• Nick Abramo

Marlboro's John Winske Is A Kentucky Derby Winning Horse Owner And A 'Hoot And A Half'

The name of the website you're reading this story on is BedrockSportsHawaii.com, but as lead writer, I have the ability to cater to my readers in Marlboro, Mass., as well as those in the 50th state.


Hey, Marlboro is a sister city of Honolulu anyway. Oops, fabrication alert. It's not!! But, I shall indulge you, nonetheless, with tales from home-ville. Because I can. Or as you may say in Hawaii: "Because can." And if you get bored, click somewhere else as soon as you can. My intention is to thrill you with tales that are unique and worthy of pen to paper (figuratively, of course).


This here is one of those stories. The only way it won't get your attention is if the writer hacks it up somehow, and that is completely possible.


This story is about a Marlboro individual, and if you grew up there, there's a good chance you know him or have seen him. He's never been hard to spot because he's always been in a wheelchair.


His name is John Winske, and he's now a Kentucky Derby winning horse owner. No lie, and we'll get into that more later.


John Winske, center, is a Marlboro original. The former student manager for the Marlboro High football and baseball teams is now the executive director of a nonprofit with a $2 million annual budget. He is also a part owner of Authentic, the horse who won the 146th Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5. (Photo from Perkins.org).


Let's set the scene a bit with a little intro: I knew him in high school, but it wasn't until I worked for his parents at the "Flower Basket" on Marlboro Main St. that I spoke with him. I delivered flowers for a few months, vacuumed the floor and even did a tiny bit of placing baby's breath and some flowers in arrangements.


That job came courtesy of my Class of 1978 classmate John Rizzelli, who happened to drive by while delivering flowers and asked if I wanted a job. He was about to go into the service and knew that the Winskes needed to replace him. I worked there the summer between high school graduation and freshman year of college.


One thing I remember is getting a first-hand look at how people who are disadvantaged can thrive. Here was a family in which four out of five members had a disability -- a rare form of muscular dystrophy. The mom, Pat, was not in a wheelchair, but John and his two brothers were. Father Jack was the only one without MD. And the Flower Basket was a bustling place with all those orders to fill and everybody, it seemed, was always smiling. The cheerfulness was trimmed with those beautiful, fresh flowers.


About a month ago, Scott Corner, a starting quarterback of the Marlboro Panthers high school football team those days, posted something about his championship jacket.


Sure enough, John -- Class of 1980 -- chimed in on the thread: "Mine doesn't fit me anymore."


It occurred to me, and it was vaguely familiar, that John must have been a student manager for the football team. In a subsequent Zoom call and interview for this story, he confirmed that he was indeed the manager for the football and baseball teams. I also learned that the Winske family got to know Huck Hannigan right after the legendary football coach left Leominster to come to the Panthers and dramatically improve the whole athletic program. Hannigan wound up leading the football team to a Central Mass. Super Bowl win in the fall of 1979, when Winske was a senior, and another Super Bowl appearance in 1980.


During the recent Zoom interview, John regaled me with stories from those days. Again, we'll get into that more later.


It should be noted that when he talked about some of those poignant and/or funny moments, he described some people and things as a "hoot and a half." And he, too, turned out to be a hoot and a half.


Small-Time Gambler Makes A Move To Buy Part Of A Horse


I realize many of you are hanging in there on this screed and skimming to the part where it gets into the full details of how 58-year-old John Winske is a horse owner -- and that the horse actually won the, yup, yup, yup, Kentucky Derby.


To be fair, I must tell you now that it was a very small share of the horse. Ooh, I can almost hear the disappointment. Yes, it is all true, but as John puts it: "miniscule." And we wouldn't want you to click away now. The details of his adventure are fun and you are also going to want to know what John made of his life. That's the REAL story and it's a heartwarming one.


So, let's get into John's decision to invest in a horse, shall we?

He started by buying a share of a package of horses -- all 2-year old fillies -- for $200 on MyRacehorse.com. Later on, he paid $225 for a share of Authentic, who wound up winning the 146th Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5.


According to John, 20 percent of Authentic was split into 10,000 shares and he owns one of those. A total of 5,314 people paid in for those shares.

Winske got the gambling bug when he was 21, the first time he went to Las Vegas, a place he's been going to every year since.


"I usually bring a couple of thousand dollars, nothing amazing, but I always have a blast," he said. "It's one of the few places I can do everything -- go to a show, go out to eat. It's a very accessible city. If I don't like a particular casino, there are 50 others that will take my money."

