BY LENNY SHULMAN
A VERY BIG WIN
Riversedge wins stakes named after a partner’s late wife
THE JULY 8 SHIRLEY VARGO Handicap was no ordinary race for Riversedge Racing Stables, a partnership consisting of friends Robert Vargo and Norm Castiglione. Having raced horses successfully for a decade in western Canada at Northlands Park and Hastings Racecourse, Riversedge desperately wanted to have a runner in the race, which was named after Vargo’s late wife after he added $25,000 to the $50,000 purse of what was previously known as the Mademoiselle Stakes at Northlands.
Shirley Vargo absolutely loved going racing and hardly slowed after suffering a brain aneurism in 2010, becoming one of the few survivors of that condition. Although she was slowed physically, her mental capacity remained strong, and Robert continued to bring her to the races up until her death last year. Robert wanted to pay tribute to her memory, and so enhanced the purse of the 11⁄16-mile race for older fillies and mares. However, in looking over their stock, Vargo and Castiglione couldn’t find a likely candidate for the event.
Enter bloodstock agents Nick Sallusto and Hanzly Albina, who have been buying horses for Riversedge for the past couple of years.
“In the middle of June, I was talking to Hanzly and Nick about what a shame it was because this race named after Robert’s wife was coming up, and we didn’t have a horse,” said Castiglione. “And Nick said, ‘Maybe we do.’ He was vetting a mare that day and said he would send it our way if she checked out, which she did. So the mare got on a trailer with a couple of 2-year-olds, and three days later she arrived.”
Curlish Figure, a 5-year-old mare by Curlin—Fi, by Langfuhr, had been a useful allowance-level filly two years ago and had run a good fourth behind eventual grade 1 winner Big World earlier this year. She progressed leading up to the Shirley Vargo under trainer Tim Rycroft, putting in a strong work in early July.
“It looked like a racing club in the paddock be-fore the race,” said Castiglione. “We had 60 family members and friends. The jockey (Rico Walcott) came out, shook about three or four hands, and waved to the others.
Curlish Figure picked a good time to run the race of her life, winning by 31⁄4 lengths and earning an emotional victory for her connections.
“Robert almost made it down to the winner’s circle before she hit the wire,” said Castiglione. “There were about 50 people trying to follow him down there, and they couldn’t keep up.”
The Vargo family, in a statement, noted that, “Shirley was such an avid horse racing fan that having a race named after her just made sense. She attended every race she could and watched the others live on the computer. We’re sure she’s chuckling at Norm and Robert for buying a horse for this race, but they took the right chance. It was the perfect way to remember Shirley—with her family and friends screaming and cheering as Curlish Figure pulled ahead and won.”
Robert Vargo, a retired General Motors dealer, and Castiglione, a general contractor, had known each other a long time in northern Alberta. Vargo began buying some horses in 2005 that raced in the Calgary area but never could make it down there to see them run. Castiglione, who had moved to Calgary, did attend, and watched Knight’s Covenant, an Ascot Knight gelding, break his maiden in 2005. The Vargos and Castigliones attended his next race, the Alberta Derby.
“The horse went off at 25-1 in the slop and won by a neck,” Castiglione said. “We must have made about 30 grand that day just on our wagers. So I thought, ‘I’ve gotta get into this.’ That was about $15 million ago.”
The partners now have some 100 head of horses, an 800-acre farm in southern Alberta, and a training facility near Ocala, Fla. They race in the U.S. as well as Canada now with trainers Ralph Nicks, Helen Pitts, and Miguel Vera, stepping up their operation after achieving considerable success at Northlands and Hastings Racecourse. Riversedge co-owned multiple graded stakes winner Academic and has campaigned several other multiple stakes winners. But Curlish Figure’s win in the Shirley Vargo is one they will remember for a long time.
“It was a very emotional and proud moment for Robert,” said his partner. “Shirley and he were all about the racing.