Domenico Cecere finds success and happiness in his transition to the U.S.
by Rich Fisher
As a rising harness racing star in Italy, then-25-year-old Domenico Cecere had it all going on in 2007, but was convinced by a friend that racing in the United States was more lucrative. Within hours of landing on U.S. soil, however, Cecere went from willing to take a chance to wanting to take the next flight home.
Upon arriving at Newark Airport, he was promptly thrown in the back of a pick-up truck with his luggage, taken to a farm where there was no kitchen in his residence, and could only utter a few scant words of English.
“When I got outside by myself I started to cry,” said Cecere. “I said, ‘What the hell did I do here? This is the worst thing I could have done to myself.’ But I couldn’t go back to Italy right away; everyone would say, ‘What? You can’t take it? You’re home already?’”
So, he took a deep breath and thought back to the old country.
“In Italy, we say you have to eat first from the bowl before you eat from the plate,” he said. “The rich people ate from the plate; the good food is on the plate. But first you had to start by eating the soup from the bowl. What it really means is you gotta work your butt off! So I put on my shirt, put my head down, and started to work.”
He never stopped, and has become a glowing example of what initiative and dedication can do for a person. Eleven years later, Cecere finds himself the head trainer for one of the sport’s most prominent stables. Last fall, he was tabbed by Frank M. Antonacci as his replacement at Lindy Farms in Somers, Conn. The 37-year-old Cecere began his new responsibilities earlier this year.
The climb, however, was long and arduous. Just deciding to grind out a living did not automatically make things better. Due to the language barrier, Cecere began by eating from that soup bowl with a fork.
“I still wanted to be in the U.S. and I said (to myself), ‘C’mon, be strong and keep going; just start all over again,’” said Cecere, who would bike over a mile just to get his breakfast. “But when you start in Italy, you know the language and it’s way easier. When you start all over again here, I don’t know English; it’s very challenging. That challenge just made me more interested.”
Slowly but surely, with help from Antonacci, Cecere began to learn the lexicon. He still has a heavy Italian accent and, at times, speaks in broken English. But he can more than hold his own and, as his boss noted, “Horses don’t speak English anyway.”
“He was an Italian guy trying to make it in America,” Antonacci said. “I hired him as a groom and I’ve hired a lot worse grooms than that. He had enough horsemanship to do that job. And you could quickly see he was more than that. In the back of my mind, I always thought he had the ability to be whatever he set his mind to be in this business.”
Ironically, Cecere hails from the same Locorotondo town as the family of Antonacci’s grandfather, Guy “Sonny” Antonacci, a founder of Lindy Farms. As a boy, Cecere’s parents owned several horses on their farm, but were not involved in racing. At age 5, they propped their son on a white horse and a romance was born.
“They couldn’t find me sometimes,” he said. “It was like a movie. They would look for me and would get scared that they couldn’t find me because I was in the field, in the high grass with the horses.”
At age 8, he was given an Arabian horse that he rode constantly.
“A guy would stop by my house and he would take me around and jog on a double seat,” Cecere said. “From there I started to love it. I played soccer, but I decided I couldn’t do both. I was pretty good at soccer, too, but I decided to go with the horses because that was what I most loved.”
That same year, the youngster got his first look at a live harness race and, with a tinge of exhilaration still in his voice from the memory, he said, “It was exciting, it was fascinating. Every Sunday, my friend would pick me up, and we would go to the races.”
With the sport in his blood, 14-year-old Cecere was given a racehorse named Urasound that his dad purchased for $1,400. Soon after, he quit school, despite his father’s protests, and threw himself into the racing business. With some help, he trained up his horse, raced her, and won more than $50,000 over the next few years.
Cecere then received his first tutorial on the ups and downs of the business. One day, a wealthy man approached the young owner and placed $50,000 in his hands to purchase the horse. Cecere, however, was less than impressed.
“I laughed at him,” he said. “I told him, ‘Get outta here, this is my first filly and I want to keep it. I don’t want to hear nothing about selling it.’”
Cecere was still laughing when he got home—but not for long.
“I tell my dad, ‘That stupid guy wanted to give me $50,000,’” so my daddy turned around and said, ‘I hope you sell it.’ When I said no, he got very mad at me, and it was a lesson.”
Cecere noted that the horse was named after “some kind of liquor or whiskey,” but Urasound very quickly became a sobering reality for the owner.
“After that day, she won one more race and then she broke down,” he said. “I raced a couple more times and that was it. After that I bought another two, three horses and they didn’t do anything. I was almost 19 and I lost all the money I had won with the horse.”
Cecere decided he needed to grow in the sport. He relocated to northern Italy and worked with acclaimed trainer Mario Baroncini for seven years. Baroncini provided a wealth of knowledge, as Cecere started as a groom, then became a trainer and driver. He was sent all around Italy, including major cities like Rome and Florence, with a small group of horses. Through the years, Cecere went from fourth trainer to second trainer and was about to become head trainer when his friend suggested the U.S.
“He put this thing in my head and said, ‘Just go for three months, see what you think,’” Cecere said. “At that time it was a hard decision. (Baroncini) told me, ‘Listen, you will be first trainer right here. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to the U.S. tomorrow for the experience, for everything. Get a suitcase. Then if you want to come back, you come back.’
