Fun at the Carnival

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The calls always come from bloodstock agents when a horse breaks its maiden the way Still Having Fun did in his debut last fall.

Tim Keefe fielded a few after the son of Old Fashioned won a waiver-claiming race Nov. 17 at Laurel Park and one agent was persistent enough that a deal to sell a two-thirds ownership the colt was completed.

The calls always come from fans, the press and other so-called experts when a horse wins an extended sprint stakes the way Still Having Fun did in his most recent start. It’s always easier to train the other guy’s horse, or perhaps it’s only natural to see what’s in the thank.

Keefe heard those suggestions, too, but wasn’t about to rush his colt who trained largely under the radar first in his days with Cary Frommer in Aiken and later when he joined his string at Laurel. Still Having Fun, who is since more noticeable both in his breezes and performances on the racetrack that produced two wins in three starts, takes the next step in Saturday’s $100,000 Miracle Wood Stakes that’s part of the Winter Carnival program at Laurel.

The Miracle Wood is at 1 mile, so another gradual step up from Still Having Fun’s stakes debut when second in the 7-furlong Maryland Juvenile Futurity and his stakes victory in the 7-furlong Frank Whiteley Jr. last time.

“He’s gotten better and better with every start,” said Keefe, who trains Still Having Fun for Terp Racing, Gary Barber and Adam Wachtel’s Wachtel Stable. “So far, knock on wood, everything’s been good.”

Still Having Fun showed how good he was in that debut when he didn’t run for a tag – Maryland-bred and Maryland-sired runners can waive the $40,000 claiming price – and won off by 3 1/4 lengths. Barber and Wachtel came on board after that race and before the Maryland Juvenile Futurity, where Still Having Fun broke a step slow, responded enthusiastically to Feargal Lynch’s urging to take the lead. He was caught late by Whirlin Curlin.

Keefe opted to skip the $100,000 Heft Stakes – a race that would have been special since it’s named for his longtime late support Arnold Heft, who owned Maryland-bred champion Eighttofasttocatch – and wait for the Whiteley in late January.

“Sometimes when you win first time out it’s kind of a blessing and a curse,” Keefe said. “It looks like the horse is really good but then you’re running against horses that generally have more racing experience next time. This horse doesn’t have a lot of experience. He’s a smart, intelligent horse, but any horse needs experience.

“When we broke a step slow in the second race, Feargal said ‘come on boy, you’ve got to pop out of this gate’ and the horse just responded. He was like, ‘OK, you’re asking me to go let’s go.’ So they went and zipped him right to the front. That wasn’t the intention. It’s a learning thing with Feargal and horse and the horse with the racing experience, we found our way in front, he kind of got a little bit lost at the end, the other horse came up to him and beat him at the wire. The first thing Feargal said when he came back was ‘That horse will never beat me again.’”

Whirlin Curlin finished sixth in the Whiteley as Still Having Fun raced more professionally, patiently awaiting Lynch’s cues and eventually coming up the inside to draw off to a 4 1/2-length victory.

A two-turn race, or even a graded stakes like the Gotham at 1 mile next month at Aqueduct, might have seemed like the next spot. Keefe instead stayed patient and decided to run Still Having Fun back in three weeks in the Miracle Wood.

“The big question is can he handle two turns?” Keefe said. “I trained his mother, who didn’t race but she was a stone-cold sprinter. His sister, Honey Bunch (also trained by Keefe), she’s life and death to get 5 1/2 (furlongs), so from a family standpoint, at least from the dam’s standpoint, they’re sprinters.

“At the same time he came out of (the Whiteley) awesome. He acts like these races don’t take anything out of him. From a trainer’s standpoint you have to be careful with that, sometimes they can fool you, they come out and act like they’re doing well but you have to look at what they put out on the racetrack to win, how much they put out on race day. This horse he ran hard, ran good numbers, but I don’t think we’ve gotten to the bottom of him. I haven’t seen him in the three races come back whipped and tired, where he laid it all out there. I still think he’s out there messing around.”

Still Having Fun meets six opponents in the Miracle Wood, the second- and third-place finishers in the Whiteley in Wentz and V. I. P. Code and stakes winner He Hate Me looking like the main opposition. Dynamic Asset, a colt by Astrology who won his two starts in July and September for Lacey Gaudet; Whiteley fifth Oldfashioned Club and Whiteley seventh Old Time Revival are also in the field.

The Miracle Wood is the second of the six stakes on the Winter Carnival card, following the $100,000 John B. Campbell for older horses and before the $100,000 Maryland Racing Media for older fillies and mares and the $100,000 Wide Country for 3-year-old fillies.

The centerpiece events of the card are the Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie and Grade 3 General George, both at 7 furlongs.

Saturday’s Laurel Park entries.