Dismissing his age, inactivity and a group of seven eager rivals including fellow graded stakes winner Kid Cruz, popular gelding Page McKenney made a triumphant return to the races Saturday in the $75,000 Native Dancer at Laurel Park.
The 49th running of the Native Dancer for 4-year-olds and up anchored a nine-race program with four stakes worth $300,000 in purses including the $75,000 Whiteley for 3-year-olds and $75,000 Marshua for 3-year-old fillies, and the $75,000 Nellie Morse for fillies and mares 4 and older.
Making his 7-year-old debut off a nine-month layoff due to minor hip and tendon issues, Page McKenney ($4.80) became the third horse to win the Native Dancer in back-to-back years joining Christopher R. (1975-76) and Little Bold John (1986-87).
Trained by Mary Eppler since being haltered for $16,000 in July 2013, it was also the 10th career stakes victory for claimer-turned-millionaire Page McKenney and 25th consecutive top three finish dating back to May 2014.
“He's back,” Eppler said. “It's great. I think this race really helped tighten him up a little bit. I thought he was coming in a little bit soft and a little bit heavy. They did try him.”
Breaking from Post 4, Page McKenney raced in third under regular rider Horacio Karamanos as 80-1 long shot Warrioroftheroses, third-place finisher in the 2016 Pimlico Special (G3), and Parx shipper Red Dragon Tattoo, undefeated through three career starts, engaged in a speed duel through fractions of 24.32 seconds for a quarter-mile and 48.88 for the half.
Page McKenney moved up alongside Red Dragon Tattoo as the pair closed in on Warrioroftheroses leaving the backstretch, with only Page McKenney going on. Confidently handled by Karamanos and in the clear three wide, he forged a short lead rounding the far turn as Cosmic Destiny loomed a threat on his outside.
With a few left-handed taps from Karamanos, Page McKenney began to edge away down the middle of the track and leave Cosmic Destiny behind, hitting the wire 1 ¾ lengths in front after running about 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.01 over a fast main track.
Bodhisattva, the 2015 Federico Tesio winner that ran eighth in that year's Preakness (G1), came flying from last to catch Cosmic Destiny for second by a nose. It was another length back to Jeezum Jim in fourth, followed by Red Dragon Tattoo, Charitable Annuity, Kid Cruz and Warrioroftheroses. Kid Cruz, unbeaten in two previous starts at Laurel, was making his first starts since last August.
“I'm tired from holding my horse. It was a really, really nice race. He came back so good. He was off a long time but he was good today,” Karamanos said. “He broke out of the gate and [Bodhisattva] was squishing me a little bit and bumped me a little bit, so my horse was a little bit rank. I tried to relax him and he didn't want to relax much today. He wanted to go and I didn't want to fight him. At the top of the stretch he had the lead and when horses came to him he came back again.”
Page McKenney made only three starts in 2016, winning the Native Dancer and General George (G3) and finishing second in the Charles Town Classic (G2). He emerged from that race with what was later diagnosed as a minor hip ailment that flared up into a swollen tendon in his leg that forced him to be scratched the morning of the Pimlico Special, where he was the program favorite.
Co-owned by Adam Staple and Jalin Stable, Page McKenney underwent ultrasound shock therapy on his leg and spent two months using an AquaTred at Nor Mar Farm in northern Maryland before returning to Eppler's barn in late October. He turned in seven breezes since November at historic Pimlico Race Course for his return.
“That was even better than we could have hoped for,” Staple said. “I knew the race had set up well for him with the speed getting challenged early, but I couldn't get past how [I thought] he probably needed the race. I just hope he comes back feeling good. This was a major hurdle to clear and now we can finally start looking ahead.”
Eppler said either the $75,000 John B. Campbell at one mile or the $250,000 General George at seven furlongs, both for 4-year-olds and up on Feb. 18 at Laurel, would be Page McKenney's likely next start.
Karamanos notched four wins on the day, finishing first with Chief Tarhe ($8.20) in the first race, Tiz He the One ($10.20) in the third, Page McKenney in the seventh and Karaoke Queen ($13.40) in the eighth.
“I really loved Page McKenney today. He's my favorite horse,” Karamanos said. “I thought I had a good chance to win today. I didn't have a lot of favored horses but they looked good. I thought today could be my day, and it was my day.”
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