Joe Coles, racing fan, sat in the stands at Monmouth Park one afternoon in 1992 or so and turned to his friend Joe Zoppi. “If you ever get something that looks good,” Coles told the veteran trainer, “maybe I’ll buy a horse.”
The first horse Zoppi came up with didn’t pass a veterinary inspection, so he tried again. That horse passed and – even if it took two years to get her to the races – put Coles and Gail Shaw into racing as owners and now breeders. That horse, a New Jersey-bred filly named Signa, won twice for G. J. Stable and became a broodmare. Her offspring included stakes winner Cigno d’Oro, whose son Prendimi landed the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic at Laurel Park Oct. 23. Second in the 2019 race and seventh in 2020, Prendimi lived up to his name – “Catch me” in Italian – by taking the lead at the start and denying a stretch challenge from Tappin Cat. Prendimi, a 6-year-old gelding by Dance With Ravens, scored by a neck at 12-1. Tappin Cat, bet down to 3-5 while seeking his fourth consecutive victory, held second over The Poser by three-quarters of a length as the winner covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.46. Back home in Tinton Falls, N.J., recovering from a short bout with pneumonia, Coles cheered like he was there. He and Shaw (they’ve been “significant others” for 33 years) missed the winner’s circle photo, but celebrated.
“I can tell you this, we were screaming in the house,” said Coles. “I’m sorry we couldn’t get down there because we love to watch him run. I came down with pneumonia three or four days before and I didn’t want to take a chance of making it worse. They said it would clear up and it has, and we were thrilled with Prendimi.”
The Classic provided a fitting highlight to Jim McKay Maryland Million Day, which showcased progeny of the state’s stallions for the 36th time. Northview Stallion Station sires landed eight wins on the 12-race card, but otherwise the success spread among a variety of breeders, owners and trainers. The event also returned to a sense of normal after being run with limited spectators and social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Other moments included a retirement ceremony honoring 2019 Distaff winner Anna’s Bandit, a record-tying third Maryland Million win by Hello Beautiful and the usual hospitality tents filled with breeders, owners, trainers and sponsors.
Nobody was overshadowing Prendimi, however. From post two, the New Jersey-bred and jockey Mychel Sanchez jumped to the lead and carried Ain’t Da Beer Cold, Torch of Truth and a four-wide Tappin Cat into the first turn. After a quarter-mile in :23.61, Prendimi led Torch of Truth by a half-length with Tappin Cat just off them in third. The margin shrunk to a neck after a half in :46.84. Prendimi accelerated early on the turn as Tappin Cat passed Torch of Truth. Sanchez got busy after 6 furlongs in 1:11.16 while Jevian Toledo let Tappin Cat range alongside. The favorite fought on, but never could get closer than a neck as Prendimi responded, leaped a tire track in the final yards, and hung on to win.
Prendimi won for the sixth time in 30 starts and snapped a seven-race losing streak while pushing his career earnings to $472,005. The dark bay won two stakes in 2019 and came up a half-length short of Forest Fire in the Maryland Million Classic that autumn. Last year, Prendimi won the Charles Hesse III Handicap in August, but faded to seventh behind Monday Morning Qb on Maryland Million Day.
Luis Carvajal Jr. called training Prendimi a challenge.
“I worked him a few days ago, on top of the race, and he went a half-mile in like :52 [officially :52.20 three days before the race],” the trainer said. “You can’t make him go faster. When it’s in the race, and he has the competition next to him, he looks at other horses and digs in.”
The Monmouth-based Carvajal, trainer of Grade 1-winning sprinter Imperial Hint, was taken aback by the 1,240-pound mark his horse hit on Laurel’s paddock scale but otherwise liked what he saw before the Classic.
“He was happier today, the body language of the horse was better,” Carvajal said. “When I saw him getting a little sweat . . . I said, ‘That’s a good sign.’ It’s very hard to understand this horse because of the way he trains and works in the morning. He works really slow. Once you see him on the track and he’s happy, then you know you’ve got something.”
Coles and Shaw had something when they bought Signa nearly 30 years ago. Unraced until age 4, the daughter of Roman Reasoning won her third start – and her 32nd – for Zoppi. As a broodmare, she produced five winners led by stakes winners Dabnabit and Cigno d’Oro. Carvajal galloped the latter, who won seven races and earned $372,604, for trainer Bob Durso and took over her training when Durso retired in 2006. Cigno d’Oro became a broodmare and, like her dam, threw winners – six from as many to race. Prendimi, foaled at Hunters Rest Farm in Neptune, leads the way.
