The unraced Imagining 2-year-old in the barn trained so well last fall that trainer Butch Reid called Grace Merryman at Anchor and Hope Farm. “Have I got good news for you,” Reid said. “This horse can run. Don’t give up on that stallion.”
Merryman and her husband Louis welcomed the report, but knew enough to not get ahead of themselves. Their barn burned down a few months before Reid’s call, and Imagining still had scars across his back. He, Bourbon Courage, Holy Boss and Long River were so early in their stud careers that success came in small increments. An unraced 2-year-old showing promise at Parx Racing was good news, but so are batting-practice home runs and plenty of baseball players hit those.
“We all have horses we love that break your heart too, so we know how it goes,” said Louis. “You’ve got to temper your expectations a little bit in this game.”
Or maybe you don’t.
A little more than a year after that conversation between Grace Merryman and Butch Reid, Monday Morning Qb upset the Maryland Million Classic at Laurel Park Oct. 24. The only 3-year-old in a field of seven took control from pacesetter Prendimi entering the final turn and made it stand up – ousting 4-5 favorite Harpers First Ride by 3 1/4 lengths in 1:48.13 for 1 1/8 miles. Tattooed finished third in the $150,000 race, which headlined the 35th Jim McKay Maryland Million Day.
Owned by Cash is King and LC Racing, Monday Morning Qb paid $15.60 while winning for the third time in seven starts. The dark bay colt, purchased by Cash is King’s Chuck Zacney for $25,000 at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic’s fall yearling sale of 2018, lost his debut at Parx – second to future Haskell Stakes-G1 runner-up Ny Traffic – but graduated a month later at Parx and backed up that triumph with a victory in the Heft Stakes at Laurel in late December. Before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted racing – and life – Reid thought his horse warranted consideration for the Triple Crown races and started 2020 in the Withers Stakes-G3 at Aqueduct Feb. 1. Fourth there, Monday Morning Qb didn’t run again until September.
“He’s a big, growthy colt as everybody can see and we just decided – now wisely – that we didn’t want to push him,” said Reid of the seven-month break between starts. “We sent him down to Barry Eisaman’s in Ocala and gave him all the time he needed. He came back a bigger, stronger horse.”
And a better one. Off the layoff, Monday Morning Qb finished second to eventual Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes-G1 winner Happy Saver in Laurel’s Federico Tesio Stakes Sept. 7. Reid contemplated a start in the Preakness Stakes-G1, but opted for turf in the James W. Murphy Stakes the same day at Pimlico. Imagining won a Grade 1 on the grass, and placed in three others, so the idea made sense until the turf came up yielding and Monday Morning Qb labored home 11th.
“If you could rewrite history, we might have taken a shot at the Preakness, but I don’t think we wanted to run against those first two [Swiss Skydiver and Authentic]at that point anyway,” said Reid. “I’m not at all disappointed, especially the way things turned out, I’m not second-guessing myself on that one.”
Monday Morning Qb stutter-stepped leaving the gate from post three but jumped on the bridle and towed jockey Sheldon Russell to the flank of Prendimi into the first turn. After a quarter-mile in :23.47, Russell leaned back in his stirrups while staying wide – in hopes of slowing his mount. They drew even with Prendimi after a half-mile in :46.81, dispatched a rail challenge from Tattooed on the turn and were 2 lengths clear after three-quarters in 1:10.94 as Harpers First Ride was forced to go five wide from the back. Russell said go at the top of the stretch, got an effective – if a little awkward – lead change and Monday Morning Qb did the rest. Harpers First Ride saved second over the 46-1 Tattooed.
Russell said the start, and his horse’s reaction, keyed the race’s setup. “I gave him a little encouragement, tapped him down on the shoulder and he got the wrong idea and tried to sort of run off with me,” the jockey said. “To be fair, he was going too fast into the first turn. I kept him out wide until he relaxed and then I was able to bring him in and as I brought him in the one horse was dropping back so I was able to secure the rail, give him a breather and when I turned for home and he switched to his right lead he took off again. He was well-prepared. Great job by Mr. Reid.”
