Regardless what transpires in Saturday's Grade III, $500,000 Vinery Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, Jeff Lifson knows it's going to be a white-knuckle ride emotionally for him and the entire West Point Thoroughbreds team.
The best-case scenario for West Point is a victory by their colt King Congie, which would almost certainly put the son of Badge of Silver on the path toward the Kentucky Derby. No matter where the 4-1 second choice finishes in the Spiral, however, there will be something missing from the day.
The man the colt was named for, the man who was a constant source of inspiration for West Point Thoroughbreds, is no longer around to brag about King Congie's exploits.
Congie DeVito was hired by Terry Finley's West Point Thoroughbreds nearly a dozen years ago, holding the title of communications director for the successful racing syndicate.
On Feb. 16, DeVito succumbed to his lifelong battle with brittle bone disease and died at 35.
Despite being confined to a wheelchair and enduring about 160 fractures in his lifetime, DeVito was pretty much unmatched when it came to his enthusiasm for racing and life in general.
The Temple University graduate wouldn't stop calling Finley until he gave him a job with his then-fledgling syndicate, and he eventually became the point man for dealing with West Point's investors.
In honor of their indelible team member, West Point named a certain dark bay colt after DeVito. And King Congie has become a stakes winner on turf and could become a player on the Kentucky Derby trail after Saturday.
"I don't know which would be harder in terms of emotions," said Lifson, the executive vice president of the Midwest division for West Point, which has offices in New Jersey, New York, Kentucky and California. "If we won, it would be tough because Congie wasn't there to share it, and if we didn't run well and it looked like the Derby dream was over with ... that's going to be equally hard because all of us are pulling for this story.
"We think this horse has performed like he knew in a weird sense that this was going to be Congie's last year on this earth. We would love to continue to have this wonderful reminder of our dear friend and co-worker."
Though he was just 4-foot-2, DeVito talked as big a game as anyone. Four starts into his career, King Congie gave DeVito — who also owned a part of the colt — some bragging rights.
After finishing out of the money in his first two starts, both on dirt, King Congie broke his maiden going 11⁄16 miles on turf at Aqueduct last November for trainer Tom Albertrani. That win paled in comparison to the colt's next effort, a victory in the Tropical Park Derby on turf at Calder Race Course to begin his 3-year-old season on Jan. 1.
"We've had two horses named after team members at West Point. One has been an underperformer of a horse named Bellhouse, named after (East Coast division vice president) Tom Bellhouse, and the other is King Congie," Lifson said. "Congie reveled in the fact he could give Tom the business about how much better his horse was, so we all knew what was coming on Monday morning (after the Tropical Park Derby).
"We just didn't know this would be the last opportunity to talk to Congie about something King Congie had done."
By the time King Congie headed to the Hallandale Beach Stakes at Gulfstream on Feb. 6, his namesake was in the hospital unable to speak because of a breathing tube.
That didn't keep DeVito from letting his emotions be known when he learned his horse had crossed the wire in front over Master Dunker but was disqualified and placed third for interference in the stretch.
"Terry told Congie we won but got taken down, and all he could do is raise his eyebrows, which of course spoke volumes about what he was probably thinking," Lifson recalled.
West Point lost DeVito 10 days after that defeat on the track. What they haven't lost is the hope that King Congie will be just as resolute.
King Congie's turf form should work well over Turfway's synthetic Polytrack, and he has already proved he can handle the race's 11⁄8-mile distance. While he was beaten by more than 31 lengths in his two dirt starts — something that would be a factor if he makes it into the Derby field — he did face eventual 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo in his first outing and eventual stakes winner Fort Hughes the next time out.
"My personal opinion is, the jury is still out on whether he handles the dirt," Lifson said. "If he wins ... we'd be crazy not to contemplate the Derby. He's one of the few horses at this stage in the game that is already a winner at 11⁄8 miles.
"Horse racing is a game where karma and good stories seem to come to the surface. We hope that the little man in the wheelchair is sending some good vibes our way."