Durso died in 2007, Zoppi in 2019. Coles said Cigno d’Oro has been retired from her broodmare career. But G. J. Stable continues. Prendimi will get a winter break with the Carvajal stable in Florida, and could soon be joined by siblings Cigno Bella (a 2-year-old Mission Impazible filly) and Trouble Coming (a 2021 colt by Madefromlucky).
“We bought one horse, Signa, and that was it,” said Coles, a certified public accountant. “We bred everything else. I have to give a lot of credit to Cigno d’Oro. She puts a lot of heart into those horses. And Signa, the original, was like that too. That means a lot. We’ve been lucky that way.”
Make a little room Maryland Million heroes, Hello Beautiful needs a spot. The 4-year-old filly became the seventh horse to win three Maryland Million races when she ruled the $100,000 Distaff – leading throughout and dispatching five overmatched foes. She joined Ben’s Cat, Countus In, Docent, Eighttofasttocatch, Mz. Zill Bear and Safely Kept on the honor roll.
There are no four-time Maryland Million winners, a feat that looks plausible for Hello Beautiful as long as she keeps racing – and stays this good.
“All the more reason to keep her training as a 5-year-old,” said trainer Brittany Russell about making history. “If she keeps winning, I think they’d rather keep her racing. You know, you have a horse that’s winning stakes, she can be a broodmare the next year. If she stubs her toe by the end of the year, maybe we make a different decision.”
Bred in Maryland by Hillwood Stable and campaigned by a partnership of Madaket Stables, Albert Frassetto, Mark Parkinson, K-Mac Stable and Magic City Stables, Hello Beautiful appears in no danger of tripping over anything as she won for the 10th time in 18 starts and pushed her career earnings to $582,570.
Purchased by Russell for $6,500 as a yearling, the daughter of Golden Lad made easy work of the Distaff as an expected early challenge from Street Lute never materialized. Hello Beautiful was third after the first few strides as Malibu Beauty and Fille d’Esprit broke quickest. Toledo gave her plenty of rein, and she zipped past the leaders to take a 2-length lead after an opening quarter-mile in :22.59. Unchallenged, Hello Beautiful ran a half in :45.65 as Street Lute had to steady briefly along the rail and Malibu Beauty tried to keep up outside. Hello Beautiful kicked clear in the stretch and won by 31⁄2 lengths with her jockey checking the infield video screen for challengers through 7 furlongs in 1:22.22. Malibu Beauty edged Street Lute by a nose for second. The race wasn’t last year’s 111⁄4-length romp, but didn’t have to be.
“It’s sort of the same thing it always is,” said Russell. “There’s speed in the race, she’s the fastest horse. If they want to go with her, go with her. Try. It’s not like she jumped out of there and had the lead from the jump. She ran a little faster that first part and they sat off of her.”
And that was that. Out of the Tiznow mare Hello Now, Hello Beautiful won the Lassie as a 2-year-old and has won nine of 10 starts on the dirt at Laurel while piling up eight stakes victories. The only blank spot on her resume is a graded win, and that may never come. She tried it as a 3-year-old, and finished sixth in the Prioress-G2 at Saratoga, and again in February when fifth as the favorite in Laurel’s Lasix-free Barbara Fritchie-G3.
“It’s disappointing,” Russell said. “She’s the type of filly who has that ability to do it. You see her numbers and you see how she runs. Maybe that 3-year-old year wasn’t the year to try it, she just didn’t have luck with shipping and all those things.”
After the Fritchie, her only start without Lasix, Hello Beautiful missed almost four months. Trying again crosses Russell’s mind, but so does staying focused on her horse.
“The way it happened in the Fritchie, no,” the trainer said of racing without Lasix again. “Maybe if she runs as a 5-year-old next year, knowing she’ll be retired as a 6-year-old, I’m not saying it’s completely out of the question but at this stage to keep her where she is, keep her healthy and do the right thing by her, it’s to run her on Lasix.”