Reid figured his horse would be stalking Harpers First Ride, who won the Pimlico Special Stakes-G3 the day before the Preakness, but loved how the race played out.
“He would have been a tough horse to run down,” Reid said of the favorite, 6-for-7 at Laurel and an eight-time winner of $422,080 coming in. “I thought there was a little more speed. For [Monday Morning Qb] to be in the catbird seat laying second was kind of a surprise to me. I just told Sheldon to break him sharp and wherever he was comfortable was fine with me. The horse has no problem coming from off the pace or on the lead, whatever you want to do.”
Bred in Maryland by Bowman and Higgins Stable and Cary Frommer, the future Classic winner was part of the Becky Davis consignment at Timonium in 2018. Dam How My Heart Works, a daughter of Not For Love, won once in four starts in 2015. Her dam Formalities Aside produced $556,593 earner Awesome Flower and the graded stakes-placed First Mondays.
Zacney and LC Racing bought five horses at that 2018 sale – Monday Morning Qb, Delaware Oaks-G3 winner Project Whiskey, three-time winner Johnny Ritt and winners Ebo Special and Bella G.
“It was a yearling sale, how much can you tell? But he was just a big, strong horse,” Reid said of his first impression. “We didn’t know that much about the stallion probably, but we thought ‘turf horse, we’ll see.’ I’m still not convinced he’s not a turf horse off that last race. Under normal circumstances that would have been off the turf, but I think we’ll stick to the dirt for now.”
Back at Anchor and Hope, the Merrymans watched on television – spectators were limited at Laurel due to the pandemic – and thought back to that conversation with Reid. The pep talk was nice then, nicer now.
“I was pretty quiet, for me,” said Louis of the first Maryland Million win for a farm stallion. “We needed it. The day before, Bourbon Courage had a first-out maiden special weight winner at Keeneland, then we had that race on Maryland Million Day. We’re doing our best not to get discouraged. We’ve taken a few kicks the last couple years, so it helps us morale-wise.”
No place like home for Hello Beautiful
She’s not on Tinder, but Hello Beautiful definitely swipes right when she sees Laurel’s dirt track. The 3-year-old filly improved to 5-for-5 over the surface with a lopsided victory in the $100,000 Distaff. Sent off at 1-2, she let Limited View lead through the first quarter-mile in :22.30 and then assumed command and drew off to score by 11¼ lengths as Quiet Imagination finished second and Le Weekend third.
Trained at Laurel by Brittany Russell and ridden by her husband Sheldon, Hello Beautiful repeated her triumph in last year’s Maryland Million (the Lassie) and erased defeats at Ellis Park and Saratoga over the summer.
“I hate to say she could be horse for the course, but she loves Laurel,” said Brittany. “She trains here, she walks out of her stall and runs. I don’t know what it is. Sheldon has a lot to do with it. He reaches up and just keeps the bit in her mouth, you can see it, and she loves that. She doesn’t want to be turned loose. I think she’s spoiled. To be fair, she runs for him.”
Purchased by Russell and Dark Horse Stable for $6,500 at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic’s winter mixed sale in 2018, Hello Beautiful won her third start in a romp and was sold to the high-end group of Madaket Stables, Albert Frassetto, Mark Parkinson, K-Mac Stable and Magic City Stables. She went on to add two stakes wins last year. The daughter of Golden Lad started 2020 with a turf prep June 1 (a seventh), then blasted allowance foes 19 days later to earn tougher assignments. With Sheldon Russell on the shelf with an injury, Julien Leparoux rode Hello Beautiful in the Audubon Oaks at Ellis Park in August, and she struggled home last of 11 (beaten nearly 25 lengths). A month later, again without her favorite jockey, she went to Saratoga and finished sixth behind Frank’s Rockette in the Prioress Stakes-G2.
“Frank’s Rockette is a serious racehorse,” Brittany said. “She got beat by some real racehorses up there. She has that good race in her, and she was doing well after Ellis but maybe in a sense it was my fault. She worked well, but maybe I should have stepped back and said she actually needs a few more weeks. She loves time off between races.”