“At that time, the racing in Italy was going bad. He didn’t say, ‘Why are you going there, stay here!’ He said, ‘You’re young’—I was 25—he said it’s the right age to go there and see what’s going on.”
Cecere contacted an ex-girlfriend who worked for Baroncini and was working for Jan Johnson in New Jersey at the time. So, off he went, unaware of the daunting task ahead.
“They came to the airport to pick me up with this pick-up truck. There was no room in the front, so they put me behind with my two suitcases,” Cecere said.
As he sat there getting wind burn on the New Jersey Turnpike, doubts were already creeping in. “I said, ‘Oh my God, what a stupid move I made. I had a house, I was the first driver there, I made good money, I had a car. I had everything. Now I’m here, I don’t know how to speak English or anything.’”
It got no better when he arrived at the farm.
“It was so silent,” Cecere said. “I get in the rooms, there is no kitchen. I said, ‘What the hell are we going to eat here?’”
He was initially given one horse to work with and communication was done through his ex-girlfriend while he tried to learn English. Bolstered by his self-pep talk of eating from the bowl, Cecere plunged ahead and impressed Johnson with his work ethic and knowledge. He also began working with more horses.
When Johnson sent some to Florida, Cecere went with them and enjoyed life on the beach for a few months. When the horses were shipped to Lexington, he remained with them. That is when he met Antonacci. His break was about to come, as Antonacci soon brought him into the Lindy Farms fold, and became quickly impressed.
“I worked side-by-side with him,” Antonacci said. “At that point, I was the trainer and I was there all hours of the day and he was there as well. I could speak enough Italian to get myself in trouble and communicate with him; and I saw something. Horsemanship is like playing an instrument sometimes. Certain people—you see it when they pick up an instrument that they can just play it. You can see that they know what they’re doing. And Domenico had that ability.”
The two have forged a strong bond over the past 11 years. Antonacci said he spent as much time with Cecere as he did his own wife due to all the work and trips together. The American, two years younger than his protégé, also aided him with non-racing issues such as getting a driver’s license and a green card.
“Hopefully, I helped him overcome the cultural differences and some of those items that are a little more difficult to acclimate to here,” Antonacci said. “And I learned a lot from him about horses, and vice versa. We’ve got a good blend. It’s been working out great.”
Cecere agrees completely, saying, “We share everything about horses in the barn and what’s going on. From meeting people, knowing how to get around, he helped me out a lot. I owe Frank a lot; I’m not shy to say that.”
Antonacci admitted with a laugh that the initial language barrier caused some confusion and led to some humorous incidents “plenty of times.” Like brothers, or “two Italians who both have red-hot tempers,” as Antonacci called them, they would argue then make up right away. Cecere’s natural skills, along with his increasing comfort in America, made him a valuable asset to the team.
“In any competitive sport, you need fire in your belly,” Antonacci said. “He’s got that. He’s a graceful winner, but nobody hates losing as much as him or me. That’s important. That’s the type of people I want to be in business with and the type of people I want to be racing horses with. It’s just the type of people I want to be around. That’s something you can’t teach. If you have that, you learn all the other skills you need.”
An equally important attribute is Cecere’s natural way with horses.
“That’s stuff you don’t necessarily read in textbooks,” Antonacci said. “That comes from living with the animals and them teaching you, and you being willing to listen to them. The difference between good trainers and great trainers, or average trainers and good trainers, is a good trainer listens to their horses and the other trainers will try to impose their will on their horses. Domenico listens to his horses.”
Cecere must like what he hears, as the stable enjoyed stakes wins last year with International Moni, Shake It Off Lindy, Lindy The Great, Mambo Lindy, Night Rhythm, Kinda Lucky Lindy, Lindy The Kid, Hat Trick Habit, and Ostrich Blue Chip.
Cecere has been working closely this year with Hambletonian hopeful Eurobond—a horse that Antonacci feels presents a challenge for his trainer.
“He’s got good speed,” said Antonacci, “but he’s a French-bred that’s got some schooling issues. That will be interesting to see.”
Antonacci has complete faith in Cecere, however, which is why he felt confident enough to step away from his head trainer’s job to focus on some of the other Antonacci family businesses.
“The last five years his responsibilities have really increased substantially,” Antonacci said. “It’s been a slow progression. Obviously, we’ve got a lot invested. You want to make sure that he’s ready and I think he is. I’m there for whatever he needs. We talk on a daily basis, and it’s still a big team effort. He’s got a lot of great people around him and that’s the key to success for any operation or team.”
Cecere constantly brings up the atmosphere of that teamwork, never taking the credit for himself. He is a man enjoying life, as he and his wife, Ericka, have a 17-month-old son, Stefano. He met Ericka in Florida, and they have been together nearly his entire time in America.
“I kept going, I made my life here, and we got married in 2015 (in Italy),” Cecere said. “Everything happens for a reason. I’m very happy where I am; it was crazy. The dream is coming true, but if you don’t do anything, then the dream cannot come true. But when you want to get somewhere, if you are strong, you will get there.”
Even better, Cecere is getting there in the front seat of the truck nowadays.