And that’s more than fine, especially when Russell considers how much she owes Hello Beautiful. Russell’s horses raced 46 times in 2018, her first season as a trainer. With two months to go in 2021, she was approaching 250 starts and had already posted career highs in wins (59) and purse earnings ($2,516,329).
“I have a barn full of horses because of her and many clients because of her,” Russell said. “It’s a tough game and to have a filly like her who keeps you up there, keeps your confidence, she shows that you can do it. She makes you want to wake up in the morning and do it all over again, even on the bad days.”
In 2020, much to the delight of owner/breeder Vivian Rall, Epic Idea won the $100,000 Ladies – surviving a foul claim in the process – only to lose the race months later when the Maryland Racing Commission reversed the stewards’ decision on an appeal by the connections of the runner-up.
No matter where you sit, it was a tough way to lose a race.
Epic Idea did her part to erase the sting with a repeat victory in the Ladies for Rall and trainer Michael Merryman. The 5-year-old daughter of Great Notion rallied from fourth early to catch Tipsy Chatter in the stretch and held off a late run from Maldives Model to win by a half-length in 1:49.46 for 11/8 miles on the turf. Judi Blue Eyes finished third.
Nobody was happier than Rall, who missed the 2020 race because of the coronavirus pandemic and is responsible for most of Epic Idea’s female family. In order, the pedigree (with foaling year) goes:
• Calliope (2008): Bred and owned by Rall; four-time winner by Outflanker.
• Pandora (1997): Bred and owned by Rall; two-time winner by Press Card.
• Snow Leopard (1983): Bred, owned and trained by Rall; three-time winner by Northern Raja.
• Aunt Sheila (1970): Owned, trained and sometimes ridden by Rall, though bred in Virginia by Dot Smithwick; six-time winner by *Mystic II and the dam of Maryland Hunt Cup winner Uncle Merlin.
Aunt Sheila was out of Cousin Yvonne, a 1963 daughter of Besomer bred in Virginia by Smithwick Stable, and also the dam of steeplechase stakes winner Uncle Edwin. Cousin Yvonne’s dam *External Relations, a foal of 1947, raced over jumps for Mikey Smithwick and won the 1954 Noel Laing Stakes at Montpelier.
Rall thought of all that history and a lifelong relationship with trainers Holly Robinson and Ann Merryman (and now Ann’s son Michael) while standing in the winner’s circle.
“I wasn’t here last year, I was screaming at the television,” Rall said. “This is redemption for having it taken away. She can do it. She is that good. She proved it. The teamwork of Michael and Ann, that’s the key, because she’s not easy. Suzanne Stettinius gallops her a lot and she said she got run off with on Tuesday. When she’s totally let down in the winter, she’s OK. That’s when I get her. A lot of the family, they’re intense, which makes them good racehorses.”
The victory was the 24th (and first in a stakes) for Michael Merryman, who knew how much it all meant to Rall.
“That’s almost the best feeling about it,” he said. “You know how she is with her horses. She loves them. She takes care of them. They’re her babies. That’s the kind of people we like training for because that’s the way we are with horses.”
Merryman started training in 2017, and joined his mother, aunts Lizzie Merryman and Katy Voss and uncle Edwin Merryman on the roster of Maryland Million-winning trainers. Epic Idea came into the race off five starts in turf sprints, topped by thirds at Colonial Downs in August and Laurel in September.
“The way she rated today, she’s never showed that aspect before,” said Michael. “My whole thing was trying to get her to come down, to take that breath. She’s been sprinting very well, and very quickly. I know now, but I didn’t know she could do that. She knows when it’s game time. You’ve got to love horses like that. They step on the track, and they know what they’re doing.”
Playing in the Band
Right about the time Gordie Keys started to explain what it meant to win a Maryland Million race with a homebred, he stopped and said he couldn’t quite put it into words.
Then he put it into words.
“I’ve waited a long time,” said Keys, 88. “It’s nice, it’s nice. You never know when you’re going to do it. I’ve been breeding a long time. It seems like this horse was an answer to a lot of prayers. I’m humbled. I never like being the favorite, because you never know. He still has to go do it. But he’s a good horse. I bred so many horses, it’s nice to finally succeed with one.”
Grateful Bred, a 5-year-old Great Notion gelding out of the Malibu Moon mare Malibu Moment, started as the 1-2 favorite in the $75,000 Turf Sprint – and then made it look easy, taking the lead from post nine of 10 and setting every fraction. He won by 11⁄2 lengths over Sky’s Not Falling with Love You Much third after 1:02.29 for 5 1/2 furlongs.
