The 27th Jim McKay Maryland Million, a festive homecoming for Marylanders, attracted 106 entrants to the 11-race program which will be presented Saturday at Laurel Park. First post for the $1.05 million day is 12:35 p.m. (EDT).
The $150,000 Maryland Million Classic at 1 1/8 miles features six runners, including defending champion Eighttofasttocatch, last year's runner-up Cactus Charlie and third-place finisher Not Abroad, plus two others who competed in the race the last two years.
Maryland Jockey Club handicapper Frank Carulli has tabbed Eighttofasttocatch as the 9-5 morning line favorite. The son of Not for Love has won 10 career races, nine at Laurel Park. The six-year-old has five stakes wins at the central Maryland track, including a repeat score in the Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Stakes on March 24.
"I like the spot and I'm happy with the way he's coming into the race," trainer Tim Keefe said. "He's as happy and sound as he's ever been in his entire career. If he gets beat Saturday it's because he gets beat by a better horse."
Eighttofasttocatch has run just three times since winning the Harrison Johnson, including a fifth-place finish in the Japan Racing Association Stakes on the Laurel grass last month.
"He's one of my favorite horses," said Sheldon Russell, who has ridden the chestnut 16 times and will be aboard Saturday. "I was disappointed the last time we ran him on the grass. I dropped the whip or it would have been better outcome. He keeps improving and loves the big days."
Keefe also cross-entered his star in the $100,000 Maryland Million Turf as a backup plan.
"It is 99.99 percent we're going in the Classic," Keefe added. "I wanted options because I didn't know how this race would come up."
Not Abroad finished second to Regal Solo in 2010 as a three-year-old before last year's third-place finish. The son of Not for Love comes into the Classic in fine form with four top three finishes from his five races this year. Nick Petro rides the colt for his brother Mike.
After his runner-up effort in the Classic a year ago, Cactus Charlie has finished in the money in three of five races, but the son of Not for Love has not visited the winner's circle. Shannon Uske is the regular rider for trainer John Tammaro IV.
Regal Warrior was third in the 2010 Classic while in the Mike Trombetta barn then finished fifth a year ago while being conditioned by Mitch Friedman. The son of Louis Quatorze was claimed by Rick Dutrow in February but has run just once, recording a fifth-place finish behind Eighttofasttocatch in the Harrison E. Johnson in mid-March. Julian Pimentel has the riding assignment for Saturday's Classic.
In the Juice has run sixth, fourth and fifth in the last three editions of the Classic. This year, the Jerry Robb-conditioned Rock Slide six-year-old is winless in five starts and will have Wesley Ho in the irons.
The only newcomer to the Classic is Tujoes, who comes into the race off two straight victories, including a first stakes win in the Roanoke Stakes at Parx Racing on September 8. Angel Arroyo will ride the son of Oratory for trainer Steve Klesaris, who also entered his charge in the $100,000 Maryland Million Sprint.
Later on the program, Ben's Cat will be looking to become the fourth horse to win a Maryland Million race three consecutive years in the $100,000 Maryland Million Turf Sprint. The previous 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).
The son of Parker's Storm Cat boasts $1,161,090 in career earnings after becoming King Leatherbury's first millionaire with a victory in the Grade 3 Turf Monster Handicap (G3) at Parx Racing in his last start.
Bred, owned and trained by Leatherbury, Ben's Cat has been victorious in 10 of 15 on the turf and has 12 stakes scores. The dark bay gelding 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 Turf Sprint. He won last year's Turf Sprint by a length.
"It is an incredible story because the kind of horses I breed are not high quality. His sire was an unknown with a $2,500 stud fee and the mare was a homebred," said Leatherbury, who ranks third on the all-time win list with 6,349 career victories. "He's a Cinderella-type horse from that standpoint. Starting with serious problems, through that, even getting to the races and running as a claimer would have been a nice story. He's maintained his class and he's doing fine so there are no excuses except for the weight."
Nine runners are entered to face the six-year-old Ben's Cat, who will carry 128 pounds, 11 to 18 more than his rivals. Julian Pimentel, who was Ben's Cat's regular rider in 2010 and regained the mount this summer, will be aboard.
"He just finds a way to win," Pimentel said. "I think he's as good as he was during his four-year-old season. He has been really aggressive in his last three races and his mind isn't running all over the place like in the past."
