Maryland Million always comes through

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The Maryland Million delivers – even during a pandemic. The Mid-Atlantic’s best racing day – debate if you want – annually brings a bit of everything and did so again Saturday. There were fans (not many, but welcome back) at Laurel Park, and they were having a good time. Chalky favorites Hello Beautiful and Fiya won. So did longshots Glengar and Beltway Bob. Stallion Great Notion won four races. So did jockey Sheldon Russell, who edged a triple by Trevor McCarthy.

Start with the fans, allowed at Laurel in limited numbers and with social distancing even if some parts of the building were closed and the outdoor owner/trainer/breeder/VIP hospitality area was limited to one tent (no tables) and some food trucks. Early in the day, a crew of railbirds encouraged jockeys and horses going by in the post parade and followed up with cheers and/or jeers for the winning jockey walking back after each race.

“Genius . . . Genius,” one grateful fan called to Russell after the jockey won the Turf with Pretty Good Year. Russell acknowledged the good wishes, and the “Sheldon . . . Sheldon . . . Sheldon” chant from some others in the group before making a point.

“You guys come to my wedding, always my wedding but when we’re warming up the horses you’re shouting at Trevor, ‘Champ, hey champ, you’re the best.’ Where are you then?”

Russell may have thought he got the last word, but his fan club wasn’t finished.

“That’s a lie, that’s a lie, we don’t do that. We love Sheldon.”

The cackling would still be going on but there were more races. Russell capped his day with a score in the Classic two races later.

Late the day, the crowd along the rail swelled to include a pack of exercise riders. Now they were having fun – heckling, cheering, laughing, shouting and getting responses. Again, Russell appreciated the enthusiasm.

“It’s nice to have them back out at the track,” he said. “They’ve been locked down and just unable to be here. We miss them as riders. I love that excitement.”

Cashing in the Classic
Butch Reid the trainer might want to start listening to Butch Reid the bettor after Monday Morning Qb rebounded from a dismal 11th on the turf in the Jimmy Murphy Stakes at Pimlico on Preakness Day to win the $150,000 Classic. The 3-year-old, by Maryland stallion Imagining, paid $15.60 while defeating 4-year-old Maryland-bred (by Kentucky stallion Paynter) favorite Harpers First Ride by 3 1/4 lengths.

Reid was counting on a big effort, even though his horse lost his last start by almost 19 lengths.

“I thought he was going to run big,” the trainer said. “As just a gambler, and not even thinking about being a trainer, turf to dirt is one of my favorite angles. Unfortunately, I lost all my money gambling today, so I didn’t have anything left to bet on him.”

Reid cashed anyway, as Monday Morning Qb became just the second 3-year-old to win the Classic and won for the third time in seven starts for Cash Is King Stable and LC Racing. Monday Morning Qb sold to Cash Is King’s Chuck Zacney for $25,000 as a yearling at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic in 2018 and has since grown into a powerful colt whose future rose with a victory in the Heft Stakes at Laurel late last year and a fourth in the Grade 3 Withers early this year only to get paused by the pandemic and some growing pains. Seven months on the sidelines, much of it at Eisaman Equine in Florida, sent the dark bay to the Federico Tesio at Laurel in early September.

Billed as a Preakness prep, the race didn’t produce a single starter for that race but might be known for much more someday. Happy Saver won, then added the Jockey Club Gold Cup in his next start. Bred in Maryland by Bowman and Higgins Stable and Cary Frommer, Monday Morning Qb finished second in the Tesio and two starts later added the Maryland Million Classic.

“That race was off a layoff, so we were asking a lot of him there,” Reid said of the Tesio. “We were thinking then we had an outside shot to make the Preakness in the back of our minds, so we ran there and then went to the turf on Preakness Day. If you could rewrite history, we might have taken a shot at the Preakness, but I don’t think we wanted to run against those first two (Swiss Skydiver and Authentic) at that point anyway. I’m not at all disappointed, especially the way things turned out today, I’m not second-guessing myself on that one.”

The only 3-year-old in a field of seven for the Classic, Monday Morning Qb stutter-stepped leaving the gate from post three but jumped on the bridle and towed Russell to the flank of leader Prendimi into the first turn. After a quarter-mile in :23.47, Russell leaned back in his stirrups while staying wide – in hopes of slowing down his mount. They drew even with Prendimi after a half-mile in :46.81, took control, dispatched a rail challenge from Tattooed on the turn and were 2 lengths clear after three-quarters in 1:10.94 as favorite Harpers First Ride was forced to go five wide from the back. Russell said go at the top of the stretch, got an effective – if a little awkward – lead change and Monday Morning Qb did the rest. Even-money Harpers First Ride saved second over 46-1 Tattooed.

Russell said the start, and his horse’s reaction, keyed the race’s setup.

“I gave him a little encouragement, tapped him down on the shoulder and he got the wrong idea and tried to sort of run off with me,” the jockey said. “To be fair, he was going too fast into the first turn. I kept him out wide until he relaxed and then I was able to bring him in and as I brought him in the one horse was dropping back so I was able to secure the rail, give him a breather and when I turned for home and he switched to his right lead he took off again. He was well-prepared. Great job by Mr. Reid.”

