Page McKenney, the local favorite for Friday's $300,000 Sagamore Spirit Pimlico Special (G3), ranks as one of the great claims ever. Haltered for $16,000 almost three years ago, the gelding now has made $1.4 million while winning 15 races and nine stakes for owners Adam Staple of Las Vegas and Jalin Stable.
Page McKenney is only 6, but Staple hopes the gelding runs as long as the 10-year-old Mid-Atlantic turf-sprint legend Ben's Cat, who competes in Friday's $100,000 Jim McKay Turf Sprint.
“People talk about the greatest claims ever,” Staple said, adding of $5.26 million-earner Lava Man, “certainly Lava Man is probably the best, but he was pretty expensive still, at $50,000 for a claim. You start getting into the $16,000 category, maybe we're right up there. We joke about if we could get a great race named after us, how he'd be remembered. That would be the special thing out of it, because nobody is kidding themselves here. This is a once-in-a-lifetime type thing. We're just trying to enjoy it as long as we can and do right by the horse. If he tells us one day it's time to stop, we're all going to be so immensely appreciative for everything that's happened.”
After starting his career 0 for 12, Page McKenney finally won a $16,000 maiden-claiming race on turf at Virginia's Colonial Downs. A month later, Staple and his Maryland trainer, Mary Eppler, took him off breeders James Bryant and Linda Davis out of a non-winners of two $16,000 claiming race.
“Mary had seen this horse train,” said Staple, who later sold part-interest in Page McKenney back to Bryant and Davis' Jalin Stable. “She thought with a 3-year-old, maybe there's some things we can tweak that might suit him. I've had a little background in pedigree analysis, that's what I used to do before I moved out to Las Vegas. I worked at Signature Stallions in Florida, doing pedigrees. It turned out there was a little quality in the family, and we thought there was some room to upgrade. Believe me, we weren't looking at a stakes horse. We were just thinking, 'Pennsylvania-bred. If we could get to the allowance level at Penn or Parx, we thought there'd be some great opportunities there. That's all we sought out of this.
“He never stopped going forward. It was just crazy for us,” he added. “He was not the one anybody ever expected to be the special horse. He is average looking, average size. But that's where you talk about the heart. You just never know.”
Page McKenney, a son of the Kingmambo stallion Eavesdropper, won Laurel's Feb. 15 General George (G3) for his first graded triumph. In his last start, Page McKenney was second in the $1.25 million Charles Town Classic (G2) won by Pimlico Special entrant Stanford.
Dating back more than two years, he's never been worse than third in 24 starts. Page McKenney was third in last year's Charles Town Classic, then was second in the Pimlico Special. Having moved up a notch at Charles Town, Staple hopes his horse can move up another step in this Pimlico Special.
“I'm not thrilled to see Stanford in there, but to see Noble Bird (eighth in the Alysheba (G2) May 6) back in that quickly, you know they're not in there just to mess around,” Staple said. “I see it as a lot more challenge for Stanford this time around. At Charles Town, he had everything his way, and we really were the only ones who pushed him at all. I feel this time, if he has a little bit more of a threat on the front end, it kind of sets up well for us.
“You can't tire this horse out. Everyone is texting me back there, saying he's just bouncing off the walls, happy as can be. He knows when he does well and is really proud of himself.”
Staple reflected on what it would mean to win a race like the Pimlico Special, whose history includes the 1938 match race won by Seabiscuit over 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral.
“I'm a New Yorker, originally, I really have no great ties to the Mid-Atlantic area, but the true horsemen come from that area. The pure, real, hard-core trainers, there aren't many places around the country to meet people like that,” he said. “That's what makes Mary so special, she's been there since the 1970s. That race was bigger years ago, when Cigar won it and all that, but the locals that went in there never had a chance. They were coming from all over the country to run in that race, and still do to some extent. But what that would mean for a local horse, a local trainer, that's the honor for me, what that would mean for everybody.”
Staple left the Florida stallion business to move to Las Vegas, ultimately becoming a poker dealer. Thanks in part to Page McKenney, he left the card-dealing business to manage his racing stable full-time. But he's doubling-down in the Pimlico Special, also running another former claim in Golden Glint, a Laurel allowance winner in his last start.
“Third place is still better than winning an allowance race at Delaware or Parx,” he said. “It's better than running better for second money at Monmouth in a $75,000 race.”
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