The win was Grateful Bred’s third of 2021, joining a victory in the Meadow Stable Stakes at Colonial Downs and a Pimlico allowance after the dark bay won twice in 2020. Trainer Madison Meyers echoed the thoughts of Keys, when asked about the achievement.
“It means a lot,” she said. “He’s a Marylander and he’s never won a race like this or had a horse like this. It means the world to him, and it means the world to me to be able to do it for him. He’s been very loyal to us. Our racing stable is really small. Sometimes it would be easy for him to take him and give him to a big-name trainer, but he’s been really nice and been very good to us.”
Keys bought Grateful Bred’s dam from breeder Thornmar Farm for $21,000 as a yearling in 2003. She managed to finish second three times before becoming a broodmare. Grateful Bred is her best and, according to his trainer, knows it.
“The horse is such a dude to be around. I love to train him, but he literally will tear the place down if you don’t feed him first,” said Meyers, who operates a breaking/training business with her husband Kieran Norris at Virginia’s Middleburg Training Center. “He’s got a window up high in his stall and if you come down the middle with the feed cart instead of going outside first and coming back in by him you can see feet up at the window. It scares me to death. The rule is you have to wheel the feed cart around, stop at his stall, feed him first and then go feed everybody else.
“He knows he’s a good horse and he expects us to know he’s good too. But he always tries. He lays it on the line every single time.”
Northview stallion Buffum, who died in 2019, sired both 2-year-old winners as Buff My Boots won the $100,000 Lassie for fillies and Buff Hello took the $100,000 Nursery for colts and geldings. The victories showcased what might have been, and paid tribute to their sire.
Trainer John Salzman Jr. and owner Bird Mobberley teamed up to win the Lassie, as Buff My Boots continued to pay off on a $7,000 investment at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic’s yearling sale. Bred by Hope Hill Farm from the Not For Love mare Shekeepsherbootson, the bay filly made the lead and made it last – barely – to score by a half-length over the hard-charging My Thoughts with Sparkle Sprinkle another half-length back in third. Mobberley paid tribute to her late parents, Gretchen and Jack of Howard County’s Summer Hill Farm, after accepting the trophy with farm manager Grady Griffin.
“They were longtime Maryland horsemen and I know that they’re smoking their cigarettes and drinking martinis,” said Bird. “They would think, ‘All right Bird, all right Bird and Grady. Ya’ll did it.’ They’d be proud.”
Picked out by Salzman from the consignment of Bill Reightler, Buff My Boots won her debut at Pimlico in July, by 10 1/4 lengths, scored at Timonium in September and was third at Laurel Oct. 3.
“I just buy early horses, I like speed horses,” Salzman said of his sales strategy. “I don’t buy breeding, and her breeding is there. The Not For Love part, Buffum, she just jumped out at me that she’d win early. And I’m as happy for Bird as I’d be if it was my own horse. She really deserves it. They’re great to train for, they let me do what I want and so far it’s working out for us.”
Five races later, Buff Hello came through over 13 others in the Nursery – fighting for the lead from the inside post for jockey Charlie Marquez and winning by 2 lengths over Coastal Mission with Local Motive third. Bred in Pennsylvania by Sergio Gomez from the Sharp Humor mare Spanish Dream, Buff Hello was purchased for $26,000 by owner Joe Besecker from Northview’s Fasig-Tipton Midlantic consignment last year. Trained by Claudio Gonzalez, the bay colt won his third start, at Pimlico in July, and was sixth in Monmouth’s Sapling Stakes in September.
“It was not an easy race, especially with the [post] position we had today,” said Gonzalez. “The position is really hard, especially with  horses and a lot of horses that have speed. The good thing about Charlie is, he listens. He warmed up the horse really good, he broke and rushed up and took the lead and he did the right thing.”
Presto, Photo Finish
Twenty years from now, the connections of Somekindofmagician will tell the story about how their horse won the 2021 Maryland Million Turf. He dominated, drew clear, won with plenty in reserve. They knew it early, and started walking to the winner’s circle at the quarter pole.
Not a chance.
