“Sean Avery’s A Sweetheart”

“Sean Avery’s a sweetheart.”

No, that wasn’t NHL commissioner Gary Bettman commenting on one of his league’s highest profile players. That was John DeStefano after his horse won yesterday’s Grade 1 Vanderbilt Handicap.

Oh, sure, the human and the equine have a few things in common. Both have had time on the sidelines, the hockey player for suspensions, the horse for injuries.  Both are competitive, plying their trades aggressively.

But on Sunday afternoon, as #16 was no doubt mulling his next steps after a weekend arrest for an incident with a police officer, #6 was winning his first graded stakes race and making plans for the Breeders’ Cup.

At age 5, the fragile (not an adjective you’d use to describe the hockey player) colt was making only his tenth start; off from racing for extended periods of time, he’s always come back from layoffs to win, but yesterday was his fifth start this year, and he’s now 4-1-0 in 2011.

The win was trainer Allen Iwinski’s first Grade 1 at Saratoga; check out Jay Privman’s story at DRF for why it’s especially meaningful.

Sean Avery is owned by Black Swan Stable, which is managed by John DeStefano. DeStefano met Avery the hockey player five years ago in New York.

“I don’t know anything about hockey,” DeStefano said yesterday.  “I met him at a dinner for the opening of a museum, and he told me he was known for how fast he is on the ice. He told me he has really fast legs.”

[We will pause here for hockey fans to formulate a response to this information.]

“So I said to him, “ DeStefano continued, “’I’ll name a horse after you. Maybe that’ll be a good omen and he’ll have fast legs.’”

Sean Avery does indeed have very fast legs. He likes to race on the lead, and yesterday he set fractions of :21.91 and :44.56 en route to a final time of 1:09.71 for six furlongs.

In his stall on Monday morning, the horse welcomed visitors, showing off a little. “He likes to play,” said his groom, Juan.

Energetically throwing his head and curling his lip, Sean Avery melts when his neck is scratched or his nose is stroked. He drops his head, his eyes begin to close, and if he were a cat, he’d start to purr. (Full disclosure: I’ve never attempted this with the hockey player. He might well react the same way.)

Asked about the horse’s namesake Sunday afternoon, Iwinski said, diplomatically, “I don’t think the two have much in common.”

Unfortunately for Rangers’ fans, he seems to be right.

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