Like many Pennsylvania horsemen, four years ago Pete Giangiulio was in debt and losing traction quickly.
On a cold and dank February afternoon he met his sister Barbara and her husband William Geraghty for what Giangiulio calls a rather grim business lunch at the Marshallton Inn. A practicing attorney in West Chester, Pa., Giangiulio laid out three scenarios for their Castle Rock Farm near Unionville that his father had purchased in 1957, and doggedly built it into a full-service thoroughbred operation.
"We could fold the tent, and have the value in the land where we never would have to work again," Giangiulio observed. "We could go through that season and minimize our cost by not breeding. Or we borrow the money and stay the course."
They voted to marshal their efforts for one last ditch effort so Giangiulio met with a local banker and tendered his pitch.
"I told them if the slots bill doesn't pass I would sell, period, " he recalled. "I can live with a bad situation, but I can't die with one. Hey, with no slots, Philadelphia Park and Penn National go out of business. Where are you going to run your horses?"
The Giangiulio family borrowed the money, and bought time. On July 5th Governor Ed Rendell signed the slots bill in the winner's circle at Philadelphia Park.
It took two-and-a-half years for slot machines to show up. Meanwhile Giangiulio had raised a half a dozen talented runners who scored in allowance and stakes races, not just that one horse that Castle Rock banked on. They eked out a living, surviving on rising breeders' awards and a little of this and that.
How close was he to folding the tent?
"Critically close," he insisted. "The reason why I didn't was my love of this industry I've had all my life. It was hard to think about leaving here. It was harder to think about not surviving in the business."
The Sport of Kings was days of yesteryear. Much more
prevalent are middle-class and blue-collar horsemen in an extremely
labor-intensive industry that employs tens of thousands. It's tough to
automate young ones being carefully foaled and raised, farriers tending to
their hooves, and the stable hands who take pride in bathing and grooming
their charges each day.
Giangiulio reels off Pennsylvania farm owners like Judy Barrett and Barbara Rickline and guesses there were another 20 major farms in the same boat.
"Then it all came together," he marveled. "You had a governor pro slots and then Smarty Jones popped up. John Servis and the Chapmans made Smarty everybody's horse all across the country. Did it sway the state legislature? You bet, and they invested in racing by passing the bill. It was a perfect storm."
The family story started with his father Joe Giangiulio, an Italian immigrant who turned up in America in 1910 at age ten. He worked two construction jobs during the day then boxed semi-professionally at night.
"The toughest guy got the biggest piece of meat," relates Peter with a broad grin. "He had minimal education, but read incessantly to learn things. He was a tireless, fearless man."
Joe started his own construction company and his business flourished, then he followed his dream-- owning horses.
At first, he owned and rode show horses, but a friend talked Joe into purchasing a racehorse, and thoroughbreds quickly became his true passion.
Initially, he bought eight broodmares, two of whom became foundation mares for the farm. Twink-Mo was the dam of 1951 2 year-old champion, Uncle Miltie. She is the foundation mare of stakes winners Mr. First, Tetanus, Wings Of Gold, and many of the current stakes horses for Castle Rock. B. Double B. is the dam of stakes mare Miss J.G. who is the foundation mare of Foxy J.G., Power By Far and many other Castle Rock stakes horses.
In 1957 Joe relocated Castle Rock from Havertown to Unionville's horse country. The lower house on the property dates back to 1707 where visitors find a plaque that pays tribute to Humphrey Marshall, a renowned American botanist and Quaker who was born there. The original barn was built in 1713 and the main house where Giangiulio lives with his wife Lois and daughter Amanda was constructed around 1850.
Just down the road is a former construction shed redone to resemble a tobacco barn with a half-dozen stalls. High on a hill Joe built the stallion barn in 1957. Over the years it has been home to Pennsylvania leading sires Mister Pitt and Leematt.
"Eight years ago my sister Barbara and I built the upper barn and the paddocks up here that were all hayfields," Giangiulio related. "My father's theory was that you should be as self-sufficient as you can. Grow your own hay, your own straw and whatever else you can."
After his father passed away in 1979 Pete says he reworked about a half dozen of Joe's ideas.
"Over the years I've changed them all back," Pete says with a laugh. "He wasn't a very demonstrative man. If you wanted to learn you would sit there and watch him, and then figure it out because then he didn't have to explain it you again. You understood. He died a little early for me to figure everything out."
He compares his father to Bill Solomon, owner of Pin Oaks Farm in New Freedom, Pa., labeling both men as renaissance men.
"They have tremendous confidence; they believe they can do anything," he said. "So they just set out one by one taking on all the tasks. They don't depend on other people and the (business) market. They just did it."
Castle Rock's family philosophy of breeding homebreds marches on under the guidance of Pete and farm manager June Hillman. Some of the top runners in recent years include stakes horses such as Power By Far, Foxy Power, Inookshook, Prince Joseph, Pass The Hat, December Snow, J.D. Safari, and Unique Opportunity.
Late last year graded stakes winner Partner's Hero and their homebred Prince Joseph joined the stallion ranks at Castle Rock. Their other stallions include Power by Far, Harry the Hat, Rimrod and Patton.
Kelly's Landing, a six-year-old son of Patton, captured the $2 million Grade I Dubai Golden Shaheen last March, in the world's richest sprint stakes.
No sooner had the ink dried on the Partner's Hero deal that brought the stallion to Castle Rock for the 2008 breeding season, his son Hero's Reward scorched the Woodbine turf course getting six furlongs in 1:08 to win the $518,942 Nearctic Stakes (G-2).
A 13-year-old multiple stakes winning son of Danzig and a half-brother to champion sprinter Safely Kept, Partner's Hero has 2007 progeny earnings in excess of $2 million, and his six crops of racing age, which include 13 stakes winners, have earned over $10 million. Partner's Hero will stand for $2,500, live foal.
Homebred Prince Joseph captured three added-money races—the Peppy Addy stakes, Iroqouis Handicap and the Lil E. Tee stakes. His first season fee is $2,000, or $750 for mares foaling in Pennsylvania.
Giangiulio has served on the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association (PHBA) since 1978. As President of the PHBA he has been working on a racing program that will include races restricted to PA-Bred, and PA-Bred and sired horses. That translates to increased purse bonuses for PA-Breds, an expanded stakes schedule, and more Pennsylvania race days.
Last July Giangiulio and other leaders from the PA Horse Breeders Association were all smiles when the seventh edition of Pennsylvania's Day at the Races was presented at Philadelphia Park. Over $1 million in purses were available for PA-Breds.
Highlighting the eleven race card will be the inaugural running of the $125,000 Smarty Jones Classic, a mile and a sixteenth test for three-year-olds and upward on the main track. Eight other races at $100,000 each, including four separate events for Pennsylvania-Bred, Pennsylvania-sired horses, make the day the richest race card for thoroughbreds ever offered in the state.
"It shows everyone in the industry our day has come," he said.
The same could be said for Castle Rock. Today its stable includes homebred stakes winners Power by Lee who has earned $230,000, plus J. D. Safari, Miss A. G. and Not Very Lady Like.
After teetering on the edge, the Giangiulio family farm is headed for higher ground, a fitting tribute for a thoroughbred operation that just celebrated its 50th year.
"We're building a lot of new friendships, the horses are well and then they'll come back here, and hopefully live to 25 or 30, produce nice horses and have a retirement.
"My father used to have a saying: 'if you can't love them, go race cars.'"
Giangiulio likens caring for his horses to a friendship.
"You're emotionally and personally involved, and then when they do well, your reward is indescribable."
To contact horseracing writer Terry Conway, email Conway@dol.net