Special Reserve
Special Reserve won the Grade 3 Maryland Sprint. Photo by Allison Janezic.

While the Grade 3, $150,000 Maryland Sprint Stakes for older males may not have carried the same status as the Grade I Preakness Stakes scheduled for two hours later on the Saturday card, it did offer an obvious similarity in the overall competitive nature of the group: four horses went off between 5-2 and 6-1.

Heading into the Maryland Sprint, the attention gradually shifted to Strike Power (Ricardo Santana, Jr.) who had finished fourth in the Grade III Count Fleet Stakes at Oaklawn Park in his most recent outing for trainer Steve Asmussen. Strike Power had just once in three starts this year prior to the Maryland Sprint, but the Asmussen-Santana combination had already won the Grade III, $200,000 Chick Lang Stakes for three-year-olds earlier on the card with Mighty Mischief.

Onlookers viewed Special Reserve (Irad Ortiz, Jr.) as having the best chance to topple the lukewarm favorite while being made the solid 7-2 second choice from post eight for trainer Michael Maker, who had won both the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan with Army Wife and the Grade 3 PImlico Special with Last Judgment the day before. Claimed for $40,000 in early February at Oaklawn Park, Special Reserve came right back to capture an allowance event at Oaklawn in 1:09.39 then finished a sharp second behind favored Flagstaff in the Grade 3 Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland in his most recent outing last month.    

The Maryland Sprint included a quartet of runners trained by Maryland conditioners, with Laki being given the best chance of upending the invaders as the 5-1 fourth choice. An eight-year-old Cuba gelding trained by Damon Dilodovico for the Hillside Equestrian Meadows, Laki had won his last two sprint stakes over the strip, including the $100,000 Frank Whitely in April and the G3 Frank DeFrancis Memorial Dash on the Preakness undercard last fall.

Each of the other three local trainees, Yodel E.A. Who (Sheldon Russell), Threes Over Deuces (Victor Rosales) and Lebda (J.D. Acosta), went postward at odds of 10-1 or higher. Threes Over Deuces had been second in the 2020 edition of the Grade 3 General George at Laurel Park for trainer Gary Capuano, Lebda had been second to Laki in the Frank Whiteley last out for trainer Claudio Gonzalez, and Yodel E.A. Who was making his local debut for trainer Brittany Russell.       

When the gates opened in the latest renewal of the Maryland Sprint Stakes, favored Strike Power gained command soon after the break. Special Reserve made his presence known immediately, as did longshot War Tocsin, while Laki looked to remain in striking position along the rail.

Strike Power and Special Reserve were on even terms down the backside and by the opening quarter and through the far turn and past the half in 45.38, but they would not remain inseparable for much longer.

At the top of the lane, Special Reserve surged to command and then began to edge away from Strike Power, who shifted toward the middle of the track after being passed by the new leader but would eventually settle for the place spot. Special Reserve notched his third win in four starts this year and his second score in three outings for Maker since being claimed for $40,000 off trainer Randy Morse three months earlier at Oaklawn Park. A Midshipman gelding out of a Hard Spun mare, Special Reserve now owns a 6-1-7 slate and nearly $360,000 banked from 19 lifetime tries.

“I might get some stalls [in Maryland],” Maker joked after winning his third graded stake in two days. “He was in at Oaklawn [for a $40,000 claiming tag on Feb. 6]. We’ve got to have this horse, and we claimed him. He had a bit of a bleeding issue that we addressed and got taken care of, and the rest is history. We originally liked him because he was still eligible for two-other-than [allowances]. You never know in this game.”

“The horse broke great and put me in the race very quick out of there,” said winning rider Irad Ortiz, Jr. “I had a horse inside with speed. I just relaxed and tried not to fight with him too much. He came back to me, so I left him there and when I asked him, he took straight off for me to win.”

“He ran hard and gave me everything he had,” Santana said of runner-up Strike Power. “We had a good trip – just second best today.”

Longshot Frosted Grace rallied along the rail late to edge Mucho for third for trainer Kathy Ritvo and jockey Javier Castellano, while Laki settled for fifth. Running time for the six furlongs over a fast main track was 1:08.91.

Special Reserve paid $9.80 to win, and the exacta returned $19.00 for a buck with the favorite underneath.

“He ran a good race,” Ritvo said of Mucho. “We’re happy with him.”

“He went really well,” Castellano said. “I expected him to be a little bit closer to the pace, but the horse missed the break. There was nothing I could do. I liked the way he did it; come from behind, saved all the ground, cut the corner. He did really well today.”