Already one of just five horses in more than three decades to repeat as winner of the day's richest race, Dr. Stephen Sinatra's homebred Admirals War Chest will be looking to make history when he returns to defend his title in Saturday's $150,000 Maryland Million Classic at Laurel Park.
Run at 1 1/8 miles over the main track, the Classic for 3-year-olds and up serves as the highlight of the 32nd annual Jim McKay Maryland Million Day program, one of seven stakes and four starter stakes that comprise ‘Maryland's Day at the Races,' named for the late Hall of Fame broadcaster who helped launch the groundbreaking concept in 1986.
Post time for the first of 11 races is 12:15 p.m.
A win on Saturday would make Admirals War Chest the second horse to win the Classic three times but the first to do it in consecutive years. Eighttofasttocatch won in 2011, 2013 and 2014 before being retired.
Other back-to-back Classic winners are Timely Warning (1990-91), Algar (1997-98) and Docent (2002-03). Timely Warning lost his bid for three straight wins in 1992, finishing second to Reputed Testamony in a three-horse photo finish.
A gelded 6-year-old son of the late Elusive Charlie, Admirals War Chest, 10-1 in the morning line, would also join Ben's Cat (2010-12), Countus In (1989-91), Docent (2001-03), Eighttofasttocatch, Mz. Zill Bear (1993-95) and Safely Kept (1989-91) as the only three-time winners in Million history.
“We're pretty excited about trying to get that done. It's been a rocky road for him this year but we're looking to rebound and he's starting to do really good again. Hopefully he'll peak on Saturday,” trainer Corby Caiazzo said. “It's a one-shot chance to do it three years in a row.
“I just think it would be great for racing and great for Maryland,” he added. “Eighttofasttocatch is like a legend with all the races he won there. For him to be in the category of horses like him and Timely Warning and all those old crafty horses would be pretty amazing. He fights hard. He's like an old war horse.”
Admirals War Chest enters the Classic off only one start in 2017, a one-mile optional claiming allowance Oct. 8 at Laurel where he dueled for the lead for four furlongs before fading to fifth in his first race in nearly 11 months.
Though the turnaround is short, Caiazzo has been encouraged by the way Admirals War Chest has both recovered and benefitted from the effort. Steve ‘Cowboy' Hamilton, up for the first time last time out, gets a return call from Post 1.
“I was going to run him in the Jennings at the end of last year but he popped a quarter crack so I didn't put him in. I gave him the winter off to let his feet grow and heal,” Caiazzo said. “When I brought him back and had him almost ready to run, he had a little setback which kind of threw us being the eight ball. Then I couldn't get a race to go for him to prep for the Million so we ended up running last week, which wasn't by design.
“I think he got a little short, and it was Steve's first time riding him. He's not like a push-button horse to ride,” he added. “Steve and I have been friends forever and after the race we just kind of talked about things to do with him, so I think everything will improve this time. The horse is doing good right now. He likes the cool weather and he's starting to come back to good form.”
Admirals War Chest wasn't favored in either of his Classic wins, both of which came in front-running style. After edging Bullheaded Boy by a neck in 2015, he strolled to a 3 ½-length triumph over the same rival last fall. Buddy Raines (1989-91), Tim Ritchey (2001-03) and Tim Keefe (2011,13,14) are the only previous trainers to win three Classics.
“It would be really nice to be in the same training group as them but I'm just blessed to have the horse to bring me there. Without the horse, you can do your job but the horse helps you do it better,” Caiazzo said. “He tells you when he's doing good and when he's no doing real good. He lets you know how he's feeling. He's starting to show signs that he's starting to get back into form.”
Admirals War Chest figures to have company on the front end by Matt Schera's 2-1 favorite John Jones, a multiple stakes winner on dirt and turf in 2016 that has also made just one start this year for trainer Lacey Gaudet, running fourth in a six-furlong optional claiming allowance on the Belmont Park turf Oct. 5.
It was the first time the 5-year-old Smarty Jones gelding finished worse than third in seven starts since being claimed for $25,000 last summer including wins in the Mister Diz, Claiming Crown Jewel Preview and Jennings.
“I thought it was good. Initially I was a little disappointed to see him get beat. I feel like you try so hard and to be fourth … you can't have a good fourth. But, he ran well,” Gaudet said. “The break was bad. He lost his footing coming out of the gate and that cost him about two or three strides and that's basically all he got beat.
“What we wanted to see was for him to try. At least he didn't trail the whole time and he put in his game effort,” she added. “At the quarter pole I thought he was home free. When [jockey] Irad [Ortiz Jr.] tipped him out, I really thought he was going to make a big move. He's just not a three-quarter horse. He was totally out of his element.”
All eight of John Jones' wins from 21 career starts have come in 15 tries at Laurel. Jevian Toledo will ride from Post 2.
“Running back the way he did the other day, we know he's going to try. He's that kind of horse. He's very happy to be back to work,” Gaudet said. “He came off of that race well and he had a nice little tune-up yesterday and came out of that really well, so all systems are go for it. Concerns are it's a little quick back from his race in New York and it's a little longer than we want to go, but it is kind of the scenario that we had hoped would work out. As long as he's as good as he is today on Saturday, we'll go for it.”
Gladys Martinez's Clubman will take a three-race win streak into the Classic, which marks the stakes debut for the 3-year-old Not For Love gelding. All three wins have come since back-to-back failed turf attempts after being claimed for $25,000 by trainer Jonathan Maldonado.
Clubman won a starter optional claimer going about 1 1/16 miles July 29 by 3 ¾ lengths and came back to take a seven-furlong, restricted entry-level allowance by 2 ¾ lengths Aug. 19, both at Laurel. Most recently, he was a neck winner of a one-mile, 70-yard starter at Parx Sept. 5 – all with Sheldon Russell up.
Russell will ride again from Post 9 at low weight of 114 pounds.
“This horse has been really, really, really amazing for me,” Maldonado said. “When I first got him he was still playing around and now he's focused. I'm very happy with how he's doing right now. I think when he turns 4 he's going to be an even better horse.”
Gerard L. Artz's homebred Jerandson will also be seeking his first stakes win in the Classic. Trained by New York-based Todd Pletcher, the 3-year-old Orientate gelding has run third in each of his last two starts including the Charles Hesse III Handicap Aug. 27 at Monmouth Park.
Jerandson was seventh in last year's Maryland Million Nursery. He and stablemate Bonus Points, winner of the May 6 Parx Derby and second in the July 15 Caveat over Laurel's world-class turf course, are both cross-entered in the Classic and the $125,000 Maryland Million Turf.
“[Jerandson] seems like he's steadily improving. I think his last few races have been solid. He's been training very well so we're hoping he can continue on an uptick and improve a little bit again,” Pletcher said. “[Bonus Points] has been a pretty solid earner and he seems to show up and give a good effort every time. I think he might be a little bit better on the dirt but he seems to handle the grass fine as well. We'd be happy to run in either one if we were fortunate enough to get into one.”
Also entered in the Classic are 2016 Maryland Million Sprint winner Nicaradalic Rocks; multiple stakes winner Flash McCaul; Ghost Bay, second by a neck to Just Howard in the Find Stakes on turf Aug. 19 at Laurel; Ballivor, Legend's Hope, Takethattothebank and Southside Warrior.
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