Maryland Million Preview Bucket: Study in Perseverance

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Dating back to before he ever ran, continuing on through his racing career and extending to a second career at stud, Super Ninety Nine has been a case study in perseverance.

A resident of Josh and Mike Pons’ Country Life Farm in Bel Air, Md., the 8-year-old stallion is represented by three horses pre-entered in the $100,000 Maryland Million Lassie for 2-year-old fillies, one of seven stakes and four starter stakes on the 33rd Jim McKay Maryland Million Day program Saturday at Laurel Park.

Agent Ninetynine, Better Yet and Little Miss Raelyn are among the first of Super Ninety Nine’s offspring to make it to the races, a freshman crop that was delayed and limited after the son and grandson of Grade 1 winners was kicked in the groin by the third mare he ever covered in the winter of 2015.

Super Ninety Nine wound up with 31 horses in his first year and enjoyed full seasons in both 2016 and 2017 but was only able to get one mare in foal this year before his hard luck resurfaced. Some minor scratches and scrapes on his left hind leg developed into an infection early this winter that was diagnosed at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center.

While there, it was discovered Super Ninety Nine also had an injury to his suspensory ligament similar to those that happen to active Thoroughbreds during racing or training. He was ultimately moved to the rehab facility of trainer Bruce Jackson at the Fair Hill Training Center, where his recovery was aided by such amenities as a cold saltwater spa, hyperbaric chamber, salt vapor room, vibrating floor and water treadmill.

“Anything that happens to a horse is a serious concern,” Josh Pons said. “They can’t talk to you so you have to use your best horsemanship and surround yourself with really competent help. Anything can happen to a horse.

“He just sort of strained his suspensory and it required us to give him off for the breeding season. … He appears to have recovered fine, he’s back home and walking sound and we hope everything is behind him.”

Grandsons of Adolphe Pons, who founded Country Life Farm in 1933, Josh, 63, and Mike Pons, 61, took over day-to-day operations in 1981 and have overseen the farm through such notable events as the foaling of Hall of Famer Cigar in 1990 and the launching of Malibu Moon’s stud career in 2000.

Josh Pons said Super Ninety Nine’s laid-back attitude has been a critical part of his consistent ability to bounce back from adversity.

“He’s been a great patient. He’s just been one of those sort of star-crossed children finding misfortune, but he’s an excellent, smart horse to do what it takes to recover,” Pons said. “The horse business can break your heart sometimes but it can also be surprisingly rewarding. We just kind of have our fingers crossed that he’ll have some good luck to offset the bad luck.”

Super Ninety Nine was sold to Becky Thomas for $200,000 as a yearling at the 2011 Keeneland September sale, then purchased for $260,000 by Tanma Corporation’s Susan Chu as a 2-year-old in training in June 2012.

Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, he debuted with a victory that October at Santa Anita and was made the 5-2 second choice for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint but had to be scratched the day before the race. He’d race twice more at 2, finishing second in the Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue.

“Things happen to horses. They’re so fragile, and he’s sort of been that way his whole life,” Pons said. “As a racehorse he was supposed to be sold as a 2-year-old in the select sale in March, and he chipped a bone in his ankle and so they had to sell him in the non-select sale in June.

“He breaks his maiden in his first start and then he’s the [second] favorite in the Breeders’ Cup and he gets cast in his stall the night before the race. If you type his name into YouTube he comes up with all these Breeders’ Cup saddle towels on.”

Super Ninety Nine won his first two starts as a 3-year-old, including an 11 1/4-length romp in the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn Park. He returned to run fifth as the favorite in the Grade 2 Rebel and was third in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in his sophomore finale. He raced once at 4, finishing fourth in a June 2014 optional claimer before he was retired to stud.

“He’s like one of those athletes that gets hurt running out of bounds and has to start all over again. But he’s proving to be worth it,” Pons said. “He’s certainly a find for fast babies. He’s had five starters and three winners, and one of them won by 16 lengths.”

Three Diamonds Farm’s Better Yet, trained by Mike Trombetta, was a driving 16 1/2-length winner in her fourth start, a 1-mile waiver maiden claimer that was rained off the grass to a sloppy and sealed main track Sept. 9 at Laurel. A May foal, she is out of the Not For Love mare Baby Love and is a half-sister to 2017 Maryland Million Classic winner Bonus Points, who was bred by Country Life Farm.

Gold Square’s Little Miss Raelyn was Super Ninety Nine’s first winner, going gate to wire to score by 3 1/2 lengths in a 5-furlong waiver maiden claimer Aug. 19 at Laurel for New York-based trainer Jeremiah Englehart. A late April foal, her grandsire is 1996 Preakness winner Luis Quatorze.

Joseph Besecker’s Agent Ninetynine was claimed by Laurel’s fall meet-leading trainer Claudio Gonzalez out of her debut Oct. 9 at Parx Racing, where she finished seventh in a 6-furlong maiden claimer. Also a late April foal, she is out of the Memo mare Platinum Mine.

Donald and Lucy Churchill’s Maryland-bred Ruby Punch, out of the Two Punch mare Ruby Peak, won her debut in a Sept. 8 waiver maiden claimer at Delaware Park. She has run there twice since, finishing off the board in the Small Wonder Stakes and fourth in a starter optional claimer, the latter Oct. 11.

Pons, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association as well as secretary of the Thoroughbred Charities of America, is confident that Super Ninety Nine’s early success bodes well for next year’s breeding season.

“He’s got a big fan club of people that love his foals. He’ll be fine,” Pons said. “Nobody’s really started booking for 2019 yet but if he gets plenty of winners he’s got nothing to worry about.”

In addition to Bonus Points, Country Life Farm was co-breeder of 2001 Maryland Million Sprint winner Jorgie Stover and 2005 Ladies winner Surf Light. As an owner, it has been represented by four Maryland Million winners – Merryland Missy (2004 Distaff), Spectacular Malibu (2006 Lassie, 2008 Distaff) and Surf Light.

“It’s very exciting. We’ve got a lot of people coming to the track with us. We rented a tent on the apron,” Pons said. “It’s a great day for Maryland racing, win, lose or draw.”

Editor’s note: The Maryland Jockey Club’s publicity staff put in long hours producing preview articles for this year’s Maryland Million and This Is Horse Racing is thankful to provide an outlet for the content.