Jockey Nick Petro and his mount Not Abroad saw an inviting opening along the rail as they circled the far turn in Saturday's $142,500 Maryland Million Classic on Laurel Park's Jim McKay Maryland Million program. They galloped through the gaping hole, came out with a clear lead and drew off to win over the fast main track.
The Jim McKay Maryland Million is the most important racing day at Laurel Park with 11 races for runners sired by Maryland-based stallions for combined purses totaling $1.05 million. Introduced in 1986, the Maryland Million has been duplicated by more than 20 other states. Hall of Fame TV Broadcaster Jim McKay originally proposed the Maryland Million concept and remained the chairman of the board until his death on June 7, 2008.
The 27th annual event drew a crowd of 18,420 on Saturday afternoon.
Trained by Petro's brother Michael, Not Abroad is owned by Tim Cunningham and is a son of the Maryland stallion Not for Love. Regal Warrior, who led from the start, held for second while Tujoes rallied to finish third. The also-rans were Cactus Charlie, defending champion Eighttofasttocatch and In the Juice.
"I was happy with his performance," jockey Petro said. "Real early we got stuck on the inside and I wasn't happy with my spot. But we got closer and closer and everything worked out. We figured there would be a few horses outside of us with speed so we went in thinking, 'sit.' We did and it worked out great when it was time to go. He was good. Real good."
Not Abroad finished second in the Classic two years ago and was third last year.
"We had been in this race the last several years," trainer Petro said. "We felt coming in today that we had a very good chance to win. He has been doing very well lately and we looked forward to this race. We had a great race and at the three-eighth's pole everything opened up for us. My brother ran a very good race."
This was the second stakes win of the year for Not Abroad after capturing the Joseph French Memorial at Delaware in May. He has now earned $606,515 to go along with his 33-8-12-4 mark.
Ben's Cat became the fourth horse to win a Maryland Million race three consecutive years with a victory in the $101,000 Maryland Million Turf Sprint earlier on the card. The other runners to complete the three-peat are Hall of Famer Safely Kept (Distaff, '89-91), Countus In (Ladies, '89-91) and Mz. Zill Bear (Ladies, '93-95).
Confidently ridden by Julian Pimentel, the son of Parker's Storm Cat carried 128 pounds to victory in the 5 1/2-furlong test on the firm turf, beating 10-year-old Heros Reward by three-quarters of a length. Ben's Cat completed the distance in 1:01 3/5 as the overwhelming 2-5 favorite.
"You know he broke really sharp and I was just laying close," Pimentel said. "I was just biding my time, taking my time you know and when I asked him to run he just took off."
Bred, owned and trained by King Leatherbury, Ben's Cat became that horseman's first millionaire with a victory in the Grade 3 Turf Monster Handicap at Parx Racing in his previous start. He is now 18-2-1 from 27 starts with earnings of $1,216,090.
"He's now showing a little more speed early on, which he wasn't before," said Leatherbury, who ranks third on the all-time win list with 6,350 career victories. "We don't want him to flash that early speed. He is doing that on his own."
Now six, Ben's Cat had to recover from a broken pelvis before he made his maiden debut at age four in 2010, then began his career with eight consecutive victories, which included a 4 1/2-length score in the Maryland Million Turf Sprint. He won last year's Turf Sprint by a length.
"He is an unbelievable horse," Pimentel said. "When that horse came to him on the turn he took off again. At the end of the race he felt the other horse coming and he dug in."
Grade 2 winner Heros Reward improved his career earnings to $1,272,898 for trainer Dale Capuano. The win moved Leatherbury ahead of Capuano for the top spot in the Maryland Million trainer standings with 10.
Michael R. Cox's Classy Coco slipped up the rail to notch her first lifetime victory in the opening race on Maryland Million Day. After finishing game seconds in her previous two starts, the Bernie Houghton-trained daughter of Not for Love carried Mathew Rispoli to victory in the six-furlong, $97,000 Lassie for two-year-old fillies. She completed the distance over the main track in 1:13 1/5, beating runner-up Stormy Adventure by 1 1/2 lengths.
"Kind of played it by ear at the break because she has speed," Rispoli said. "I got the pace in front of me and was kind of surprised the rail opened up. When it did, I said 'go' and she did."
In the 7TH race, first-time starter Keep Momma Happy drew in from the also-eligible list with the scratch of Seventeenohsix and rolled down the middle of the track to post an upset victory in the $102,000 Maryland Million Nursery. Carlos Marquez Jr. was aboard the Benny Feliciano-trained juvenile son of Scipion, who posted a winning time of 1:12 3/5 for six furlongs over the main track while winning by a neck.
