Maryland Million: State’s day delivers stories

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I used to go to Laurel Park all the time. I led horses to the paddock, won races, lost races, cashed tickets, wrote articles, even ate Thanksgiving Dinner (free with a Maryland Racing Commission license) in the track kitchen once. Saturday, I went back for the first time in years – for the Maryland Million.

First, the day brought back memories. Second, it proved once again that Maryland’s Thoroughbred industry works – no matter the decade or economic realities. Third, the day delivered.

In the first race, owner Nona Quinn cried in the winner’s circle after Brushed By Love roared off the turn to win the $100,000 Oaks. Her husband Bill bought the daughter of Not For Love and Timely Broad two years ago, watched her grow into a racehorse, then lost a fight with pancreatic cancer. He never saw her run. Trained by Mike Trombetta, she’s won three times this year for the Nona Lisa Stable of Quinn and her sister-in-law Lisa.

One race later, Maryland’s racing’s Sunshine Boys – King Leatherbury and Ben’s Cat – won their second consecutive Turf Sprint. The horse, 5, might be the best turf sprinter in the country. The trainer, 78, has won more than 6,300 races. Ben’s Cat flew home under Jeremy Rose, scoring by a length while toying with runner-up Steady Warrior. Leatherbury watched from his box in the clubhouse, talked to the fans around the winner’s circle, accepted congratulations from some happy gamblers afterward.

“You the man,” one fan said.

“Nice one, Mr. Leatherbury," chimed in.

Lastly came this from a fan standing outside the winner’s circle: “Let’s go to the Breeders’ Cup, we’re with you.”

That last topic was on everyone’s lips at Laurel. Will Ben’s Cat and his trainer head to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint? The 5-year-old son of Parker’s Storm Cat won an automatic berth via victory in the Turf Monster Handicap at Parx Racing last month, but Leatherbury (also the horse’s owner and breeder) will have to pay a $100,000 supplement to get there. Or find someone else who will.

“Now we can get serious about it,” Leatherbury said of the planning. “We’ll see if we can raise the money. He probably belongs there.”

Jockey Jeremy Rose is convinced.

“To me, he’s the best horse at that distance on that surface in the country,” he said.

Look for him at Churchill Downs. Or not.

The hits kept coming. A giveaway yearling, Glib, won the $100,000 Nursery. The son of Great Notion didn’t sell at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic last year and co-breeder Charlie McGinnes gave him to trainer Jerry Robb, who added the horse to No Guts No Glory Stable. A year later, Glib’s a stakes winner.

In the Sprint, Sloane Ranger helped trainer Marty Ciresa continue his climb back up the racing ladder. He won the Classic with Presidentialaffair in 2004 and the Juvenile with T P Louie in 2000. A year and a half ago, Ciresa was injured in a car accident and later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. Now, he lives over the barn at small-time Folk Farm just over the border in Pennsylvania from Fair Hill, training a small stable – headed by Sloane Ranger – on the half-mile track there and trying to get back in the game.

“I’m happy for him, he’s a pretty good horse trainer. This horse is bringing him back,” said Mike Pons, whose Merryland Farm helped Sloane Ranger get back to racing form this year.

The $150,000 Classic turned into a powerhouse run for emerging Maryland star Eighttofasttocatch. His 2011 includes victories in the Harrison Johnson, the Japan Racing Association and now the Maryland Million Classic. The 5-year-old came into the race as the 7-5 morning line favorite and in the final two minutes dropped to 6-5, even money and finally 4-5. He won by 1 3/4 lengths and looked good doing it. Afterward, trainer Tim Keefe smiled a relieved smile in the winner’s circle – adding a Classic to earlier wins in the Sprint with Celtic Innis and a starter handicap with Anarex.

“It’s huge. Celtic Innis, there will never be another one like him for me,” said Keefe. “He always showed up, always tried, always ran as well as he could. I think I ran him in four Maryland Millions and he was always right there. But you always want to win the big on on the day and I finally did.”

NOTES: Not For Love sired four winners on the day to pass Allen’s Prospect on the all-time list of Maryland Million winners . . . In addition to Not For Love, Northview Stallion Station sires Two Punch, Great Notion, Lion Hearted and Partner’s Hero sired winners on the day . . . Parker’s Storm Cat, who used to stand at Country Life Farm, sired two winners. The son of Storm Cat now stands at Gibson Thoroughbred Farm in Thorp, Wash.