Last fall, Admirals War Chest had lost five consecutive races before turning an out-of-town Maryland Million prep victory into his mild, front-running upset of the day's richest race.
The Sinatra Thoroughbred Racing & Breeding homebred is following a similar pattern heading into this year's $150,000 Maryland Million Classic, which highlights the 31st annual Jim McKay Maryland Million Day program Saturday at Laurel Park.
Run at 1 1/8 miles over the main track, the Classic for 3-year-olds and up sired by eligible Maryland stallions is one of 11 races, nine of them stakes, that comprise 'Maryland's Day at the Races,' first run in 1986 as the brainchild of late sports broadcaster Jim McKay. The Classic is one of nine stakes on the day.
A gelded 5-year-old bay son of Elusive Charlie, Admirals War Chest is attempting to become the fifth back-to-back winner of the Classic following Timely Warning (1990-91), Algar (1997-98), Docent (2002-03) and Eighttofasttocatch (2013-14), who also won in 2011.
Based at Dr. Stephen Sinatra's Berkley Farm in Darlington, Md., Admirals War Chest heads into the Classic off a gate-to-wire victory in a second-level optional claiming allowance Sept. 1 over a sloppy, sealed track at Delaware Park. It was his first victory since last year's Classic, his only previous try from 18 career starts at the nine-furlong distance.
“He came out of the last one real good and he's been training real good,” trainer Corby Caiazzo said. “It's always good to go into a big race after having a nice win like that. It put him mentally in a better place.”
Admirals War Chest had gone winless in five tries, including a runner-up finish as the favorite behind Noteworthy Peach in the Jennings Handicap last December at Laurel, before his most recent triumph. His three losses this year came by a combined 33 ½ lengths.
“We expected things to go a little different this year but we're headed in the right direction and focused on a fall campaign. There's some nice races coming up for him. Everything's going good now so we're just going to let the past be the past and focus on the weekend and see if we can go on from there,” Caiazzo said. “I just have to see what happens and how the race unfolds for him. He's the kind of horse where if things don't go his way, sometimes you can't overcome those things.”
His last three wins have seen Admirals War Chest go all the way on the front end, and Caiazzo isn't expecting a radical change in tactics in the Classic. Regular rider Taylor Hole, who also works the horse, will be aboard from Post 4 at 119 pounds.
“Lately he's been liking to go to the lead. The race last year kind of set up for his speed. He tends to hold that speed pretty far but with the Maryland Million, the last eighth will be the tell-tale story, if he can hold it going in there. It all depends on how pressured he gets going into that first turn,” Caiazzo said. “We've been doing some things to try and help him hold the speed that long. Taylor said to me the other morning he's starting to be more relaxed going to the post and in the gate. Hopefully, we've worked some things out that will help him do a little better.”
Overall, Admirals War Chest has two wins, two seconds and five thirds from 11 career tries at Laurel. The Classic was his first stakes win and the first for Caiazzo, a 43-year-old Howard County native.
“I'm bringing a sound, healthy horse there. He's showed us he deserves a chance to run again, so we'll just see what happens,” he said. “I'm happy with how he's training. He's doing good, he looks good, and he put on weight from when he ran last year. He looks awesome. The whole team here has been working hard on him and everybody's real happy going into the weekend.”
Looking for his first career stakes victory in the Classic is Country Life Farm homebred Flash McCaul. The 3-year-old Friesan Fire gelding has finished second in three stakes including last year's Maryland Million Nursery, and was fourth earlier this year in the Federico Tesio, Maryland's traditional local prep for the Preakness Stakes (G1).
Most recently third behind stakes winner John Jones in a second-level optional claiming allowance Sept. 16 at Laurel, Flash McCaul has tuned up for the Classic with a trio of sharp works over the main track, topped by a bullet five furlongs in 1:01 Oct. 10. Julian Pimentel will be aboard from Post 6 and as a 3-year-old carry 114 pounds, five fewer than his older rivals.
“He's trained well. I'm kind of hoping for some real speed in the race because Flash doesn't have a whole lot so it might be best if he's got something to run at,” trainer Mike Trombetta said. “It seems that he likes [Laurel] and he's doing very well right now. I'm very excited about his chance to do it.”
Michael Harrison homebred Just Jack stretches out to 1 1/8 miles for the first time in the Classic. The 3-year-old gelding won a second-level optional claiming allowance at about 1 1/16 miles Oct. 2, his return to the dirt after five grass starts including a runner-up finish in the six-furlong Mister Diz Aug. 20.
Just Jack has four wins and two seconds from eight career starts and has finished first or second five times in six tries at Laurel with three wins. He is a full brother to the retired Talk Show Man, whose multiple stakes wins included the 2014 Maryland Million Turf.
“So far he hasn't disappointed us in any race we ran him in,” trainer Hamilton Smith said. “He won going long, and he can do most anything. He can run on any surface, it doesn't matter. Talk Show Man was the same way. He'd run on the grass or the dirt. It looks like he can do the same thing.”
Bullheaded Boy and I'm Mr. Blue, who ran 2-3 last year behind Admirals War Chest, return to this year's Classic for new connections. Now trained by David Jacobson, Diane Balsamo's Bullheaded Boy has yet to finish better than fourth in 2016, while I'm Mr. Blue has finished fifth and third in two starts following a seven-month layoff for trainer Howard Wolfendale.
Rounding out the field are Big Branch and Maryland-bred also-eligibles Connemara Coast, stakes winners Eyeplayeveryday and Noteworthy Peach, Kelly Tough and Pizmo Time.
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