Back at Laurel, back with Sheldon Russell, in a restricted stakes but taking on older fillies and mares for the first time, Hello Beautiful dominated the Distaff while making her trainer feel lucky.
“When you win stakes races and buy horses for small prices and do well with them people notice,” she said. “I’ve been blessed to get horses because of her. Ellen Charles bred her and she sent me a couple. The Madaket group bought into her and sent us some horses because we won with her. It’s been really special.”
Playing favorites with Fiya
Two races before Hello Beautiful’s score, another odds-on runner put on a display as Fiya handled seven others in the $75,000 Turf Sprint. Sent off a 1-9, he tied the record for the lowest win payout in Maryland Million history at $2.20 while extending his winning streak to four and providing a mix of stress and relief for owner Rob Masiello.
“I wasn’t too nervous going in, but when he opened up at 1-9 it made me nervous,” said the owner, who paid $400,000 for Fiya at the Wanamaker’s online sale in July. “I didn’t think he should be 1-9. There were other decent horses in there, he was shipping, the course had been soft all month. We’re trying to look at him in terms of a progression and want to put him in the right spots to get to the big races next year.”
Fiya placed in two starts last year, but has done nothing but win in 2020 – first for owner/breeder Ann Merryman and her son Michael in a 5-length maiden romp in June and a 3-length allowance score in July. Faced with private offers to sell, Ann Merryman instead entered her horse on the new Wanamaker’s platform (co-founded by her niece Liza Hendriks) and got a big number from Masiello. Sent to Tom Albertrani in New York, Fiya won a 6-furlong turf allowance at Belmont Park in 1:06.70 Sept. 20. The son of Friesan Fire could have tried tougher company, but will get there soon enough.
“He’s only 3, we got him in August, he’s good, but he just got a little unsettled the first few days with Tom,” said Masiello. “We were trying to make the Mahony at Saratoga [Aug. 26], but it was coming up too quick. Tom called after his first breeze and I’ve had horses with Tom long enough that I can tell when he really likes a horse and he really liked this horse. You don’t want to look back in six months and say, ‘We had such a good horse and we ruined him because we did something we shouldn’t have done.’ ”
So they stayed patient. The Maryland Million was the logical next step. Ridden by Trevor McCarthy, Fiya wasn’t as brilliant as he’d been, but he dispatched any challengers and outran So Street by 2¼ lengths with Godlovesasinner third. For Masiello, who went to Johns Hopkins University, the win felt like a reunion of sorts even if he stayed home in Connecticut.
“I became a big fan of racing going to Pimlico when I was in college so it’s really cool,” he said. “He’s a Maryland-bred horse and he’s got a little bit of a fan base there. If things go well, he’s going to run in the Breeders’ Cup someday. Ann’s been great. I bought the horse, but he still belongs to her. She bred him, raised him, made him what he is.”
Fiya’s dam Sista won once in eight starts for Merryman and Laura McKinney, and splits time as a broodmare and a foxhunter now. The daughter of Two Punch has been out with Elkridge-Harford, Mt. Carmel and others as a hunter and produced a Holy Boss filly in 2019.
“She’s had trouble foaling so she hunts on her off years,” said Merryman, who also likes the fitness her mare gets. “We’ll probably breed her again in the spring.”
Fiya wasn’t Ann Merryman’s only winner on the card as Epic Idea stretched out to 1 1/8 miles for the first time and won the Ladies on the turf for owner/breeder Vivian Rall. The 4-year-old daughter of Great Notion battled for the pace through fractions of :24.85 and :51.73 before getting away by a length in the stretch while drifting out and hanging on to win by three-quarters over Gennie Highway with Mosalah third.
Ridden by McCarthy, the winner survived a foul claim while getting her first stakes win and rewarding Merryman’s faith.
“Last year we sent her long, but she just wasn’t emotionally ready,” said the trainer. “I just thought this was going to be a soft spot. Things got messed up with her prep race and it didn’t go when it was supposed to go. Then they brought it back four days later so I ran her anyway [nine days earlier]. Then we took her to the farm and doubled her up the hill on Tuesday and thought we’re going on with it.”