"This is a real surprise," Feliciano said of the Edmund Baxter-owned colt. "I haven't had the best of luck lately and I thought when he was dropping back going into the turn I had made another bad decision. Up until 11 a.m. (EDT) this morning I was told this horse would definitely be scratched and not draw in off the AE. I got the phone call on my way home that John Servis had scratched one of his two entries and I was in.
"I immediately went back to the barn and went into race preparations. Carlos has worked this horse for me twice and both times came back very excited about this colt's talent. We couldn't get into a maiden race in the last two weeks and he convinced me to enter in this race and take a chance. I'm glad I listened to his advice. This colt's always had a lot of talent but he ran very professional out there today and beat some pretty decent horses."
Former Maryland mainstay turned New York journeyman Mike Luzzi gave a flawless performance as he guided the Robbie Bailes-trained Pagan Priestess to victory in the $99,000 Maryland Million Ladies for owner Bobby Sowder. Traversing the turf in 1:49 2/5 for the nine-furlong distance, the Oratory four-year-old miss threaded her way through traffic and slipped inside front runner Weeper in midstretch to win by a length.
"The race set up perfect," Luzzi said. "This was a typical turf race where I got through on the rail. I was loaded the whole way. Turning for home I was just waiting for a spot. Then it opened when the kid (Manuel Chaves on Weeper) drifted off the rail. I had to get through pretty quick and finished up great."
Heavy 1-5 favorite Bold Affair was first away at the start and geared down closing in on the finish line after a dominating performance in the $95,000 Maryland Million Distaff. Abel Castellano was merely a passenger as the four-year-old daughter of Two Punch, who is owned by Charles Reed and Mike Zanella and trained by Howard Wolfendale, completed the seven-furlong distance over the main track in 1:24 2/5 to win by 13 1/4 lengths.
"She tries hard every time I get up on her back," Castellano said. "I didn't think she would be in front today. There was another speed horse in the race I thought could be in front early, but I found myself on the lead. I just tried to keep her relaxed and happy and save something for the end but I turned back and looked and there was no one around. She did this all on her own today. This was a huge effort on her part."
Bred, owned and trained by Edwin Merryman, Jazzy Idea defeated odds-on 3-5 favorite Spring Dance and six other three-year-old fillies in the $99,000 Maryland Million Oaks. Elvis Trujillo was at the controls as the daughter of Great Notion tracked Spring Dance into the stretch before powering by to a 6 3/4-length victory over the main track. Jazzy Idea, who ran the mile distance in 1:38 3/5, set a turf track record in winning the Jameela Stakes at Laurel Park on opening day of the fall meeting.
"She was going against a little different place than she's used to running against so I figured she'd be laying close," Merryman said. "I think Elvis did a beautiful job of sitting and waiting after the horse placed herself. This is a pretty versatile filly. Maybe will go to one mile on the turf next year. I broke her and she's nice to ride. She's gotten to be a princess. She's knows she's pretty special."
Merryman joined his sisters Katy Voss and Ann Merryman with victories on Maryland Million Day. Later on the card, younger sibling Lizzy Merryman sent out Roadhog to post a 2 3/4-length victory in the $102,000 Maryland Million Turf. Roadhog, a Bowman's Band gelding ridden by Horacio Karamanos and campaigned by breeder Ellen Dale Racing, proved to be best in the nine-furlong test, completing the distance in 1:47 over the firm turf.
"This is a great feeling because I am a Maryland bred," Lizzy Merryman said. "This horse is a complete alpha male. He has to go out first every day and he refuses to go back in if he doesn't get enough grass. He loves to run at other horses so he picks out a couple and says I'm going to stalk this one and that one."
Prior to the Turf, Robert Gerczak's Action Andy recorded a gate-to-wire 2 3/4-length victory in the $95,000 Maryland Million Sprint. Horacio Karamanos was in the irons as the son of Gators N Bears posted a time of 1:10 1/5 for the six-furlong distance.
"This horse has a lot of stamina," trainer Carlos Garcia. "He's a nice horse. He's been coming off mile and mile and a sixteenth turf races. What worried me was not running on dirt for so long. We changed his training. He has been racing and training on turf. He had not raced since May on dirt but he likes the dirt. We needed to work on him. We will give him a break until December, go to Tampa and come back again."
Also on Saturday's Maryland Million program, Ronald H. Parker's Motherload Hipster tracked the speed into the homestretch before being set down to win the $49,500 Maryland Million Distaff Starter Handicap by 1 1/4 lengths. Joey P Stables' Varborough captured the closing event on the card, the $51,000 Maryland Million Starter Handicap, by one length.