Maryland Million: Eighttofasttocatch returns again

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Saturday morning, Tim Keefe will reach into his closet without hesitation. Khakis for comfort. Tweed blazer for simplicity. Pink and blue striped shirt for the owner. Bright blue, pink flamingos tie for the horse.

Keefe saddles Arnie and Sylvia Heft’s Eighttofasttocatch for his fourth consecutive start in the Maryland Million at Laurel Park Saturday. The 7-year-old gelding finished third in the Turf in 2010, won the Classic in 2011 and failed as the favorite in last year’s Classic.

Keefe has worn the tie every year.

“I only wear it for him,” the Maryland-bred trainer said. “I don’t wear for it any other horse. I know, I know, it sounds stupid…”

Hey, whatever works. The tie has worked well enough for Keefe’s stable star to notch 12 wins and over $700,000 in purses.

Since last year’s disappointing run in the Classic, the chestnut son of Not For Love wired the Jennings, finished second in the Broad Brush, faded to seventh in the Native Dancer, finished second in the Harrison Johnson, won the Henry Clark, finished second in the Pimlico Special and finished last when taken on the road for the West Virginia Governor’s Classic at Mountaineer.

Most comfortable on the lead, Eighttofasttocatch failed to annex the lead in the August stakes and faded to last. Keefe began slashing the calendar boxes for the Maryland Million.

Keefe turned out Eighttofasttocatch in the round pen at his Laurel barn for a week or two, hacked him around the stable area for another week or two and then gradually began refueling.

“I was being really particular about where I spotted him and then I made a mistake and took him to Mountaineer. Before he crossed the finish line, I knew we would go straight here. In years past, I’ve used the Japan race as a prep but that wasn’t an option this year because it comes up after the Maryland Million this year, so I opted just to run him off the layoff, he’ll run well,” Keefe said. “He’s a lot like Celtic Innis, you just have to keep him happy, he tells you when he’s fit. I know he’s fit, just watching him walking to the racetrack, coming home.”

Keefe, in a different tie, saddled Celtic Innis for four tries at the Maryland Million Sprint. The nine-time winner won once and finished second three times on Maryland’s biggest day.

Eighttofasttocatch has stood the test of time as well. He’ll make his 44th career start Saturday.

“He likes to stand. He hates to jog. He likes to back up to the kitchen, he doesn’t like to back up any farther. He’s a funny horse,” Keefe said.

Saturday’s jockey Forest Boyce guided Eighttofasttocatch through two quick 5-furlong breezes, breaking the minute barrier Sept. 21 and Oct. 2. Keefe tabbed regular exercise rider Peter Brown-Whale for his most recent breeze, an easy 5 furlongs in 1:01.

“He was going just better than a two minute lick when Rodney Jenkins had one break off about 15 lengths behind him,” Keefe said. “He got within about 2 lengths of him at the top of the stretch, he had his ears pricked, he heard that other horse coming up behind him, it didn’t take much out of him and he felt good about himself. It was a perfect work.”

Ten weeks since flopping at Mountaineer, Eighttofasttocatch returns for his fourth try at the Maryland Million. The previous three are singed in Keefe’s memory.

In 2010, when he tried the turf, it was a stab. Stabled in Maryland, by a Maryland sire, owned by Marylanders, you run on Maryland Million Day. In his stakes debut, Eighttofasttocatch led for part of the 9-furlong stakes before fading to third behind Pocket Patch and Ham And Ernie.

“We didn’t know how good he was, we didn’t have a great handle on him,” Keefe said. “I knew the horses in the Classic and we thought he was OK on the grass, we were taking a shot. We had limited expectations.”

The following year, they had huge expectations. Keefe dropped Eighttofasttocatch for a $32,000 claiming tag in February, 2011. He won, returned to win the Harrison Johnson six weeks later. He lost three times before dominating the Japan Racing Association Stakes. He went off favorite in the Maryland Million and duly obliged.

“He had done well for us that year, we expected him to run well and he did,” Keefe said. “The Japan race came off the grass, he came out of it great and it set him up well. He ran super.”

Last year, he had lost three in a row before the Maryland Million and continued the skid with a lackluster performance, finishing fifth.

“Even though he was the favorite, I wasn’t as confident,” Keefe said. “I thought he was doing everything fine, he was sound, he was happy, but he was being a little bit quirky so I wasn’t sure. If things didn’t go right, I was worried. He ran flat, he had horses on his inside, he never got comfortable, he didn’t really try.”

Keefe was worried the ride was over. The Hefts don’t apply pressure and the trainer regrouped, winning a few, losing a few and returning to the Maryland Million.

“I was worried, he certainly didn’t owe us anything,” Keefe said. “They never push me, that’s one of the reasons why he’s lasted as long as he has.”

That, and the tie.

Watch Eighttofasttocatch win the 2011 Maryland Million.

Watch Eighttofasttocatch win the Henry Clark.