Two minutes to post in the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash Stakes-G3 on Preakness Day at Pimlico and Damon Dilodovico is busy, really busy. A military honor guard is coming through the paddock with the Woodlawn Vase – one of the most valuable trophies in sports with an estimated replacement value of $4 million – and Dilodovico is at least partly responsible for the timing of the live television show going out to millions. He gets instructions through an earpiece, relays updates through a microphone. The honor guard, and the 30-pound trophy are early. Dilodovico tells them to wait, organizes a table (a grateful soldier shakes out his arms) and lets his bosses know it’s all under control.
Behind him, the De Francis horses jog past on their way to the gate. If Dilodovico notices, he doesn’t show it. The television guy, who works for Maryland Jockey Club contractor International Sound, also trains De Francis starter Laki – a multiple stakes-winning Maryland-bred seeking the big time in the $200,000 sprint.
Happy with the trophy, the schedule, the timing, Dilodovico finally heads to the rail to watch. As instructed, Horacio Karamanos hustles Laki away from post four in the six-horse field and finds a spot just behind Krsto Skye, heavy favorite Landeskog and Admiral Lynch. In tight leaving the backside after a first quarter in :22.96, Karamanos checks a little and gets Laki outside after a half in :45.03.
Krsto Skye leads to the stretch, but gives way, Landeskog fades, Nitrous runs on for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Laki just keeps chugging, and wins a tight – really tight – photo by a nose over fellow Mary-land-bred (and Laurel Park-based) runner Eastern Bay with Nitrous another nose back in third. Dilodovico hugs his son and assistant Nicholas, wife Christine and daughter-in-law Sarah and then tries to get back to his other job before his boss Joe Gordon says it can wait. It’s the trainer’s first graded stakes win, and everybody wants him to take part in the trophy presentation and post-race interview.
So he does, smiling faintly, talking for his horse, looking overwhelmed by it all – and fretting that television timeline. Eventually, the soldiers deliver the Woodlawn Vase across the track to the infield and Dilodovico exhales.
And talks about his horse – a 7-year-old son of Cuba who won for the 10th time in 28 starts while pushing his career earnings to $683,662. The chestnut finished second in the 2018 De Francis, third in the 2019 General George Stakes -G3 and lost two other graded tries (both at Pimlico). Laki opened 2020 with a stakes win at Monmouth Park, then finished second in his next three starts, the last the Polynesian Stakes at Laurel to Eastern Bay. Dilodovico didn’t give the De Francis, which moved to Pimlico and the Preakness card this year, much thought and figured he’d wait for Laurel. Laki is Maryland-bred, but not Maryland Million-eligible, which costs him an opportunity other local sprinters typically have.
“I knew I was not running at Pimlico because he’s had such bad luck here, but he just came out of the race so well we said we had to try it,” Dilodovico said. “The races in New York are taking some of the salt away so maybe it was a little bit easier than some years, but man he ran well. I always thought he would like this track and he was 0-for-2 with poor performances which he normally doesn’t give. I just thought we’d give it one more try. It’s a big race. It’s in our state.”
And everybody was rooting for him. As Laki rallied in the stretch, pretty much of all of Pimlico – limited to a few hundred people instead of a hundred-thousand-plus due to the coronavirus pandemic – leaned for the wire and shouted. Dilodovico heard it, felt it.
“Honestly, all the people around me I think were rooting for Laki because it was so loud, that was awesome,” he said. “It felt like a full house on Preakness Day. I really appreciate all that support, it made it even more special.”
Owned by Connecticut horseman Buck Kalinowski’s Hillside Equestrian Meadows, Laki made his debut for Dilodovico in November 2016 – and finished last at 41-1. He won his next four and has been a force ever since, capturing the Not For Love, Polynesian, Howard and Sondra Bender Memorial, Frank Whiteley and Oceanport Centennial stakes. Every start has come in the region, all but six in Maryland.