Merryman passed credit to Rall, who goes way back with the family. Fourth dam Aunt Sheila won over hurdles for Rall at Saratoga and was ridden by Rall on the steeplechase circuit before becoming part of an always-small broodmare band. The half-sister to three-time Iroquois Steeplechase winner Uncle Edwin, the daughter of *Mystic II produced Maryland Hunt Cup winner Uncle Merlin among others. Daughter Snow Leopard won three times for Rall, and produced Pandora (who won twice). Pandora in turn produced four-time winner Calliope, the dam of Epic Idea.
“She’s what breeding is all about,” Merryman said of Rall. “She loves her horses and she’s very astute pedigree-wise. Everybody said this filly couldn’t go long and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got somebody in the pedigree that won the Maryland Hunt Cup.’ Aunt Sheila is back there, her fourth dam. It’s all there. I am definitely listening to everything Vivian says because she knows that family.”
Rall bought Aunt Sheila from Mikey and Dot Smithwick as a yearling and she ran everywhere from Saratoga to the Howard County Point-to-Point. Her owner was aboard at the latter, a flat win, but yielded to Joe Aitcheson, Tom Skiffington and others for hurdle starts. Aunt Sheila won five, including an $8,500 starter allowance at Saratoga in 1975.
“She was a tough, little mare, and she passed along her toughness to the ones I kept and bred,” Rall said. “They’re intense, they’re triers, they have the will to beat the other horses.”
Epic Idea is Calliope’s first foal. There’s a 2-year-old full-brother with Merryman, a yearling by Divining Rod and the mare is in foal to Super Ninety Nine for 2021. Now a three-time winner of $143,477, Epic Idea will join the breeding program at some point but don’t expect Rall to get ahead of herself.
“This is the fourth generation, which I’m very proud of, but mine aren’t very sellable just because there was no black type until now,” she said. “I enjoy them and keep trying. It’s pretty satisfying to think my one-horse show made it happen. I’m so proud of my children.”
Miss Nondescript stands out
Owner/breeder Charlie Parker is as Kentucky as they get – right down to the UK shirt – but foals most of his mares in Maryland because it makes sense.
“The breeders’ awards are so much better up here than in Kentucky,” he said. “I want to be a big fish in a small pond and not a little bitty fish in a big pond.”
Parker is swimming along just fine with Miss Nondescript, who made the last move to get home in time and win the $100,000 Lassie for 2-year-old fillies by a neck for Parker’s Barak Farm and trainer Mike Trombetta. The daughter of Mosler rallied four wide on the turn for McCarthy and won by a neck over favorite Street Lute with Trip to Freedom third.
Parker sells most of the horses he breeds, but kept Miss Nondescript away from the sales ring and has thus far resisted offers for the dark bay filly who won her debut for trainer Wayne Potts at Monmouth Park in September.
“She’s turned in a little bit so I wasn’t going to get the value for her if I sold her,” said Parker, who credited Potts with much of the filly’s development. “Joe Dodgen, my farm manager, told me she’s going to be a Black-Eyed Susan winner. He liked her from the beginning. Some people begged me to price her about two weeks ago and I said no.”
Parker spent $6,000 at Keeneland January in 2018 to buy Miss Nondsescript’s dam, the Fusaichi Pegasus mare She’s Funomenal. The two-time winner had twice brought more – $60,000 from Bob Baffert and $30,000 from BAN Partners – as a broodmare and looked like a good buy.
“I loved Mosler, the first foal she had [Glorious Moment] was a Midnight Lute that won $200,000 and for that kind of money, you couldn’t walk away,” said Parker, whose 15 mares foal at Country Life and Shamrock farms. “She was going to foal in three or four months. Of course the mare died last year, dystocia, that’s the way it happens sometimes. I’ve bred several stakes winners, but it’s the first time I’ve ever owned the one that I’ve bred. “We’re really excited. To win a race like that, coming off the pace like that, makes you think of big things ahead of her.”
