by Ted Black

Roadhog taking the 2013 Maryland Million Turf. Photo by Laurie Asseo.

Roadhog taking the 2013 Maryland Million Turf. Photo by Laurie Asseo.

Last Saturday afternoon when Laurel Park hosted a quartet of six-figure stakes, a handful of trainers indicated that they were targeting Maryland Million day on October 18.

Two horses that already boast success on Maryland Million Day and are expected to be major players on the card next month competed in the same race on Saturday — though they will not see each other at the Million.

Roadhog, the two-time defending champion of the Maryland Million Turf, settled for fifth in the $100,000 Japan Racing Association Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the grass on Saturday. But the effort hardly dismayed Merryman or enticed her to change plans for the seven-year-old Bowman’s Band gelding moving forward. In fact, Roadhog’s future plans look a lot like his 2013 campaign.

“He really never got a chance to run his race on Saturday,” Merryman said. “He was boxed in down the backside and in traffic on the turn, and he didn’t really get to run the way he normally does. Horacio [Karamanos, the jockey] was really upset. He was hoping the race would go much smoother. But he came back fine. He was hardly blowing. We’ll go in the Alphabet Soup, a race he won last year, and then come back here for the Turf.”

racingreturnstolrlRoadhog, whose only win in five tries this year came against state-bred allowance company at Presque Isle Downs in June, followed his Alphabet Soup win a year ago with a neck victory over now three-time defending Maryland-bred horse of the year, Ben’s Cat, in the Maryland Million Turf.

While Roadhog settled for fifth after encountering some traffic trouble on the far turn, Eighttofasttocatch faded to last in the Japan Racing Association Stakes on Saturday after leading the way through the first three-quarters of the 8 1/2-furlong affair. But the race marked the seasonal debut for the Tim Keefe trainee and the grass has never been his preferred surface. He will now point for the Maryland Million Classic on the main track, a race he won last year and in 2011.

“It was disappointing,” Keefe said of Eighttofasttocatch’s performance in the stakes on Saturday. “He had been off for a while and he threw a shoe at some point in the race, but he just did not run his best race. I thought he came into it really well. But it was his first start of the year and he’s never been as good on grass as he has on dirt. He came out of it okay and now I’ll train him up to the Classic and hope to get three works in him between now and then,”

Eighttofasttocatch, an eight-year-old Not For Love gelding out of the stakes-placed Nice Catch mare Too Fast To Catch, brought a three-race win streak into the Japan Racing Association Stakes on Saturday, but all three of those wins occurred on the main track last fall and two of them were against restricted company. Eighttofasttocatch has won 15 of 47 career starts and earned nearly $915,000 along the way, but 13 of those victories have been on the dirt.

“I thought he had trained well leading up the race,” Keefe said. “But every once in a while he’ll throw in a dud. He did that last year when we went to Mountaineer Park and he finished fifth. But that can be a funny track. He finished seventh the year before in the Native Dancer, which was also a head scratcher. My personal goal for him is to see him reach $1 million in career earnings, and then he’ll probably be retired.”

While Eighttofasttocatch has been Keefe’s top trainee throughout the current decade, one of the newest members of his barn. Mystic Love, also failed to fire in the $125,000 All Brandy Stakes earlier on the card. But Keefe also insists that the four-year-old Not For Love filly will make her next start on Maryland Million Day. She finished seventh in the Maryland Million Ladies last fall for her previous connections, including trainer Jessica Campitelli.

“Really, the main reason they [Green Mount Farm] bought her was to be used as a broodmare,” Keefe said. “I thought she had trained well leading up to the All Brandy, but it was her first start back in over six months and the distance was probably a little far for her first time back.”

In one of the maiden special weight races on Saturday’s card, a pair of two-year-old fillies who appear headed for another encounter in the Maryland Million Lassie, ran one-two in a one-turn dash on the lawn.

Miss Bullistic, a daughter of Bullsbay bred by Graham Motion but trained by Hamilton Smith, led throughout to capture the 5 1/2-furlong event on the grass in 1:03.37 for her first win in three tries. Miss Bullistic had been fourth and fifth, respectively, in two starts on the Delaware Park main track earlier this summer for owner Kathleen Willier before returning home to garner her diploma on the Laurel lawn on Saturday.

“Her next race is going to be the Maryland Million,” Smith said of the filly, who is out of the stakes-winning Unbridled Jet mare Miss Lombardi. “She’s had three good races under her belt now, so there’s nothing she needs in between. She’s got plenty of speed, so we’ll hope she trains up to the race okay and carries her form back to the dirt.”

Eighttofasttocatch wins the 2013 Maryland Million Classic. Photo by Laurie Asseo.

Eighttofasttocatch wins the 2013 Maryland Million Classic. Photo by Laurie Asseo.

Trainer Gary Capuano, who saddled two winners on the opening day card last Friday, watched his juvenile filly, Grecian Star rally from off the pace to finish second behind Miss Bullistic. The two-year-old daughter of Greek Sun, out of the graded stakes winning Two Punch mare Willa on the Move, made her career debut Saturday. Bred and owned by Marathon Farms, she spotted Miss Bullistic the experience edge and tactical advantage, but Grecian Star closed willingly in the lane to secure the place spot and should improve off that effort.

“Her brother, Regal Warrior, was always good on the turf, so I thought we would try her on the grass first time out,” Capuano said. “She’s got plenty of ability. She was just going to need a race or two before we consider the Maryland Million. I’ll probably look to run her back one more time in three weeks and see how she comes out of that race. If she keeps improving and it looks like we have a chance, then we’ll go in the Million.”

Ted Black, a Maryland native, has covered racing — flat and harness, in West Virginia and in Maryland — for more than two decades. He is president of the Maryland Racing Media Association.