Never having met on the track but linked by longevity and success, 7-year-old Grade 3-winning gelding Page McKenney fittingly makes his return to Laurel Park on Ben's Cat Day in Saturday's $100,000 Richard W. Small.
The Small, for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles, and the $75,000 Geisha for Maryland-bred/sired fillies and mares 3 and older at one mile, are among six stakes worth $575,000 in purses on an 11-race program.
Along with the stakes action will be a tribute to the life and career of Ben's Cat, the late Mid-Atlantic legend who died this summer at age 11 following a career that saw him win 32 races, 26 stakes and more than $2.6 million over 63 starts from 2010-17.
Adam Staple and Jalin Stable's Page McKenney will be making his 51st lifetime start in the Small, a race he won in 2015 but missed with an injury last year. The claimer-turned-millionaire will be going for his third straight win and 14th career stakes victory, six of them coming at Laurel, where is 6-5-1 from 15 starts.
“To even be mentioned in the same category as Ben's Cat is an honor. I know we're not a Maryland bred and that's the only thing I feel like we're missing,” Staple said. “You talk about the list of the most memorable Maryland-breds and they're all hardy and durable and managed by such competent horsemen, the representation of what Maryland is all about.”
Pennsylvania-bred Page McKenney has raced 22 times in Maryland and been based at historic Pimlico Race Course since being claimed for $16,000 by trainer Mary Eppler in July 2013. He has won 18 of 37 starts with 12 seconds and three thirds since then, and had a streak of 28 straight top three finishes dating back to May 3, 2014 when fourth in the West Virginia Governor's Stakes Aug. 5.
“We're excited to be back home. I know how much he loves the Laurel track,” Staple said. “A couple horses are certainly coming in tough. It's going to be a competitive race.”
Page McKenney was a half-length winner over fellow Grade 3 winner and Small rival Just Call Kenny last out in the 1 1/16-mile Pa Derby Champion Stakes Sept. 23 at Parx, his most recent start, despite stumbling early and being bumped late.
It was his fourth win from seven starts this year with two seconds, kicked off by a victory in the Native Dancer Jan. 21 at Laurel, his first race in nine months after being sidelined following his runner-up finish in the Charles Town Classic (G2) last April. A minor foot issue kept him from running the Harrison Johnson in March at Laurel, a race he won in 2015.
“I never really, to be honest, imagined he would ever get back to that same level again. How many solid stakes horses, when they begin to get these long breaks or a minor injury, you just don't see a lot of those same things again,” Staple said. “Mary's been just amazed that as the year's progressed that physically he seems like a 5-year-old now almost in the prime of his career.
“Now we're just having to take it day by day and be careful and make sure that he's happy and healthy but he's just doing fantastic,” he added. “If he didn't have that setback early in the year I begin to wonder what he might have been able to accomplish.”
Horacio Karamanos will ride for the 20th straight time and 28th overall from Post 4 at co-highweight of 124 pounds.
Two horses that have beaten Page McKenney this year will line up in the Small. West Virginia Governor's winner Fear the Cowboy, first in the Skip Away (G3) over the winter at Gulfstream Park, drew Post 7 at 124 pounds, while Bodhisattva, 3 ¼ lengths ahead of Page McKenney in the 1 1/8-mile John B. Campbell Feb. 18 at Laurel, will carry 118 pounds from Post 2.
Also among the competition are Grade 3 winners Just Call Kenny and Watershed. Just Call Kenny has hit the board in three of four starts at Laurel, taking a third-level optional claimer April 21. He won the 1 1/8-mile Iselin (G3) Aug. 26 at Monmouth but has been winless since, running second by a half-length to Page McKenney in the Pa Derby Champions and fourth in a one-mile allowance at Parx Oct. 16.
“The track that day I guess it had been breezy and windy all day and it had taken all the moisture out of the track and John Bisono who rode him that day said he never, ever got comfortable traveling over that track, trainer Pat McBurney said. “The timing of the allowance race was perfect for keeping him on about a three-week schedule. It seems like he really comes in like that feeling pretty good.”
Godolphin Racing's Watershed has not raced since running an even fourth in the 1 ¼-mile Suburban (G2) July 8 at Belmont Park. Fifth in the Pimlico Special (G3) in May, the 5-year-old son of champion Bernardini won the April 15 Ben Ali (G3) at Keeneland in his most recent try at 1 1/8 miles, where he has two wins from four career tries. The Small will be his Laurel debut.
“It's been a while. He's had some little issues but he's been training very well and it's hard to place him,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “We didn't want to run against the very best so we thought this might be a good spot for his comeback.
“A mile and eighth, two turns is right up his alley if he's fit enough,” he added. “We've had a few little issues but he's doing great. He just worked in a minute flat here at Belmont the other day so he's pretty much there, we think.”
Trainer Larry Jones entered two horses in Brereton Jones' homebred No Distortion, unraced since winning the Carl Hanford Memorial July 15 at Delaware Park, and Dreamchaser Thorobreds' homebred All Out of Aces, a winner of three straight making his stakes debut.
Rounding out the field are multiple stakes winner Fellowship, who won his lone try at Laurel back in April; Doctor Mounty, unbeaten in two starts at Laurel for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey including a third-level optional claimer that came off the turf Oct. 8; Securitiz, winner of the 1 1/8-mile Seattle Slew Stakes Sept. 9 at Belmont; BB Horses' Afleet Willy, a five-time winner at Laurel that was second by a head in the Harrison Johnson in March and coming off a victory in the Governor's Day Stakes Sept. 30 at Delaware; and Discreet Lover, fifth behind expected Horse of the Year Gun Runner in a pair of Grade 1 starts this summer at Saratoga.
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