the race caller couldn’t pronounce it.”
Andie is the youngest of Biancone’s four children and the third to follow him into what has been the family business for some 80 years. His grandfather, Joseph, was a top Flat rider in France in the 1940s and his father, Pierre, was a jockey who turned to training.
Biancone was a successful rider in Europe before switching to training in the 1970s. In the 1990s he relocated his stable to Hong Kong, moving on to a US base in September 2000.
He finished second in the 2004 Kentucky Derby with Lion Heart. Biancone’s oldest daughter, Marie, trained in her own name in the US for a few years a decade ago but has left the sport and is raising a family in England. Julie works for her father and Andie – whose mother, Elaine Biancone, is a former Miss Hong Kong – realised long ago that she would spend her life around horses.
“Since I was a little kid I’ve always known that I wanted to be a trainer,” she says. “I have flip-flopped a couple of times in my head between horse trainer or vet, but organic chemistry kicked my butt and I was like, ‘Nope, it’s horse training.’”
Beginning when she was a young teenager, Andie worked for her father on weekends and during school vacations. She started college in California, completed a two-year associate’s degree at Palm Beach State College and moved on to the University of Florida. With about two semesters left to graduate with a degree in equine studies, her studies are on hold at present.
‘I worked my butt off to get into the University of Florida’
“I would like to finish – my education has always been very important to me,” she says. “I worked my butt off to get into the University of Florida. I was galloping for my dad in the morning.
“I’d do like four horses and then I would drive directly to school and I would be in class until 2 or 3 o’clock. I worked really hard to get into that school, so I would like to finish. It’s a great institution. But you can’t let school get in the way of your education sometimes.”
Since the end of the 2019 spring semester she has been on her father’s staff at the Palm Meadows training centre. During her personal apprenticeship her role has changed from rider to assistant.
“You have to learn first to be up and then you have to learn being on the ground looking at them,” Patrick Biancone says.
“We are in the process of doing that. She is in the learning process. She has been working full-time for me since May. She worked before during the summers when she was in school. She’s been 100 per cent since May and I have the feeling that she will be ready in a couple of years.”
Sole Volante’s development into a graded-stakes winner and a Derby prospect has been a bonus for the first-time owner and aspiring trainer. “Getting to share that with my dad and the connections is just so awesome,” she says.
“I was at Gulfstream when he won the Sam Davis and I literally started bawling, crying when he came down the stretch. Luca rode him so confidently and he just repeated what he does in the morning just perfectly in that race.
“I called my dad as soon as the race was over and literally no words had to be exchanged. We were both just sobbing. That’s a moment I will never forget.”
The dynamics of their father-daughter, boss-employee relationship is, as you might expect, interesting. She said they are both opinionated but maintains he is more so than she. He jokes that she calls him a tyrant at work and Dad at home. “I don’t say we never argue,” he says. “We do argue because she’s 22 and I’m 67!
“This is just the repetition of life,” he goes on. “When I was her age, I was working with my father and my grandfather. They taught me and when I was ready they put me in the market.
“The only thing that my father told me when I started to train, he said, ‘You can do it, but the one condition is that you have to be better than me.’ I put the same condition on my daughter. I said, ‘If you want to be a trainer you have to be better than me.’”