Trainer Joe Manzi Dead at 53 : Fatal Heart Attack Apparently Occurs While He Is Asleep

Times Staff Writer

Charlie Whittingham was at his barn Friday morning, supervising the preparation of Sunday Silence for next Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, when the phone call from California came with the report of trainer Joe Manzi’s death.

Manzi, who would have been 54 next month, suffered a fatal heart attack Thursday, apparently while sleeping, at a Marina del Rey apartment that he leased during the Hollywood Park season. Manzi had saddled a winner as the Hollywood season opened Wednesday.

One of Manzi’s first jobs in racing was with Whittingham, and he was the exercise rider for Gone Fishin’, Whittingham’s first Derby starter, when the colt finished eighth at Churchill Downs in 1958.

Operations at Sunday Silence’s barn stopped temporarily Friday when the call about Manzi came. Whittingham was shocked by the news.


“Joe was a good man,” Whittingham said. “He started working for me when he was 14 years old and stayed around for 12 years. He was back here for me (in 1954) with Porterhouse, too, but the horse got hurt and never made the Derby.”

Whittingham was proud that Manzi, one of his pupils, had gone on to become a successful trainer.

Manzi took out his first trainer’s license in 1961, the same year he saddled his first stakes winner. In 1982, Manzi trained the ill-fated Roving Boy, who was voted the title as the nation’s best 2-year-old colt. Manzi’s filly, Fran’s Valentine, earned $1.3 million, which is a record for a distaffer bred in California.

Manzi didn’t see much of the Gone Fishin’ Derby, since his view here was at ground level, in a tunnel that connects the paddock with the track.


Roving Boy was injured as a 3-year-old and didn’t take Manzi to the Derby, but he finally made it to Churchill Downs as a trainer in 1980s, finishing eighth with Floating Reserve in 1985 and 12th with Masterful Advocate in 1987. The day before the Derby, Fran’s Valentine won the Kentucky Oaks here in 1985.

In 1984, a rejuvenated Roving Boy won the Alibhai Handicap, then broke both hind legs just past the finish line and collapsed. A tearful Manzi held the horse in his arms on the track and a few hours later Roving Boy was destroyed when surgeons couldn’t save him.

“It was the only thing we could do,” Manzi said. “They might have been able to patch up the legs and put him in a sling. But then I would have spent the next 10 days watching him die.”

Another disappointment for Manzi occurred in the 1984 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Stakes at Hollywood Park in 1984. Fran’s Valentine, at 74-1, finished first, but was disqualified for interference in the stretch. It was the first disqualification in a $1-million race.

Fran’s Valentine was owned by Earl Scheib, owner of the auto paint shop chain.

“It broke my heart when I learned that Joe was gone,” Scheib said Friday.

Joe Manzi grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a longshoreman, and started climbing over the fence to watch races at Belmont Park when he was 9. He wanted to become a jockey, but his parents objected to his leaving home.

“My dad had to let me go, though,” Manzi once said. “He had wanted to be a jockey, too, but his father wouldn’t let him get involved. So when I asked to do something he wasn’t allowed to do, he knew he had to let me try.”


Before excess weight ended Manzi’s riding career, he rode six winners in one day at Caliente in 1953. Manzi said that he still lost money for the day, because the rest of the jockeys were broke and he lent them his winnings.

At the start of Manzi’s training career, Whittingham gave him one of his own horses to train and funneled some clients Manzi’s way. Winners were slow arriving, and Manzi asked Whittingham to take him back as an assistant.

“I told Joe to hang in here, because I thought he was ready to go out on his own,” Whittingham said.

In the early 1970s, Manzi underwent heart surgery for a triple bypass. He was later treated for arterial sclerosis.

On March 29, Manzi was credited with saving the life of a horse owner, Bruce Ferguson, at Santa Anita. Ferguson had collapsed in the stands and was gasping for air when Manzi, returning from the winner’s circle, saw him and administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Manzi, who said he had observed the technique on TV, said that Ferguson recovered and began breathing normally again.

Manzi, who lived in Arcadia, is survived by his wife, Sandra; sons Dominick, an assistant trainer; Joseph Jr. and Duane, and daughters Mary and Tiffany. Funeral arrangements, being handled by the Douglass & Zook Mortuary in Monrovia, are incomplete.