Jockey Nik Juarez, born and raised an hour north of Laurel Park, put an exclamation point on his three-win afternoon by guiding Three Diamonds Farm's Bonus Points to a come-from-behind 2 ¾-length victory the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic.
Run at 1 1/8 miles over the main track, the Classic for 3-year-olds and up was the centerpiece of the 32nd annual Jim McKay Maryland Million Day program comprised of seven stakes and four starter stakes held before a crowd of 22,682 on a picturesque fall afternoon.
Bonus Points ($8.40) covered the distance in 1:50.50 over a fast main track, the third-fastest Classic in history behind Sumacha'hot (1:50.26) in 2009 and Eighttofasttocatch (1:50.42) in 2013. The attendance was the largest since 23,367 watched on Oct. 2, 2010.
Southside Warrior finished second, 2 ¼ lengths ahead of Ghost Bay. It was another half-length back to Clubman in third, followed by Takethattothebank, Flash McCaul, 2-1 favorite John Jones, Legend's Hope, Ballivor and two-time defending champion Admirals War Chest, who was seeking to become the first horse to win the Classic three consecutive years. Jerandson, Bonus Points' Todd Pletcher-trained stablemate, was pulled up on the backstretch after suffering a fractured right rear ankle.
The Classic completed a happy homecoming for the 24-year-old Juarez, the son of Laurel-based jockey-turned-trainer Calixto Juarez who earlier won the $100,000 Nursery with Clever Mind and the $125,000 Turf with Spartianos.
Leading rider with 75 wins and nearly $2.2 million in purse earnings at Monmouth Park's summer meet who will be spending his second winter at Gulfstream Park's Championship Meet starting Dec. 2, Juarez now has four career Maryland Million wins. He also won the 2015 Distaff Starter Handicap on Wild for Love.
“It's special. It's really great to come back home and just to be back here for a day like this, but to win three is even better,” Juarez said. “I'm just very thankful.
“Two of my wrestling buddies, we were all wrestling partners in high school, they came out,” he added. “My best friend since we were 6 years old, he came out, so it was very, very nice. It was nice to have them out here and of course my dad, as well.”
Bonus Points, bred in Maryland by Country Life Farms and trained by New York-based Todd Pletcher, had won just one of eight previous starts this year, five of them coming in graded stakes company, the lone victory coming in the May 6 Parx Derby.
Juarez had Bonus Points racing near the back of the 11-horse field, ahead of only two rivals as Admirals War Chest went the first quarter-mile in 23.53 seconds and was still in front after a half in 47.83 before giving way. Multiple stakes winner John Jones, like Admirals War Chest making just his second start of the year, moved up along the inside to take the lead, going six furlongs in 1:12.74.
Bonus Points was still ninth at that point when Juarez angled to the outside leaving the backstretch, gaining momentum around the far turn and swinging six wide once straightened for home to put in a steady drive and collar Southside Warrior approaching the sixteenth pole and pull away under a hand ride.
“I just sat behind the speed, knowing they were going pretty quick up front for us and just had plenty of horse coming for home. I had much the best underneath me today,” Juarez said. “When you ride for Todd you're always going to be confident. He's a great horseman.
“I spoke to him this morning and he was very confident in however the race played out. He thought that we had something special today,” he added. “He just said he's versatile. He can come from off of it or go to the lead. Either way, just ride how it comes up.”
In his previous trip to Laurel, Bonus Points was second by a head to subsequent Commonwealth Derby (G3) winner Just Howard in the Caveat Stakes on grass July 15. Bonus Points is a 3-year-old bay son of Majestic Warrior out of the Not For Love mare Baby Love.
“It's wonderful,” Country Life's Mike Pons said. “My young stallion Freedom Child had his first stakes winner with Limited View [in the Lassie] and Malibu Moon, who we had, got a winner today [Blu Moon Ace in the Sprint] so this was our hat trick today. Good things come in threes.
“It's kind of the renaissance of Maryland breeding coming back,” he added. “I bought this mare at Saratoga in the fall. This could be the Maryland-bred horse of the year. He's the leading money winner of the Maryland-breds so it's kind of fun. To see this day, I was besieged by tickets, almost like a Preakness feel for the first Maryland Million I can remember. It's fun to see.”
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