Somekindofmagician passed five horses in the stretch to erase a 4-length deficit and got up in the final stride to win the $100,000 Turf by a nose. He led for exactly one inch, the last inch. Owners Nick and Delora Beaver went along for the ride, the whole, stressful ride.
“I was shaking, just shaking,” Nick said.
“We weren’t right at the finish line, we were down a little farther,” said Delora, “so we had to watch the screen to find out.”
The screen only helped a little as Somekindofmagician, Johng and Street Copper pretty much hit the finish line as one horse – the margins two noses after 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.
Trifor Gold set the pace and led into the stretch as Cannon’s Roar, Street Copper, Somekindofmagician and Benny Havens launched into position. Cannon’s Roar took the lead in mid-stretch, but had company. Street Copper surged along the rail. Somekindofmagician and Johng charged outside. They hit the wire together. Somehow, Angel Cruz stood up aboard Somekindofmagician and pumped his fist like a winner. The photo finish proved him right, but it was bicycle-race close.
“I watched the finish and said, ‘I’m not saying nothing,’ ” trainer Gary Contessa said with a laugh. Win or lose, Contessa credited his horse’s grit in the final yards.
“He really had to fight and dig in,” said the trainer. “What he’s got is what we wish every horse had and that’s heart and a desire to win. He’s been absolutely outstanding this year.”
Claimed by the Beavers’ Bell Gable Stable from Larry Johnson and trainer Mike Trombetta for $25,000 in August 2019, Somekindofmagician lost all nine starts that year and posted a single win in 2020. Through October, his 2021 included four wins and a third from seven starts since moving to Contessa’s care from trainer Jamie Ness.
Horse of all Trades
It’s been a long year for Air Token, whose 2021 past-performance chart bounces around like a lacrosse ball – Laurel, Charles Town, Pimlico, Colonial Downs and back to Laurel at a mile, 7 furlongs, 5 furlongs, 1 1/16 miles, turf, 1 1/8 miles, mud, 6 furlongs.
And then the $100,000 Sprint, where the 4-year-old Golden Lad gelding pulled a mild upset for owner/trainer Jose Corrales. Air Token and J.D. Acosta found a spot behind speedy longshot Valued Notion early, collared that one in the stretch and kicked away to win by 2 1/4 lengths over late-running Double Crown in 1:09.63. Corrales claimed Air Token for $10,000 in August 2020 and has sent him out for six wins. Versatility is part of the success.
“He goes long, he runs on the grass, he’s like people’s dream horse, you dream to have a horse like that,” Corrales said. “They don’t come around very often. The people in the barn call him a pony. He is a very good pony. He is very relaxed. Everybody wants him when he is finished racing. Not yet. He is only 4 years old.”
Bred in Maryland by Carol Kaye, Air Token sold for $3,500 as a yearling and has tried nearly every level of racing – from that $10,000 claiming tag to the 2021 Charles Town Classic-G2. Beaten 261⁄4 lengths by Art Collector there, Air Token rebounded to finish second at Laurel Sept. 23 as a prep for the Sprint.
“He’s developed little by little,” said Corrales. “He can go any distance, but we chose this. He’s got enough speed, he can lay close and he doesn’t need to be on the lead. In some of the other races, he is on the lead and that doesn’t work that well.”
NOTES: Four starter handicap stakes filled out the card. Mint Meadows Farm and Donald Metzger won the opener going 1 1/8 miles on the turf with B Determined, who scored by a head as the favorite for trainer Suzanne Stettinius. Calypso Ghost prevailed in the second, for fillies and mares going 7 furlongs on the dirt. Rodolfo Sanchez-Salomon trained the winner (a daughter of Etched bred by Bonita Farm) for Abuelitas Racing Stables. All-time Maryland Million leader Not For Love collected another series win (his 37th) when No More Talk pulled a mild upset in a 7-furlong dirt starter. Bred by Bob Manfuso and Katy Voss, the winner made his fifth Maryland Million start. The day’s finale, a turf starter for fillies/mares, went to owner/breeder Mill Hill Stable’s Millie Child (a daughter of Freedom Child) and trainer Anthony Aguirre . . . Doubles by active sires Great Notion and Golden Lad led the Northview success, which also included two wins from Buffum (who died in 2019) and singles from Not For Love (2016) and Dance With Ravens (who now stands in Saudi Arabia).