Sound and healthy, Page McKenney ready for Small Stakes
by Frank Vespe
Three races back, in the $200,000 West Virginia Governor’s Stakes at Mountaineer Park, Page McKenney finished fourth, beaten just over three lengths by the winner, Fear the Cowboy.
It wasn’t a bad effort by any means, but it was the remarkable gelding’s first out-of-the-money finish since his first start in 2014 — a span of 29 outings. It also may be the turning point in his season.
Trainer Mary Eppler sent Page McKenney to Brenda Godfrey’s Nor Mar Farm in Freeland, MD, following that race for salt water treatments on his bruised heels. Since then, the son of Eavesdropper is two-for-two, last out overpowering the favored Matt King Coal to win the $150,000 Pennsylvania Derby Champion Stakes by a half-length and return bettors $15.20 for a $2 bet.
Saturday, he’ll see some of the same horses in Laurel Park’s $100,000 Richard W. Small Stakes, a 1 1/8 mile test for three-year-olds and up. Regular pilot Horacio Karamanos will ride.
“He is amazing,” called Parx Racing track announcer Keith Jones at the end of that last out victory. It was Page McKenney’s 20th career win and pushed his earnings past the $1.7 million mark.
All in all, not bad for a horse Eppler claimed for $16,000 back in 2013. That claim was for owner Adam Staple, who subsequently allowed Page McKenney’s breeders, Dr. Jim Bryant and Linda Davis, who race as Jalin Stable, to buy a minority share in the horse.
Page McKenney missed most of 2016 with tendon issues that flared up following his runner-up effort in the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic in April of that year. Page McKenney returned in January 2017 with a win in the Native Dancer Stakes at Laurel Park but was second next out in the John B. Campbell. That’s when the trouble began.
“If you remember, the racetracks were terrible then,” Eppler said, recalling the freeze-thaw cycle that provided plenty of challenges for mid-Atlantic horsemen and track superintendents alike. “That second race back (the Campbell) was really the race that did it. We just couldn’t get him right after that.”
But now, following a trip to Godfrey’s spa, Eppler says her charge is “doing great.”
And the results back that up.
Last out, against the speedy Matt King Coal and the late-running Just Call Kenny, Page McKenney showcased both his tactical abilities and his fortitude. Early in the race, he pressed to within a half-length of Matt King Coal, dogging that talented runner all the way around the track.
“(Karamanos) wasn’t going to let Matt King Coal get away with going to the front and prevailing,” Eppler explained.
In the lane, he gradually wore that one down. But as soon as he did, Just Call Kenny, a Grade 3 winner in his own right, came to confront him. No matter.
“When Just Call Kenny came to him, he wasn’t going to let him by,” Eppler said. “He kept him at a half-length.”
Page McKenney now has won races stalking the pace, running in mid-pack, and closing from the rear. He won a Grade 3 — the General George — at seven furlongs, yet at the Small’s 1 1/8 mile distance, he’s never been worse than third in 10 tries.
In the Small, Page McKenney will have to confront some rough customers. Two of the three horses to beat him this year — Campbell winner Bodhisattva and West Virginia Governor’s winner Fear the Cowboy — are signed on. The former hasn’t raced since finishing a distant fourth in the Grade 3 Greenwood Cup at Parx in early September; the latter was fourth in the Grade 3 Lukas Classic at Churchill last out.
Just Call Kenny — from the suddenly hot-at-Laurel Pat McBurney barn — will try it here as well. He was fourth in a Parx allowance last out.
There are also three New York shippers in the field. The most accomplished of those is Watershed. The Kiaran McLaughlin trainee is a Grade 3 winner and creeping up on $500,000 in earnings. Last out he was fourth in the Grade 2 Suburban behind some seriously fast runners in Keen Ice and Shaman Ghost.
Trainer Larry Jones has a couple in here, including No Distortion, who won the Carl Hanford Memorial Stakes at Delaware Park last out — but that was back in July. He also will send out the improving All Out of Aces, who’s won three straight, all by open lengths.
And then there’s the speedy Afleet Willy, trained at Laurel by Claudio Gonzalez. He set a Delaware Park track record for a mile 70 yards last out in the Governor’s Day.
All in all, it’s no easy spot. But Eppler is happy with the hand she’s playing here: a talented, sound, and happy horse running on a track at which he owns six wins.
“He’s doing real good,” she said. “He is what he is: he runs and tries hard.”