Leggio, 77, Returns to Saratoga With St. John's River in Alabama
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The first time Andrew Leggio, Jr. ran a horse in a Grade 1 race came 35 years after he took out his trainer’s license.
At age 71, the longtime fixture on the Louisiana racing circuit traveled north in 2005 for the Grade 1 Ballerina Stakes at Saratoga Race Course with a 4-year-old filly named Happy Ticket, who had won nine of her first 10 starts, but never on a major stage.
Leggio, who lives in Metairie, La., proved he knew what he was doing in one of his rare ventures away from Bayou State tracks as Happy Ticket ripped through the prestigious sprint and won by 5 ½ lengths.
Now 77, Leggio believes the time is right to return to Saratoga with Kentucky Oaks runner-up St. John’s River, a strong contender for the 131st running of the Grade 1, $500,000 TVG Alabama on August 20.
“It feels great to be back here,” Leggio said on a recent morning, relaxing outside of Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens’ barn, where St. John’s River is stabled in the same stall as 2010 TVG Alabama winner Blind Luck. “The weather is so nice. I left Shreveport two days ago, and it was 109 degrees.”
Leggio’s memories of his first visit to Saratoga are bittersweet. While Happy Ticket ran away from her competition in the Ballerina, Hurricane Katrina, with all her devastating force, bore down on the Gulf Coast.
“That shot us down really quick,” Leggio said of his brief euphoria upon winning the Ballerina. “Katrina was a bad storm. Two of our kids, including my son-in-law, were down in New Orleans and two were with me.
“It took us 24 hours to get back to New Orleans. They kept delaying our flight at the airport. When I got home, I didn’t have much damage — shingles were blown off and a fence was down — but my son, Nick, who lives next door to me, had a big, old tree fall right on his roof.”
Leggio continued to win steadily after Happy Ticket retired, but rarely outside of Louisiana until the arrival of St. John’s River.
In 2007, Kentucky-based breeder Dede McGehee was searching for a trainer for a 3-year-old Louisiana-bred named Brigtsen, “and I asked around and the same name kept coming up,” she said, referring to Leggio.
The horse wound up only making one start, but a partnership was born.
Several years earlier, McGehee had purchased the mare Adventurous Di in foal to eventual millionaire Panty Raid, whom she sold. She later bred the mare back to Include, hoping to strike twice with the sire of Panty Raid, and when the foal turned out to be a filly – St. John’s River – McGehee decided to keep her.
“I’ve always sold the good ones,” said McGehee, who now says she feel lucky she didn’t sell St. John’s River, named for a body of water near where she grew up in Jacksonville, Fla.
The filly broke her maiden in her second start in January at the Fair Grounds, and two races later, she finished second by a half-length to Daisy Devine in the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks.
Next, Leggio took St. John’s River to the Kentucky Oaks, where they finished second to Plum Pretty at 16-1. The word was now out this horse could run.
“I rarely leave Louisiana to go race, but with these kinds of horses, I will move,” Leggio said. “It’s not a problem. I don’t like this traveling. I thought Happy Ticket would be the last one, but I’ll go with this one wherever I have to go.”
Leggio has the late-running St. John’s River on a schedule, trying to space her races between 40 to 60 days apart. The pace led her to a July 9 victory in the Grade 2 Delaware Oaks and now to the TVG Alabama.
“I like a lot of time, especially with these young fillies,” Leggio said. “She’s got three seconds, and with a little luck we could have won all three of those races. Hopefully 1 ¼ miles will be to her liking. She always makes a big run, and, hopefully, she’ll do the same thing next week.”