Beyond the Big One
Dale Capuano, the Maryland Million’s all-time leading trainer going in with 11 victories, won the opener with Jumpstartmyheart and later added the Nursery with Kenny Had A Notion. The latter won by 5 lengths and led a barn exacta with Alwaysinahurry.

Capuano’s 13 wins lead King T. Leatherbury (10) and Mike Trombetta (nine).

“It never gets old,” Capuano said of winning Maryland Million races. “We’re always happy to win these races. It’s nice. You can’t beat it, especially this year when we weren’t sure it was going to happen there for a while. It sounded doubtful a little bit there this year.”

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Purchased from breeder Ann Merryman by Rob Masiello for $400,000 via the Wanamaker’s online auction platform in July, Fiya toyed with seven others in the Turf Sprint. Over a course labeled good, he stalked Grateful Bred early and kicked away in the stretch to win by 2 1/4 lengths over So Street with Godlovesasinner third. The winner, now based in New York with trainer Tom Albertrani, paid $2.20. Ridden by McCarthy, the son of Friesan Fire has won twice for his new owner – after winning two of four for Merryman – and will likely turn up next in the Claiming Crown at Gulfstream Park in December.

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Hello Beautiful wasn’t quite as short-priced as Fiya, but was more dominant while returning $3 in the Distaff for Russell and his wife Brittany, who trains the 3-year-old filly for Madaket Stable, Albert Frassetto, Mark Parkinson, K-Mac Stable and Magic City Stable. The daughter of Golden Lad scored by 11 1/4 lengths over Quiet Imagination with Le Weekend third in the 7-furlong race.

Purchased by Brittany Russell for $6,500 as a yearling, Hello Beautiful won for the fifth time in 11 starts and ran her record on Laurel’s dirt track to 5-for-5 while pushing her career earnings to $257,110. After two losses out of town – at Ellis Park in August and Saratoga in September – and without Sheldon Russell, a win at home felt right.

“I hate to say she could be horse for the course, but she loves Laurel,” said Brittany. “She trains here, she walks out of her stall and runs. I don’t know what it is. Sheldon has a lot to do with it. He reaches up and just keeps the bit in her mouth, you can see it, and she loves that. She doesn’t want to be turned loose. I think she’s spoiled. To be fair, she runs for him.”

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Merryman might have sold Fiya, but picked up a Maryland Million win with trainee Epic Idea in the Ladies going 1 1/8 miles on the turf. Bred and owned by Vivian Rall, the winner battled for the pace throughout, drifted out in the stretch but hung on to win by three-quarters of a length over Gennie Highway with Mosalah another three-quarters back in third.

The winner, a 4-year-old daughter of Great Notion and the Outflanker mare Calliope, won for the third time in 10 starts and gave a boost to a deep female pedigree that goes back to fourth dam Aunt Sheila. Rall owned and trained (and sometimes rode) that mare on the steeplechase circuit in the 1970s. A half-sister to three-time Iroquois Steeplechase winner Uncle Edwin, the daughter of Mystic II produced Maryland Hunt Cup winner Uncle Merlin among others. Aunt Sheila’s daughter Snow Leopard won three times for Rall, and produced Pandora (who won twice). Pandora in turn produced four-time winner Calliope, the dam of Epic Idea.

Merryman was thrilled to win a stakes with her friend.

“She’s what breeding is all about,” the trainer said of Rall. “She loves her horses and she’s very astute pedigree-wise. Aunt Sheila is back there, her fourth dam. It’s all there. I am definitely listening to everything Vivian says because she knows that family.”

• • •
Nancy Heil did Rall one better as the breeder, owner and trainer of Sprint winner Karan’s Notion. The Great Notion gelding made the running through splits of :22.49 and :45.07 before stopping the timer at 1:09.15 for 6 furlongs. Ridden by Yomar Ortiz, the 3-year-old paid $34.20 while leaving 2018 Sprint winner and favorite Lewisfield in third.

Cheered by a small (but enthusiastic) group of fellow horsemen, Heil was overwhelmed in the winner’s circle after her first Maryland Million win – on her first try – and proud of her horse.

“I never got lucky enough to have the right horse,” said the trainer, who saddled her first runner in 1976. “I had some good horses that were eligible to run but were out of commission or maybe I had horses that weren’t by Maryland sires. I’ve been doing this a long time. I can’t believe it happened to me, really. I can’t. Never give up.”

• • •
Miss Nondesdript won the Lassie for 2-year-old fillies. Trained by Mike Trombetta after winning her debut for Wayne Potts at Monmouth in September, the daughter of Mosler responded to McCarthy’s late work to get up by a neck in the 6-furlong race for owner/breeder Barak Farm . . . Lead Off Stable’s Pretty Good Year rallied from last of 12 to win the Turf, blasting six wide around the turn to score by a length at 15-1 for trainer Kelly Rubley. Ridden by Russell, the son of Great Notion (pretty versatile day for that stallion) improved on his third in the 2019 race while outrunning Cannon’s Roar and Nick Papagiorgio late . . . Starter handicaps went to Jumpstartmyheart, Odd Gal, Glengar and Beltway Bob.

For more from the Maryland Million, see the December edition of Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred magazine.