Capuano doubles up
Dale Capuano, the Maryland Million’s all-time leading trainer going in with 11 victories, won the opening starter handicap with Jumpstartmyheart and added the $100,000 Nursery Stakes with 2-year-old Kenny Had a Notion. The latter won by 5 lengths and led a barn exacta with Alwaysinahurry to give Capuano his first Maryland Million win since 2015. He’s three ahead of King T. Leatherbury and four up on Trombetta (who had a 2020 winner).
“It never gets old,” Capuano said of winning Maryland Million races. “We’re always happy to win these races. It’s nice. You can’t beat it, especially this year when we weren’t sure it was going to happen there for a while. It sounded doubtful a little bit there this year.”
Owned by Lou Ulman and Neil Glasser, Kenny Had a Notion left no doubt in his win after getting through on the rail just before turning for home. The son of Great Notion outkicked Alwaysinahurry while Reassured finished third to add another stakes win to his turf score in the Jamestown (for Virginia-breds) at Laurel Oct. 9 and a maiden triumph at Delaware Park in July. Bred by Althea Richards, Kenny Had a Notion cost Capuano and Ulman $20,000 at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic’s fall yearling sale in 2019.
“I liked him because I had another horse that was the same identical cross, by Great Notion out of a During mare which you don’t see often, and he won his first two starts and was really good and got injured,” Capuano said of Come Sundown. “At the sale, I told Lou ‘This horse looks really like Come Sundown, who I really loved so if we can get him we’ll get him.’ ”
They got him, and extended a lengthy partnership that included Maryland Million winners What’s Up Lonely (2004 with Fortunate Stable) and Pride of Benray (1999) among others.
“It’s been 30-some years,” Ulman said of his relationship with Capuano. “Another fella who had a horse with Dale who introduced us and our first stake horse was Good Looking Terri. Dale hasn’t lost the fire in his belly a little bit and we’re still out here doing it.”
Pretty Good Year for Goodyear
In his job with Stuart Grant’s C-Dog Farm in Chesapeake City, Md., Bobby Goodyear sees plenty of foals. He helps bring them into the world and typically sends them on to the sales ring or to trainers who care for Grant’s The Elkstone Group runners.
Sure, Goodyear – who worked at Derry Meeting Farm in Pennsylvania for 20 years before joining Grant’s team – sometimes gets attached but watching horses build racing careers is usually enough. Then there was the Great Notion colt born in February 2016.
“I just fell in love with the horse as he grew up,” said Goodyear. “He was my type of horse; a hard to handle, cheeky little horse. He fit my personality. We have a lot in common. He was always the first one I would get in the field. He would come up to me. Just a cool horse. Stuart breeds some nice horses and it’s not that he didn’t fit that, but he wasn’t the top of the list for whatever reason.
“We were supposed to send him to the sale and Stuart organized it so I could keep him to race and I’ve got to thank him for giving me the chance.” Gelded, named Pretty Good Year and sent to trainer Kelly Rubley the horse won the $100,000 Maryland Million Turf Stakes – becoming a stakes winner and pushing his lifetime earnings to $206,481 – as Goodyear cheered from home.
“I’ve gone in years past with the tent and the food and everything,” he said. “I always said that that would be the way we did it if we ever had a Maryland Million runner. Then they didn’t do that this year, nobody else really wanted to go so we just stayed home. To have a Maryland Million winner, I can’t describe it. He’s going to go down as a Maryland Million winner. He’s on the list.”
Out of the Giacomo mare Terminally Pretty, Pretty Good Year started 13 times last year – winning the first and last while placing in six other races including a third in the Turf. This year, he opened with a sixth in the Jennings Handicap and won a February allowance over future stakes winner Moretti before losing his next five (which included two thirds and a second). Rubley eyed the Maryland Million, and opted for the Turf (extended to 11⁄8 miles from a mile) over the Classic when the latter attracted a tough field including Grant runner Top Line Growth.
Winless in six turf starts, Pretty Good Year thrived at the trip after settling for third in 2019, and rallied from last of 12.
“He started to make his move on the backside and I was like, ‘Let’s get up in the money’ because he’s always in the money and then I was like, ‘Let’s win this thing,’ ” Goodyear said.
