For Billy Grass, harness racing is in his blood. As is the case with so many people affiliated with horse racing, Grass grew up in the sport. His father Albert ran a stable at Saratoga in the 60’s, 70’s and into the 80’s in which Billy spent a large portion of his youth beginning at the age of seven or eight. He grew up on a farm where he learned to train and drive and his summer jobs growing up always involved the horses. When he got older and more established in his life, Billy decided to get back into the sport, this time as an owner.
Grass got into owning in the 90’s and while being New England based, he got a trainer who would race at Plainridge and Foxboro race tracks. Soon after, Billy realized that for him, it made more sense to be at Saratoga. After all, he had spent so much time here over the course of his childhood and frankly, Saratoga was a more enticing and beautiful place to be. Grass wound up having horses with Saratoga Hall of Famer Bert Belanger who trained for Billy for several years. After racing with a couple of different conditioners, Grass wound up landing in the stable of trainer Andy Sardella.
I met Billy and his wife Liz back in the early 2000’s when I would spend some time with them in the grandstand during the races in the days before I was announcing on a full-time basis. We became friends and some years later after Billy had observed some of my brother Andy’s successes, and maybe more importantly the blueprint he seemed to follow as a trainer, Grass decided to get a horse with him.
“I noticed that Andy raced horses where they belonged,” Grass told me. “Whether he had claimers or condition horses, he always put them where they could compete. After I met him, I found out how passionate he was about the business but also how very realistic he was. He’s very optimistic but I appreciate the quality of being realistic. If we have a horse that isn’t working out, let’s move on. Better to do it now than later type thing.”
Grass bought a trotter named Blitz Victory late in the 2017 to debut out of Sardella’s stable. It only took the Grass-Sardella pairing two starts to score their first win together and in ’18, the trotter, who got claimed about halfway through that season, went on to win the award for Claiming Trotter of the Year at Saratoga. Grass enjoyed a fair amount of success in the years that followed but last offseason, he went in search of a horse for the 2023 campaign. Enter Northern Luxury.
Grass found Northern Luxury for sale online and looked into the mare a bit. “She had good breeding, good size,” Grass explained. “She showed some early speed and the ability to close. Now, she appeared to be quite a bit inconsistent but as a younger horse, she fit a lot of the really good classes at Saratoga. I gave Andy the horse’s name and didn’t give him any info about her. I didn’t want to influence him in any way. She watched some of her races and said let’s do it.” Grass purchased the five year old mare for $14,800 and debuted her in February.
“She’s a mare with some issues. No question about it. So getting her going was a process for Andy,” Grass admitted. “Early in the year, she kicked a wall in the paddock and had to be scratched. She won her next start a few weeks later and then the following week, she paced 2:06 and got distanced. It was really a roller coaster ride. But credit to Andy. He saw her potential and showed incredible patience trying to figure out her issues.”
Northern Luxury began her month of April by rattling off back-to-back jacks, the last of the two coming after stepping up into the $11,000 winners of two but not more than five races lifetime class. After being piloted to victories by three different drivers in the spring, Northern Luxury teamed up with reinsman Phil Fluet for the first time on April 25th. After racing in ninth while almost fifteen lengths off the lead, the five year old distaffer closed to finish third for Fluet in that start. She drew post eight the next week but that start was the last unsuccessful one to date.
On May 9th, Fluet became the fourth different driver to pilot Northern Luxury to victory on the season when he tipped off her cover and sat behind the mare as she powered past her rivals to record the win. The off-the-pace successes continued when the Sardella trainee toughed-out overland journeys to score in the following two weeks. The five year old drew inside and went coast-to-coast to complete a grand slam when she paced in a seasonal best 1:54.1 on Memorial Day weekend. Last Monday afternoon, Northern Luxury was the betting favorite when she left to overcome her outside post and landed on the lead.
Fluet appeared to just be a passenger as the mare rattled off her fifth consecutive victory and did so in career-best fashion. The 1:53.4 score was her eighth on the season and fifth in a row for Grass and Sardella. “Phil has been amazing with our mare. He lets her be her. He’s had supreme confidence in her and she in him. She trusts him,” Grass gleamed. And why not? Fluet has fit Northern Luxury like a glove en route to the a five-race win streak, a first for any Sardella trainee in the conditioner’s over twenty-year long career.
As is the case with any long term horse owner, Grass has been through it all in the business. There is inevitably a lot of downside and downswings of the roller coaster that is owning. But when it’s good, boy is it good. And right now, it’s been great for Grass who is a pretty hands-on owner. “I go to the barn every week. I jog her and spoil her when I’m there,” Grass, a longtime dentist who owned his own practice in Massachusetts, told me. “Racing can be a humbling business and it’s hard to win races so winning five in a row isn’t something we take for granted. Liz and I love coming to the races and love it even more when we have a horse racing. So to be here for almost all of her eight wins so far this year has been amazing. A ton of fun.”
As far as the plan for Northern Luxury, Grass says it’s kind of a wait and see thing. “She won out of the class where she’s been doing her damage so it’s time to step up now. We’ll see if she can do it in the next class up. We know it won’t be easy but right now, we’re just riding the wave and enjoying the moment,” Grass said. As far as advice from a longtime standardbred horse owner to other prospective owners, Grass advised “it can be tough but taking your lumps and dealing with failure makes the winning all that much sweeter. You learn to appreciate winning since inevitably you do a lot of losing in this game. But there’s nothing better than being around your horse in the stable and then coming to watch her race with friends and family. Then the sheer thrill of winning is unmatchable. There’s nothing like winning a horse race.”
And Billy and Liz Grass should know that feeling pretty well by now this year as Northern Luxury owns eight victories and it isn’t even mid-June yet. And while they realize the wins will be much harder to come by now that she’s graduated out of the class where she proved dominant, they’re just going to enjoy the ride.
Live racing takes place on Saturday evenings starting at 5pm and continues with matinees on Sunday and Monday afternoons with first post time set for noon. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!