Tardy start no problem for Afleet Willy in Small Stakes
by Ted Black
Two of the likely logical favorites in the latest edition of the $100,000 Richard W. Small Stakes for older horses traveling nine furlongs over the Laurel Park main track, Page McKenney and Afleet Willy, both had unscheduled tardy beginnings. Afleet Willy overcame his slow start to score, while Page McKenney nearly missed the race entirely.
As the horses were being saddled in the paddock, Page McKenney was gradually making his way down the stretch to join his nine rivals. In fact, while the other horses were walking around the paddock and waiting for the “riders up” call, Page McKenney was just passing the finish line. At that point, his groom handed over the reins to an outrider who galloped him the final 100 yards to the paddock.
“I don’t know what happened other than the fact that the groom said he did not want to come out of the stall,” trainer Mary Eppler said of Page McKenney’s belated arrival in the paddock. “I wanted to scratch him, but I talked it over with the owner [Adam Staple] and he wanted to stay in the race. He’s never done that before. That certainly wasn’t the plan. He just didn’t want to come out of his stall and he didn’t run his race.”
While Page McKenney was a late arrival in the paddock and never put in a serious bid as the tepid 2.90-1 favorite in the Small, Afleet Willy broke a step (or two) slowly when the gates opened and was near the rear passing under the wire the first time and had one horse beaten — ultra-late running Bodhisattva — when the field completed its run through the clubhouse turn and made its way down the backside. Watershed and Discreet Lover raced side-by-side through rather pedestrian splits of 24.81, 49.42 and 1:13.25 with Afleet Willy still well off the pace and widest of all.
With three furlongs to run, Afleet Willy began passing horses widest of the all under mild urging from Jomar Torres, and he circled the field widest of all to take command turning for home then outlasted the late surge from Discreet Lover to prevail in 1:49.86 for the nine furlongs. His slow start befuddled Torres and trainer Claudio Gonzalez, both of whom expected the lead throughout. He had just won the $75,000 Governor’s Day Stakes at Delaware Park by six lengths in front-running fashion while establishing a new track record of 1:38.58 for the one-mile and 70-yard distance.
“When he broke, he was still on his back feet,” Torres said. “He was leaning back when the gate opened. I thought we would be on the front on the first turn. But we got away last. He raced tremendous. They were going slow fractions up front and he passed everyone. When he made the front on the far turn, I still had horse. I got after him a little because that was such a big move. But he kept digging in.”
“When I saw him break like that I thought the race was over,” Gonzalez said of Afleet Willy, who recorded his second straight score, his fourth win from seven starts this year and his 10th victory from 24 lifetime tries. “This was a really good field. There were no cheap claimers in there. He was last and he must have been seven or eight wide down the backside. I can’t believe he passed all of those horses and still had something left at the end. He trained all week. He’s such a happy horse right now.”
While Page McKenney failed to fire following his tardy arrival in the paddock — he ended up fifth — Parx invaders Discreet Lover and Just Call Kenny, finished second and third, respectively, while exiting the same race in which Discreet Lover won by nearly four lengths and Just Call Kenny was the beaten favorite in that event. Just Call Kenny and Discreet Lover had finished second and fourth, respectively, in the $150,000 Pennsylvania Derby Championship, won by Page McKenney.