Maryland Million: Layoffs no problem for Turf, Classic favorites
by Frank Vespe
Talk Show Man missed the entire 2016 season before returning to action in April 2017, with a twelfth-place finish in the Henry S. Clark Stakes at Laurel Park.
John Jones missed all of his 2017 campaign until finally running two weeks back, on October 5 in an allowance at Belmont Park.
Now, though, those two runners are the favorites to take the two richest events on Saturday’s Maryland Million card. Talk Show Man is 2-1 on the morning line for the $125,000 Maryland Million Turf at one mile over the green stuff and scheduled for race eight. The $150,000 Classic, at 1 1/8 miles on the main track, is two races after that, and John Jones is similarly the 2-1 morning line pick in that event.
For Talk Show Man, a win here would be a reprise of his 2014 Turf triumph, when he ran down Ben’s Cat and Roadhog late to get the money. In 2015, Hamilton Smith, who trains him for owner-breeder Dr. Michael Harrison, a veterinarian, tried him in the Classic, in which he ran fourth behind Admirals War Chest.
And then came the lost year.
“He didn’t really have any problems when we originally quit with him,” Smith said. “He had tailed off a little bit and got sour, lost a little weight from competition, and he just got dull.”
That led to r’ and r’ on the farm, but when Smith brought the Great Notion gelding back, something was amiss. “I trained him like two days, and he couldn’t hardly go,” Smith said. “So we sent him back to the farm.”
This time, turned out “to let him be a horse and everything will work out for itself,” Talk Show Man came back reinvigorated.
Though he has just a single win from six starts this season, Talk Show Man has run some terrific races. He closed like a freight train but just missed in the six-furlong — too short for him — Mister Diz. Then he was up late to prevail in a $60,000 allowance test over the talented Marengo Road in July at Laurel.
But two lackluster efforts followed: a fifth-place finish in the $75,000 Find at Laurel over a boggy turf course he may not have liked and, last out, an eighth-place finish in the 12-furlong Laurel Turf Cup.
But Smith thinks that, dialed back to the one-mile distance at which he owns four wins and with just a bit more time off between races than he’d been getting of late, Talk Show Man is sitting on go.
“He’s freshened up a little bit since the last race,” Smith said. “He’s been bucking and playing on the racetrack the last few days. I look for him to run good.”
Daniel Centeno, a talented turf rider, has the mount.
Talk Show Man is one of nine Maryland-sired runners in the Turf. If there are six or more Maryland-sired runners, non-Maryland-sired Maryland-breds are excluded, which means that horses like Just Howard (8-5) on the morning line but by Kentucky sire English Channel, are left on the outside looking in.
Fortunately for trainer Lacey Gaudet and owner Matthew Schera, the Classic, which goes as race 10, was light on Maryland-sired runners. That allowed John Jones, a gelding by Smarty Jones, to draw in.
John Jones was one of the feel-good stories of 2016, a $25,000 claim who reeled off five wins and a third in six starts, including the first two stakes wins of his career, the first of which was also Gaudet’s first as a trainer. But after an easy win in the New Year’s Eve Jennings at Laurel Park, John Jones went silent as 2017 ticked away. A minor injury sidelined him for a time, but whispers that he was about to race came and went with no starts.
No problem, said Gaudet.
“Matt (Schera) and his racing manager Benny Heeney absolutely did the right thing by giving him all the time he wanted,” she said. “He’s fabulous. He tells you when he’s ready to go. They kind of gave him a little extra timeon everything, and why not? He had nothing to prove to us. There was really no reason to rush. They brought him back in superior condition.”
He finally reemerged in the starting gate October 5 against a salty allowance crew sprinting on the turf at Belmont Park. Among his rivals that day: the millionaire and multiple graded stakes winner Undrafted, who finished second. John Jones, last and 14 lengths off the lead after a quarter-mile, rallied to be beaten by less than four lengths.
Jockey Luis Garcia rode John Jones throughout his streak last year but is now riding in Saudi Arabia, Gaudet said. In his place, she’ll leg up Jevian Toledo.
And , while Gaudet says she thinks a flat mile is the best distance for John Jones, she’s happy with where her charge is.
“That’s what we used the last race for: to set him up for the rest of the year,” she said. “He ran a fine race. As long as he goes into it 100 percent Saturday morning, we’ll aim to go (in the Classic).”