Ben's Cat, the prohibitive 3-5 morning-line favorite, will be facing Grade 2-winning millionaire Heros Reward from the Dale Capuano barn. That 10-year-old son of Partner's Hero has run just four times this year, including a fifth behind the favorite in the Mister Diz Stakes at Pimlico earlier this year.
"Maybe Ben won't run his race this time," Capuano hypothesized. "(Heros Reward) is fresh and sound. He shows up every time and you can't ask for any more than that."
Capuano and Leatherbury are tied atop the Maryland Million trainer standings with nine winners.
The field also features Steady Warrior, who finished just a length behind Ben's Cat in last year's Turf Sprint and a neck behind in the Mister Diz. The Cherokee's Boy four-year-old gelding earned his last win in 2010 when capturing the Tri-State Futurity two races following a 7 1/4-length romp in the Maryland Million Nursery.
Stakes comprise the entire Saturday card, with the $100,000 Maryland Million Lassie opening the program. Seven two-year-old fillies are entered, including Mystic Love, an impressive winner in her debut last month for trainer Frannie Campitelli. The juvenile boys will get their turn in the spotlight later on the card when a full field of 14 head to the gate for the $100,000 Maryland Million Nursery.
If Eighttofasttocatch's connections opt for the Turf, he'll have to take on 11 turf specialist, including 2009 winner Target Sighted. Baltimore Belle, winner of the 2010 Maryland Million Oaks and second in last year's Maryland Million Ladies, will face eight rivals while trying to improve one spot in the $100,000 latter event.
This year's $100,000 Maryland Million Oaks will feature nine three-year-old fillies, including 2011 Lassie winner Bluegrass Atatude, undefeated Spring Dance and Jazzy Idea, who broke a turf record in the Jameela Stakes on opening day of the fall meeting for owner-trainer-breeder Edwin Merryman.
Defending champion Sloane Ranger, 2010 Classic hero Regal Solo and Grade 3-placed multiple stakes winner Action Andy headline the nine-horse field in the Sprint, while multiple stakes victress Bold Affair, last year's Distaff runner-up Silver Heart and 2011 Oaks winner Brushed by Love top a field of seven fillies and mares in the $100,000 Maryland Million Distaff.
Saturday will also feature a pair of $50,000 starter handicaps. In one of those, the Maryland Million Starter Handicap, Let Me Be Frank will be making his 113th career start while seeking yet another win in the race following a 10-length score in 2008. Trainer Damon Dilodovico claimed the son of Awad seven months before that victory, and Let Me be Frank has won 11 times in 30 starts for Dilodovico, including a victory last month at Laurel.
"He's a tough guy," Dilodovico noted. "He's quite cantankerous, too. I don't know if he's green or what, but he'll do something silly, like chuck a rider in the morning. He'll act like he's two sometimes. He's crashed into cars. We thought he was finished but he came back off a year layoff (February 2011 to February 2012) . This horse is remarkable to come back from all that stuff to be competitive again but he loves to race and win. We want to keep him going but I wish this race was two turns."
Carulli lists Let Me Be Frank at 10-1 in the one-turn, one-mile test.
The Maryland Million was introduced in 1986 as a program of races restricted to the offspring of Maryland-based stallions, and has been duplicated by more than 20 other states. Maryland-sired Thoroughbreds are nominated before they become two-year-olds and remain eligible for life to run in the Maryland Million races. After twenty-six runnings, 220 stallions have been represented in Maryland Million races.
Hall of Fame broadcaster Jim McKay originally proposed the concept and remained chairman of the board until his death four years ago. Attendance figures have topped 20,000 for the event on 22 occasions.
The first 4,000 full-paid admissions on Saturday, as well as Maryland-licensed owners and trainers, will each receive a free Maryland Million Sport Cap. On-track entertainment between races will include two pony races, Goshen Foxhounds, Thoroughbred Placement Resources and Special Olympics Maryland. Party at the Park, located trackside in Paddock Park, will feature beer, wine, cornhole, live music between races and all you can eat wings from 12-5 p.m.
Hall of Fame riders Steve Cauthen and Jean Cruguet will be signing autographs outside the Horse Wizard Room from 1-3 p.m.