Russell loved his horse’s effort in coming from nearly 15 lengths down and racing six wide on the turn.
“He ran a great race in this race last year and he’s just got no early speed,” said Russell. “I wasn’t really familiar with him and probably had him a little bit too far back. A little bit of soft ground changes the complexion of the race and he just loved the soft ground with a little bit of juice in it. At the three-eighths pole he was traveling so sweetly and he loves being on the outside. It’s a wide trip but he gets braver that way.”
Rubley paid credit to the distance, and her horse’s attitude.
“I am so proud of this horse,” she said. “It’s just remarkable. What a neat little horse for Bobby to have picked out of the field and said, ‘He’s the one.’ Distance has always been his thing, the longer the better. We keep hitting these one-turn miles here and he hits the board and picks a check up, but the longer the better for him. At the three-eighths pole I was thinking he had a lot of horse. What an experience.”
Nancy Heil had never had a Maryland Million runner let alone a contender, so when Karan’s Notion upset the $100,000 Sprint Handicap the response from his breeder, trainer and owner was predictable.
“I can’t believe it happened to me, really, I can’t,” she said. “I never got lucky enough to have the right horse. I had some good horses that were eligible to run, but were out of commission or maybe I had horses that weren’t by Maryland sires.”
A son of Great Notion and coming off a string of five consecutive quality starts, Karan’s Notion answered all of those qualifiers and led at every call – cutting out fractions of :22.49, :45.07 and :56.76 en route to 1:09.15 for 6 furlongs and a $34.20 win payoff. Heil’s only horse, the 3-year-old won by a length over Baptize the Boy from leading trainer Claudio Gonzalez, with 2018 race winner Lewisfield third. Favorite Onemoregreattime was fourth.
Heil trained the winner’s first three dams – Susan Karan (who won three races), Rhoda Elaine (who won seven races, placed in four stakes and started 62 times) and Elegant Edythe (who won four races) for Herb and Arlene Kushner. Elegant Edythe was the dam of 1999 Maryland Million Distaff winner Flippy Diane.
Karan’s Notion lived up to all that family history by running the race of his life, five starts after breaking his maiden by 13½ lengths at Laurel in July. Heil had been trying to get the gray gelding to repeat that effort ever since and had seen glimpses including a win at Laurel in late August. Tactics played a role, she said.
“He won by 13 lengths, just galloping,” Heil said. “They’re supposed to get better after a race like that. He got worse because we kept trying to slow him down and save him. Nobody was on board but me and I kept saying, ‘Let him run.’ He wants to run on the front.”
Heil credited her “assistant” Herbie Butts, Virginia trainer Diana McClure (who did the early work with the horse) and jockey Yomar Ortiz with helping deliver on all that promise.
“He was wild as a June bug when Diana got him,” said Heil. “She had to put a lead pony in the stall to catch him so she could start working with him. She did a wonderful job. Herbie helps me out a lot and I kept telling his jockey to not even think about what you’re running against, just have faith in your horse. Nobody tried to come to him and he was really brave. I’m so proud of this horse.”
NOTES: Four of the day’s 12 winners were sired by Great Notion, who moved into sole possession of third on the all-time list with 17 wins. He trails only Not For Love (36) and Allen’s Prospect (22). Great Notion’s wins came at 11⁄8 miles on the turf and 6 furlongs on the dirt . . . In addition to Maryland-bred Jumpstartmyheart, starter handicaps went to Odd Gal (Despite the Odds), Glengar (Freedom Child) and Beltway Bob (Baltimore Bob). . . Russell’s four wins gave him 11 for his career, sixth all-time behind Edgar Prado, Ramon Dominguez, Mario Pino, Jeremy Rose and Julian Pimentel. . . McCarthy tripled to get to five. . . Tom and Chris Bowman, co-breeders of Classic winner Monday Morning Qb, picked up their 16th win (solo and in partnerships) to extend their all-time lead. . . Maryland sires produced 11 of the 12 winners. . . Ten winners were bred in Maryland.