Nick and the Mouse
November 2, 2008
Felicella is having a rough day. Of the three horses he has running this Labour Day, one was scratched at the starting gate. Another has come in dead last. Spaghetti Mouse, the star of the Felicella stable and the crowd favourite at Hastings, is scheduled to race in less than an hour. He’s squaring off chiefly against Rosberg, a seven-year-old who recently performed well in Dubai’s prestigious Godolphin Mile. Nick’s wondering if the Mouse really can win his fourth stakes race in a row.
The tote board (the Mouse is the 3:2 favourite) suggests the crowd is confident in the six-year-old bay gelding. “Expect the Mouse to rock and roll out of the gate,” begins the paddock-side commentary. “The Sam W. Randall Plate could be his once again.” Characteristically, Nick stands apart from his family, jockey, and trainer, his lined face hard. When the horses exit the paddock to parade before the stands, he remains behind. Seconds before the bell, he’s still sitting there, three flights down from his family box, alone. His arms are locked awkwardly around a post, a position he maintains until the horses enter the home stretch. He gives the impression that owning a horse of the Mouse’s caliber is more curse than blessing.
Horsemen are generally born of horsemen, and money is often passed on alongside the passion, but when a young Nick arrived from Naples over a half-century ago, it was a livelihood, not thoroughbreds, that preoccupied him. Being resourceful, he converted a street-level coffee shop on Commercial Drive into a restaurant. Big portions, stiff drinks, and late hours made Nick’s Spaghetti House a natural haunt for the racing crowd coming off the track just a mile down Hastings. “After the races,” Nick recalls, “all the jockeys, trainers, and grooms would come down and have dinner and drinks. They were good-time people, spent lots of money, and were always talking horses.” It wasn’t long before the talk rubbed off and he and wife, Pauline, made their cautious entrance into the sport of kings: in 1979, Nick purchased a cheap horse named Fire Ball that he raced at Hastings.
His next horse, Rambling Native, earned the Felicellas money on the track and off it. In 1980s Vancouver, horse racing was considerably more popular than it is today—“I’d say there were at least twice as many people attending,” says Nick—and in the process of winning seven stakes races, Rambling Native (lifetime earnings: $364,245) became a cause célèbre. The sprinting sandwich board also drew enough fans to the doors of Nick’s to create long queues. The walls began to display the Felicellas’ winners.
The couple became major players at the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s yearling and mixed sale, held each September in Langley. Even in the leaner years (before slot machines were installed at Hastings and the promise of bigger purses lightened the hearts of local horsemen), they invested heavily in B.C.–bred talent that they bought themselves and raced almost exclusively at Hastings. In an increasingly corporatized world, such behaviour wasn’t just quaint, it bucked industry trends. It also garnered respect from fellow horsemen. “Nick’s great for the local horse business,” says seasoned trainer Alex Murray. “He buys the best at the sales, and he still pays his trainer’s bills.”
As the five horses approach the finish line, Nick lurches up, shouts, and makes a short, sweeping gesture with his hand. A diamond-encrusted pinkie ring accents the motion. Beautiful, wild-eyed Spaghetti Mouse has bested Rosberg by a length and three-quarters, finishing in 1:49.76. But as the Felicellas make their way down to the winner’s circle for handshakes and photographs, the stewards announce a claim of foul against the Mouse for twice bumping Rosberg up in the stretch. Fans clutch their tickets and groan. Nick heads to the replay monitor, his expression stony, to wait.
Over the years, he developed an eye for a good horse, but luck must have played a role in the fall of 2003 when he took home a spirited yearling for a modest $18,000. Nick intended to name him after his restaurant, but the Jockey Club’s 18-letter-name restriction forced him to compromise. He kept “spaghetti” and substituted “mouse” for “house” in honour of the horse’s dame, Desert Mouse. Spaghetti Mouse’s baptism of fire came at the 2005 B.C. Derby. The three-year-old was a 42:1 long shot going the classic Hastings route of 1 1/8 miles. He galloped home convincingly ahead of the rest of the field.
The Mouse ran wonderfully through the 2006 season until trainer Gary Demorest died of kidney failure. The ensuing year was a hard one for the former horse of the year. Of five starts in 2007, Spaghetti Mouse won only one. There were whispers around the track that decline had set in. Then Nick made a bold move: he entrusted the Mouse and the rest of his stable to Demorest’s former groom, Lenore DaPonte. DaPonte had no proven record as a trainer, but she knew Nick and she knew what to do to turn the horse around. She enlisted the aid of jockey Pedro Alvarado, a 43-year-old from Jalisco, Mexico, and a veteran of the Hastings track. “Pedro has the patience to work with the Mouse,” DaPonte explains. “He walks him around the track every morning and is the only one to gallop him.
He got to know the horse inside out, and the horse got to trust Pedro completely.” She’s more modest about her own contributions. “I talk to the Mouse, I massage him, I give him attention and make sure his confidence is high.” This summer, the Mouse returned to dominating the nine-furlong route and became Hastings’ top earner of all time. At last count, Spaghetti Mouse had made $845,560. Of the 11 stakes-commemorating jockey statues that decorate the infield track, five are painted in the Felicella stable’s red and white.
At last, the stewards announce their ruling: the bumping was not serious enough to alter the outcome and the claim of foul is disallowed. Next to his stall, the Mouse nickers and snorts, his neck and chest marbled with veins, as DaPonte feeds him mints. Now and then he jerks his head upward, responding to the noise of the roller coaster in the background. Nick fields questions from admirers. He grumbles about the weight his horse had to carry, but seems happy. This race has put another $33,440 in his pocket. The Mouse will continue to run “until he’s done,” Nick announces. Then he points up at the sun and smiles: “Looka how it shine!”