'Saint Soars as Heavy Choice in Johnson Memorial

Sweetnorthernsaint went to the front and was never threatened as the 10 cents on the dollar favorite in Saturday's $63,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Handicap at muddy Laurel Park.

Ridden by Mario Pino for the first time since they teamed to win the Miracle Wood on a sloppy Laurel track by 10 lengths in February 2006, the 4-year-old Sweetsouthernsaint gelding defeated his four rivals by four lengths in a time of 1:51 1/5 for the 1 1/8-mile distance. Sweetnorthernsaint ($2.20, $2.20, $2.10) carried top weight of 123 pounds in his return to his home track for trainer Michael Trombetta, nine more than runner-up Capac ($4, $2.40), who was ridden by Jonathan Joyce. Future Fantasy ($2.40) and Winston Thompson finished third.

Coming off a fifth-place finish as the 19-10 favorite in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park, Sweetnorthernsaint won for the first time since taking Delaware Park's Odessa in November. Last year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) seventh-place finisher as the favorite and runner-up behind Bernardini in the Preakness (gr. I), Sweetnorthernsaint won for the sixth time in 13 lifetime starts for owners Joseph J. Balsamo and Ted Theos. The Florida-bred Sweetnorthernsaint, winner of the Illinois Derby (gr. II) at Hawthorne at 3, increased his earnings to $728,300 with Saturday's $36,000 winning share.

"Those times when you think you can’t lose, bad things can happen," a relieved Trombetta said. "I couldn’t have been happier. We went to south Florida with him but had a little bit of bad luck. Things didn’t go quite rights but we’re glad we’re back going in the right direction today.”

Sweetnorthernsaint won for the third time in four starts at Laurel while remaining unbeaten in two tries on an off-track.

The winner broke on an easy lead from his rail post and set an easy pace while racing a couple of paths off the inside. Fractions were :25 2/5, :49 2/5 and 1:13 3/5 while Sweetnorthernsaint maintained a clear advantage on the far turn over Capac. He was urged on in upper stretch by Pino and finished with interest. Capac, passed by Future Fantasy mid-stretch, came on again with a surge on the inside to take the place by three quarters of a length. Due and Easy Red trailed in a field reduced by the scratches of My Dream and Trapped Again.

“He’s a real classy horse, and my main thing was to get him off the inside,” said Pino. “He broke real well and just breezed around there. He’s a little more mature now. He still has that thing where he waits for horses, but he’s still got a nice smooth stride and he never really got into third gear.”

(Chart, Equibase)

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