Winske, who lives in Florida during the winters, is not going to either Florida or Vegas this winter due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


"I've been trapped here since the the pandemic hit," he said. "I wasn't going to get on a plane. I saw the ad (about the horses) and said what the hell. When I saw Authentic, it interested me because he is going to stand in stud. But even that won't be much. If the stud fee is $50,000, I would get about a buck.


"Authentic had won three races and he came in second once, so I bought a share. And Bob Baffert is the trainer, one of the best in the game. He had won five Kentucky Derbys (now six). He's no idiot. I was thinking, 'I must be crazy. This is a good horse.' "


Kentucky Derby winner Authentic will run the Preakness in October and the Breeders' Cup in November. (Photo from HorseRacingNation.com).


As part owner, John received video clips of the horse's pre-Derby workouts and that made him feel like a part of the team.


"It's really fun," he added. "I'm enjoying my racehorse."

On Derby day, Winske and his two friends put up a 3x6 poster of the horse and watched the pre=Derby televised races at Churchill Downs all afternoon.


"Gambling and nervously watching the other races," he said. And then came the main event.


"He came around the bend and Tiz the Law looked like he was going to pass him, so I was thinking, 'That was fun while it lasted,' but then Authentic started to pull ahead again," Winske said. "At that point, I was screaming like a little kid. My roommates were jumping up and down. I was just bouncing around in my chair, yelling 'Go, go, go.' "

A once in a lifetime thrill. Heck, it's a huge thrill anytime your horse at any track wins any race. Ummmm, this was just a bit different -- the biggest race of them all!!!!

"Bob Baffert, in the winner's circle when they interviewed him, mentioned all of those who bought small shares of the horse," John said.


And there could be more joyous moments to come. Authentic will race in the Preakness on Oct. 3 and the Breeders' Cup on Nov. 7.


"It's a fun thing," he added. "Is it in the Top 10 of things I've done in my life? No, but it's certainly a hoot and a half."

The Marlboro Days Were Not So Easy, But Winske Had A 'Great Time'


When John Winske entered the Marlboro school system, it was evident early on that he was a good student.


"What everybody forgets is that when I started, I did not have the right to go to school in 1967," he said. "When my mom signed me up, they told her that she would have to go to school with me every day. Luckily I have such a big mouth. Within a few days, the teacher said I would be fine on my own. I was interacting with no problem. I was a good student right off the bat.


"I could not go to the junior high, though, because it was in the old Walker Building and it was so inaccessible. At least at the high school (on Bolton Street), it was set up. They had an elevator. I was really lucky in high school. Before I got there, a friend of the family was the athletic director at Leominster, so he knew Huck and introduced us to him when he first got to Marlboro."


Winske remembers the players picking him up and carrying him on the bus and sometimes getting a ride by Hannigan to go to the football and baseball games.


When asked who his best friends were in high school, he mentioned Gary Parks (baseball), Jeff Angers (hockey and baseball) and Paul Sharon (football starting running back), and a lot of friends in the "Level-1" classes. The brainiacs.


Angers, whose title nowadays is such that you need a super-smart person to decipher it, was in that latter group as well.


In 2010, the Metrowest Daily News caught up with and wrote an article about Angers, whose working title is: Director, Strategic Integration Office, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Manpower and Reserve Affairs).


Winske mentioned that Angers, at one point, oversaw nuclear missiles over Belgium. In addition, Jeff was at the Pentagon during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.


On some side notes, I was teammates with Angers in the Marlboro Junior Baseball League (Joe Cullinan Pintos!!!!) and for the Marlboro High hockey team. Another member of that latter team was George Conway, the husband of Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to President Trump. The first time I heard the last name Angers, I was about 5 and it was pronounced the French way (G with a 'jh' sound and ERS as an 'ay' sound. That's because my sister Cyndi Abramo was good friends with Jeff's sister Roxanne Angers at St. Mary's School, where many of French ethnicity went. Later on, the only pronunciation I heard people using for that last name was with the anglicized hard 'g' sound and 'ers' fully sounded out. My mom (maiden name Aucoin and her mom's maiden name LeBlanc) would be proud that I'm mentioning the French. Eh, now that I think of it, Marlboroite Bruce Caissie will surely be reading this and I imagine he too will be proud.


And that leads us back to the top of the pack in MHS academics back then. Often on Facebook these days, Marlboro people recall George as being exceptionally smart and mention that he skipped a grade at one point.

"I remember Conway sitting next to me in Mr. Winer's economics class," Winske said. "Sports allowed me to cross-group so to speak."