“He’s incredible,” Dilodovico said. “We send him home every year for a break and don’t have to worry about how he’s going to come back. Buck knows horses through and through and does a great job. Laki came back this year the same as usual.”
Dilodovico talked strategy with Kara-manos beforehand and stressed the importance of establishing a position early.
“Be in front of all the [stuff],” he told the jockey. Karamanos did that, and even though he got pinched back a bit at the start of the turn was in a spot where it didn’t cost him.
“Horacio got him to a good part of the track,” Dilodovico said. “They went pretty quick the first quarter and when he got in the stretch I thought ‘Oh my God, he might get there.’ That was a tight photo. Live, I thought we won. When they put the replay [of the stretch run] up, I thought we got beat. I thought, ‘This might hurt.’ ”
Laki made sure it didn’t, and Gordon and company made sure Dilodovico got to enjoy it even if he was right back to television work afterward. As rewarding as training horses is, Dilodovico gets a thrill out of his other job too.
“When we were growing up, starting out training, we had three kids and no health insurance so I had to find something to do,” Dilodovico said. “I’ve been there since 1998. It’s a great company to work for and I get to do a lot of interesting stuff. Preakness is always a lot, so today was pretty special.”
Maryland-bred wins Pimlico Special
Trainer Claudio Gonzalez landed a big punch for the locals as well when Harpers First Ride pulled a mild upset in the Pimlico Special Stakes-G3 to close Friday’s card. Bred in Maryland by Sagamore Farm, the 4-year-old Paynter gelding was plucked out of a $30,000 maiden claimer at Churchill Downs last September – his third start and only win for Sagamore and trainer Gary Hartlage. With the claim, Gonzalez figured he was simply adding a useful Maryland-bred to bring back to the base at Laurel.
“He had his conditions, they have the bonuses and things in Maryland so it made sense for us,” Gonzalez said. “Then he got better and better. He proved every race that he was a better horse. Even in the morning, when he breezed, when he galloped, he showed me he was better than we thought.”
Harpers First Ride won his first two for Gonzalez last fall, finished fourth in a starter allowance at Aqueduct, and opened 2020 by winning a two-other-than allowance at Laurel in January. He added two more allowance wins in June and July and after two defeats became a stakes winner in the Deputed Testamony at Laurel Sept. 5. That win, over Cordmaker (third in the 2019 Special), convinced Gonzalez to think about this year’s renewal of the historic race.
“The last race, when we beat Cordmaker, we thought ‘Come on, we have to take a shot,’ ” Gonzalez said.
Run at the Preakness distance of 13⁄16 miles, the 2020 version drew a field of seven led by millionaire and favorite Owendale plus defending race winner Tenfold, multiple stakes winner Cordmaker, the hard-hitting Pennsylvania-bred Someday Jones and longshots Clubman and Forewarned.
Third in the 2019 Preakness, Owendale opened 2020 with a win in the Blame Stakes at Churchill and was bet down to 4-5 for Rupp Racing, trainer Brad Cox and jockey John Velazquez.
Nobody told the Marylanders to be intimidated however as Angel Cruz guided Harpers First Ride from post seven to the rail and took the race right to the favorite. The leaders put up fractions of :24.41 and :48.41 before quickening to the mile in 1:35.94. Harpers First Ride edged clear in the stretch despite switching to his left lead late and won by 2 lengths with Owendale holding second by a half-length over Cordmaker after 1:54.97 in the $250,000 race. Owned by MCA Racing Stable, Harpers First Ride won for the eighth time in 14 career starts and pocketed $150,000 to get to $422,080 lifetime. He’s the first Maryland-bred winner of the race, founded by Sagamore’s Alfred Vanderbilt in 1937, since Include in 2001.
Gonzalez laughed at the idea of thinking he was getting a graded stakes horse via a $30,000 claim.
“I was not thinking of this, and I was not thinking we could beat [Owendale],” he said. “He is a really tough horse. I thought we were going to run good, but I didn’t think we were good enough to beat him. If we were second to him, we would have run a very good race. I didn’t know he could beat that horse.”
