By Dick Jerardi
It’s been nearly a half-century so trainer Phil Aristone, who was a sophomore in high school, can be forgiven if his memory isn’t clear about whether Mike Ballezzi got his trainer’s license before he got his law license after graduation from Widener Law School in 1976.
The bottom line is the same. Ballezzi’s background in the law and horse racing were the perfect marriage during his 25-year run as the executive director of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (PTHA).
“His passion was the horses,’’ said Aristone who called Ballezzi “like my big brother.’’
Ballezzi, 76, passed away Aug. 31, eight months after he retired following his incredibly impactful run with the PTHA.
“I would sit in the office with him and he would get an idea,’’ Aristone said. “It was unbelievable the innate ability he would have to get it from start to finish.’’
When the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act (aka Act 71, the slots bill) was being debated, Ballezzi was right there pushing alongside PTHA president Sal DeBunda. When it became law in 2004, Ballezzi was instrumental in implementing all those ideas Aristone spoke about.
There was the horsemens’ medical insurance and pension plan and the Granny Fund (scholarships for stable employees). Before that, there was the Horsemens’ Purchasing Association (great deals on feed, bedding, equipment). And there was the purse account negotiations with Parx management, support for the weekly television show Let’s Go Racing, creation of the Parx Hall of Fame and, in 2008, Ballezzi’s idea of a Parx-based horse retirement program came to life as “Turning For Home.’’
Fourteen years later, TFH has retired and rehomed more than 3.200 horses. It is recognized nationally as the gold standard for race track horse retirement programs.
Dani Gibson, the PTHA’s publicity director and the host of Let’s Go Racing, calls Ballezzi “the best boss I ever had.’’
“You felt supported, he had your back,’’ she said. “He believed in you so much you really felt like anything you dreamed could come true and he would lead you there.’’
Danielle Montgomery is the second TFH program administrator succeeding Barbara Luna. Aristone suggested to Danielle that she apply for the job.
She didn’t really know Ballezzi. When she went for her interview, she found him “intimidating, but impressive.’’
Montgomery had a horse background and an office background. She was the perfect fit and Ballezzi knew it.
“He taught me everything I need to know about this business,’’ Montgomery said. “With Turning For Home, it was always `do the right thing.’ He mentored me and taught me so much.’’
It was, she said, “always do the right thing for the horsemen and the horses.’’
DeBunda and Ballezzi were a team at Parx. When asked for Ballezzi’s best characteristic, DeBunda did not hesitate.
“He was a bulldog,’’ DeBunda said. “We would come up with things together and he was aggressive and assertive about the things we were trying to do.’’
When slots became a possibility, DeBunda and Ballezzi were relentless. They kept working until the law was passed. Then, they really got to work on all those programs for the horsemen.
“We felt we were a village and most of the other states did not have the permanency of our relationship,’’ DeBunda said. “They were more transient. We felt like we had to treat our people more like they were year round residents.’’
So they did exactly that with the medical and the pension and all the rest.
It was not just the ideas that became action. There was also Ballezzi’s behind the scenes work outside the spotlight.
“Guys would come in there for help completely unrelated to the horse business and it was like having a sitdown with a lawyer,’’ Aristone said. “He helped so many people in so many ways. If he thought somebody was in the right, he would go to the mat for them.’’
Ballezzi’s wife Artie was Roland Aristone’s personal
secretary for his construction company in South Jersey.
“Mike credits my dad with putting him through law school,’’ Phil Aristone remembered. “He would give Artie a bonus and that would take care of some of his college. Mike said he made up a job for him. He would have him take pictures of high schools in various stages of construction.’’
That was when the Aristones had 105 horses on their 350-acre farm in Indian Mills (Shamong Township), N.J.
“He was part of our family,’’ Aristone said.
And the record shows that Mike Ballezzi took out his owner’s license in 1973, the same year he got his undergraduate degree from Rutgers. Racing under the stable name Balmora Farm, Ballezzi still owned horses in 2022 with Aristone as his trainer and when they spoke three days before Ballezzi died, he told his trainer that Snappy Ride “is going to break her maiden next time out.’’
The M.P. Ballezzi Appreciation Mile was first run at Parx in 2019. When the race is run again on Oct. 18, it will have special meaning for everybody who worked with Mike at the PTHA and knew him inside and outside of horse racing. It won’t be the same without Mike in the winner’s circle to present the trophy, but his memory will be there forever through the race named in his honor and the work he did for the horsemen all those years.