One time, according to John, he and Angers went to take their PSAT, but missed the bus to baseball and had to drive.


"We had to drive to Natick, where Doug Flutie and Darren Flutie (of Boston College and pro football fame) were playing," Winske said. "After the game, we came back to Marlboro and were going to eat at Friendly's. Jeff got out of the car, looked in the back and said, 'Where's your wheelchair?'

"I said, 'You're asking me where's your f***cking wheelchair? You left it sitting in the parking lot in Natick.' So we drove with Gary back to get my wheelchair. On the way back, Jeff told me that he got the third highest score in the nation on standardized testing in grade school. I said, 'Yeah, yeah. Must be third percentile. There's no way you could be third in the whole country.' He said, 'Nah, they called my parents. I got the third highest score in the United States.' Then of course, I had to give him (crap): 'You might be third in the nation, but you couldn't remember my freaking wheelchair.' "


Winske then recalled Angers' mom as being a "hoot and a half." I didn't know that. I remember her being quiet, friendly, caring and always smiling.


As a manager for the sports teams, part of Winske's job was to keep stats and call in the scores to the newspapers. In that same vein, he did some stringing (part-time writing) for the Middlesex News, Boston Globe and Worcester Telegram.


"It was a happy time," John added. "I think about how bad high school was for many with muscular dystrophy. My experience was the complete opposite. It allowed me to break in and be involved. I'll never forget it. It was awesome."


And he didn't 100 percent escape the wrath of Hannigan, who was a very nice person but who also was known to have a very large temper.


"One day, I was hanging out in the athletic office and a scout came from Syracuse to see Dana Lepore (starting linebacker)," he said. "So Huck asked me to go and pull Dana out of class. I asked why. Huck, all five feet of him, leaned over me and said, 'Your damn job isn't to ask questions. I told you to do something, now go out and do it.' I realized later, that's what he would have done with anyone else who asked why. It was none of my business. He did it in front of the scout, who must have thought Huck was being an a**h***, but that's what he would have done with anyone else."


Speaking of Hannigan, click here and check out this radio interview from 1974 that I found bouncing around the Internet. Of course, he said one of his famous lines in it, "We tell the boys that they have four plays to get 10 yards." Woody Hayes of Ohio State fame called it, "Three yards and a cloud of dust." These days, and you may just well have heard it here first, it's more accurately "2.5 yards and a spray of pellets."


In the radio interview, Hannigan talks about his preparation for his Blue Devils' upcoming game against Marlboro and says the Panthers are hard hitters. Paul Drummey was the Panthers' coach that year. I was a freshman and if the game was in Marlboro, there's a good chance I attended it and watched from the hill up behind the end zone. After jumping the fence to get in, of course.

Ahead Of The Game In His Virtual Working Space


Nowadays during this COVID-19 pandemic, people are learning how to work from home. It's not anything new to Winske, who has been working remotely for 19 years.


"In the last five or six years, I've run a nonprofit and when I took over, I made sure that everyone had a laptop and Internet phone because of their disability -- all or most of the employees are with a disability," Winske said. "I was lucky when the pandemic hit. Up to 25 employees were set up the next day from home and haven't been back in the office."


Winske's advocacy for people with disabilities started in high school.


"I was involved with the Easter Seals and did some fundraising in high school," he added. "And did two or three wheelchair basketball games."

He got more involved in his advocacy efforts, thanks to MHS teacher Chuck Colacchio, who helped create the model law that eventually led to the disabled parking law.


"Chuck organized students to help with that and I helped out," John said. "The law (then) was you (if you were disabled) could lease a spot at a store on private property for a buck, but that allowed police to ticket or for the car to be towed."


Since then, Winske has been involved in running nonprofits for the cause of accessibility and helping mentor younger people with disabilities.


"I want to pass along what I learned along the way," he said.


The nonprofit he runs is called Disability Policy Consortium. In 2014, there were three employees with a budget of $150,000. Now, there are 23 employees and a $2 million budget.


Not bad for a college dropout. Haha. After high school, John attended Boston University briefly, but did not get his degree. Four years ago, however, he got a business degree from the University of Massachusetts through its University Without Walls program.


One thing that Winske misses during this pandemic is the regular handshake greeting.


"I used to use it as an offensive weapon," he said. "When I meet people, they often already have made assumptions about me. I wrote an editorial piece about how I'm going to miss the handshake, which brings people I come in contact with into the here and now and not give them a chance to stay in the space of what they're thinking about me."

Winske's brother Bob lives and works in Medford. His other brother, Paul, died in 2001.


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