Maryland-breds returning to national prominence

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Ted Black

November 9th, 2018

Horse racing in Maryland has certainly endured its share of ups and downs over the past three decades for numerous reasons, but one genuine sign the Free State may be on a genuine upswing stems from the efforts of thoroughbreds and standardbreds the state has produced in lucrative, major stakes this summer and fall.

Last weekend's Breeders Cup races at Churchill Downs split between Friday and Saturday proved to be markedly chalky with many of the division champions being decided in emphatic fashion while retired Triple Crown winner Justify prepares to accept a pair of Eclipse Awards - one each for champion three-year-old colt and horse of the year - before accepting stud duties.

Last Friday's Grade I, $2 million Breeders Cup Juvenile produced another worthy division champion when Game Winner remained undefeated in four starts for trainer Bob Baffert and owners Gary & Mary West when he forged a determined, narrow victory. The runner-up that day was none other than Knicks Go, a Maryland-bred son of Paynter trained by Ben Colebrook who had previously posted a 70-1 shocker in the Grade I Breeders Futurity at Keeneland.

Knicks Go had won his career debut at Ellis Park on July 4 by nearly four lengths then finished fifth in the Grade III Sanford Stakes at Saratoga and later was third in the $75,000 Arlington-Washington Futurity, a race in which fellow Maryland-bred Distant Shore was second. But after adding Lasix for the first time in the Breeders Futurity, Knicks Go emerged a different horse and drew off to win by nearly six lengths and became the first Maryland-bred two-year-old to win a Grade I since Declan's Moon.

While Game Winner secured his status as champion two-year-old colt with his determined victory in the Breeders Cup Juvenile, his third Grade I score this season, Knicks Go gave fans of Maryland-bred runners plenty of optimism heading into the Kentucky Derby trail next spring. He has already displayed the ability to successfully compete at the sport's highest level for his age group and next season he will be among the many sophomores looking to end Baffert's stranglehold on the Triple Crown series.

Speaking of Distant Shore, that Maryland-bred son of Algorithms trained by Tom Amoss finished third earlier on the Friday card at Churchill Downs in the $100,000 Street Sense at one mile on the main track. Distant Shore had graduated at first asking against maiden special weight foes on August 14 at Indiana Downs then was second in the Arlington-Washington Futurity. Last Friday he was no threat to Improbable in the Street Sense, who remained perfect in two starts for Baffert.

One day later at Churchill Downs, Maryland-bred Still Having Fun finished a nondescript fifth in the $200,000 Cherokee Run Stakes as Audible, idle since running third in the Kentucky Derby, rallied from midpack to score for trainer Todd Pletcher. Still Having Fun had earlier captured the Grade II, $400,000 Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard, but his tepid hold on potential Maryland-bred horse of the year honors may have dipped considerably when Knicks Go was runner-up in the Juvenile.

Maryland-bred trotters and pacers also enjoyed a superb season in major stakes and several of them are in the chase for national division honors as well as Maryland-bred horse of the year.

Met's Hall, a sophomore son of Cantab Hall trained by Julie Miller, captured the $250,000 Carl Erskine Memorial at Hoosier Park in Indiana following a solid season of runner-up efforts in Grade I stakes. Met's Hall was second in the Hamblettonian, the Kentucky Futurity and the Breeders Crown finals and earned over $1 million along the way. He could eventually garner the division title since three different trotters won those other events and a filly, Atlanta, scored in the Hambo.

Not to be overlooked for division honors is Courtly Choice, a talented sophomore pacer trained by Blake Macintosh. Courtly Choice will be among the serious contenders for champion three-year-old colt pacer and Maryland-bred horse of the year courtesy of Grade I scores in the Meadowlands Pace and the Little Brown Jug. He failed to earn a berth in the Breeders Crown final, however, and has since been turned out prior to the Matron Stakes and Progess Pace at Dover Downs.

Although she will not get much consideration for divisional honors or Maryland-bred horse of the year this season, Zero Tolerance capped a stellar campaign by finishing second in the Breeders Crown final for two-year-old filly pacers. This Joe Holloway trainee won seven of 12 starts and was second four times in defeat and earned over $400,000 along the way and now looms a major player for the sophomore stakes next season.

Speaking of sophomores, Slick Tony has enjoyed a banner season for owner-breeder-trainer George "Ronnie" Leager of Sudlersville, also home town of major league Hall of Famer Jimmy Foxx. Slick Tony has won 8 of 18 starts and earned over $200,000 this season for Leager, having dominated the Delaware Standardbred Breeders Fund events at ages two and three. He could still enhance his bankroll early next month in the $20,000 Maryland Open on the undercard of the $100,000 Potomac Pace at Rosecroft Raceway on Sunday, Dec. 2.