For Gonzalez, who has led the Maryland trainers’ standings since 2017 and owns or shares 13 meet titles at Pimlico and Laurel, the win felt like one for the home team.
“Every year, the other guys win this race,” he said. “This year, I’m from here, the horse is here, like a local. That race has a big history and to win that one is very special for me.”
Johnson, Trombetta double up
Owner/breeder Larry Johnson and trainer Mike Trombetta picked up two stakes wins as A Great Time came through in the $100,000 The Very One Stakes on the turf as part of the Thursday card and Never Enough Time added the Skipat on the dirt early Saturday. Despite the names, the Maryland-breds are not related.
A Great Time needed almost every yard of the 5-furlong The Very One as she rallied from 15 lengths behind to win by a length over a yielding turf course. The daughter of Johnson/Trombetta runner Street Magician was 11th of 12 after 3 furlongs, but found her best stride late for jockey Julian Pimentel and ousted Mr. Al’s Gal and Ode to Joy with a final push to become a stakes winner in her 19th start. The 6-year-old mare is out of Short Time, who raced for Johnson in the 1990s and produced (among others) Grade 1 winner Victor’s Cry.
A Great Time finished third in the License Fee Stakes at Belmont Park in July, and was aiming for a Saratoga start until rain got in the way. Instead, she finally got to run in a Presque Isle Downs allowance Sept. 15.
“It didn’t rain for a week before or a week after but the day she was supposed to run it rained and we had to scratch,” Trom-betta said. “We brought her all the way back, tried again to get her in, no luck. I went to Presque Isle just because we had to run somewhere. That worked great because it was probably a good tightener for this. She needed every ounce today. To win a stakes with her is really cool and she’s been close a couple of times. I’m happy for her.”
Entered for the main track only in the The Very One, Never Enough Time got her chance two days later in the Skipat, setting the pace throughout, kicking away in the stretch and then hanging on late to win by three-quarters of a length over Bronx Beauty with Bye Bye J a head back in third. A 4-year-old daughter of Munnings, Never Enough Time was making her second consecutive Preakness week start as she finished fifth behind eventual female sprint champion Covfefe in the 2019 Adena Springs Miss Preakness Stakes-G3.
“That set her back a year,” Trombetta said with a laugh on his way to the winner’s circle. “She didn’t want to see Covfefe again, but what a nice filly.”
Like A Great Time, Never Enough Time goes way back with Johnson as he raced her first three dams What Time It Is, Star Kell and Special Kell. Never Enough Time won her first two starts, then ran into Covfefe and closed 2019 with a fourth in the Alma North at Laurel before missing almost a year due to knee surgery. She rehabbed at Johnson’s farm in Bluemont, Va., under the care of Jonathan Smart, before going back to Trombetta this spring.
“I try to get them almost up to breezing if not breezing,” said Smart, who started with Johnson in August 2019. “We’ve got a three-quarter mile synthetic track and can get them going.”
Smart paid credit to the filly, who handled the prep work with aplomb.
“She’s all class,” said the former champion steeplechase jockey. “She does everything right, no problems. They live out basically all the time, even in the winter. I think she was out with four or five other fillies. I don’t put back shoes on them because they’re out there together. Mike’s done a wonderful job with her. We basically just try to get miles in them so they can go on to Mike. He and Larry are a good team. They’ve won a lot of races together.”
Never Enough Time finished ninth in her return in June, and followed up with an allowance win at Monmouth in July, a second at Laurel in August and a win in the Alma North at Laurel Sept. 5.
Johnson and Trombetta picked up an important graded-stakes placing with another Maryland-bred when No Mo Lady was third in the Gallorette Stakes-G3 Saturday.
Confidence pays in Black-Eyed Susan
When the Maryland Jockey Club announced October as the date of the 2020 Preakness and its accompanying races, owner Alfonso Cammarota got on the phone with stakes coordinator Coley Blind and – to put it bluntly – made a prediction about Miss Marissa.
“He told me he was going to run his horse in the Black-Eyed Susan,” said Blind, “and he told me she was going to win.”
Trained by Jim Ryerson, Miss Marissa did just that – upsetting favorite Bonny South by a neck after pushing the pace early. The daughter of He’s Had Enough kicked away in mid-stretch for jockey Daniel Centeno, then held off the hard-charging Bonny South. A Juddmonte Farm homebred who finished second to Preakness winner Swiss Skydiver in the Alabama Stakes-G1 at Saratoga, Bonny South rallied from last and passed everyone except Miss Marissa. Hopeful Growth finished third in the race, renamed the George E. Mitchell Black-Eyed Susan in honor of the Park Heights resident and community leader who died in June.
Cammarota was overjoyed afterward, and tried to explain his confidence from the summer.
“I had a lot of faith in my horse,” he said. “I knew that she was a distance horse. We put her in a lot of races, 6-furlong races, 1-mile races, but we knew she could go long. My trainer said we have to start trying to go long.”
Ryerson did indeed stretch out the Ken-tucky-bred, who broke her maiden going a mile at Belmont Park last year and finished third in the 7-furlong Ruthless Stakes at Aqueduct in January. Fourth in Laurel’s Wide Country (also at 7 furlongs) in February, Miss Marissa got a short freshening and emerged in June with an eye on longer races. She finished fifth going 11⁄16 miles on the turf at Belmont in June, won going 1 mile and 70 yards at Monmouth in July and led throughout going 11⁄8 miles at Saratoga in August. At the same distance, the Black-Eyed Susan looked like a logical next spot.
“I thought she’d two-turn,” said Ryer-son after the win. “Last year she made me look like a fool when I tried it. Then this year she’s won three in a row.”
Cammarota (who has horses with Antonio Sano in Florida and Ryerson in New York) bought Miss Marissa for $11,000 at the Ocala Breeders Sales Co.’s October yearling sale in 2018.
“She is by He’s Had Enough, who is a Tapit and Tapits always cost a lot of money,” he said. “She was $11,000. What’s the difference? I looked at the pedigree, I looked at the horse. They looked good so I said, ‘I’ll get the horse.’ ”
NOTES: The Maryland Jockey Club again offered bonuses to trainers for supporting the Preakness and its accompanying stakes races. Mike Maker edged 2019 winner Brad Cox and two-time winner Steve Asmussen to claim the top prize in the $100,000 Sentient Jet Trainer Bonus. Maker’s 43 points, three more than Cox and Asmussen, earned a $50,000 bonus. Maker registered wins with Catman in the Laurel Futurity and Evil Lyn in the Hilltop and got stakes placings from Somelikeithotbrown, Hembree and Relentless Dancer. Cox and Asmussen tied for second with 40 points apiece, taking home $18,500 each. Cox won the Dinner Party Stakes-G2 with Factor This and Grade 3 Gallorette with Juliet Foxtrot (GB). Asmussen won the Chick Lang Stakes-G3 with Yaupon and Miss Preakness-G3 with Wicked Whisper. Graham Motion was fourth without winning a race as Invincible Gal (Selima), Wootton Asset (Laurel Futurity), Varenka (Gallorette) and Bye Bye Melvin (James W. Murphy Stakes) all finished second. Claudio Gonzalez rounded out the top five . . . Betting handle on the Preakess card was down nearly 50 percent from 2019 to $51,252,631 (on 12 races as compared to 14), following a similar decrease at the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. All three Triple Crown races were delayed from their traditional spring dates and run without spectators or on-track wagering . . . The Preakness Day card ended with the $100,000 UAE President’s Cup-G1 for Arabians and drew a field of 12. Paddys Day caught Uptown Cruisedirector in the final yards to win by a half-length for owner Jane Teutsch and trainer Nicole Ruggeri.