Maryland-Bred Turns Back Favored Owendale for Front-Running Score
BALTIMORE – MCA Racing Stable’s Harpers First Ride – bred in Maryland, saddled by the state’s leading trainer three years running and guided by his first-call rider – delivered a victory for the home team in one of its biggest races, scoring a front-running upset of favored Owendale in the historic $250,000 Pimlico Special (G3) Friday at Pimlico Race Course.
With Angel Cruz up for trainer Claudio Gonzalez, Harpers First Ride ($13) led from start to finish in only his second career graded-stakes attempt to turn back multiple graded-winning favorite and Triple Crown veteran Owendale all the way around for a two-length triumph in 1:54.97 over a fast main track.
The 50th running of the Pimlico Special for 3-year-olds and up, back to its original distance of 1 3/16 miles after being contested at 1 ¼ miles for the first time last year, was the headliner on an 11-race program that also serves as a preview for the Claiming Crown, offering winners an automatic berth to the 22nd edition of the main event Dec. 5 at Gulfstream Park.
Friday also marked the midpoint of a spectacular three-day Preakness weekend lineup that boasts 16 stakes, nine graded, worth $3.35 million in purses featuring Saturday’s 145th Preakness (G1), the final jewel in a refashioned 2020 Triple Crown, and the 96th renewal of the $250,000 Black-Eyed Susan (G2) for 3-year-old fillies.
It was the eighth career win, third in the last four starts and second in a stakes for Harpers First Ride, a 4-year-old Paynter gelding bred by the fabled Sagamore Farm of Glyndon, Md. once owned by Alfred G. Vanderbilt that campaigned such famed horses as Native Dancer, Discovery and Bed o’Roses.
“Every race he gets better and better. He likes what we do with him,” Gonzalez said. “He’s very easy for a trainer, because he’s a relaxed horse. Anything we want to do with him, he does it. He’s a very classy horse. I knew he could do it. He gets more mature every race.”
Gonzalez has led the overall standings in Maryland since 2017 and owns or shares 13 individual meet titles combined at Pimlico and Laurel Park including 10 of the last 11 dating back to Laurel’s spring 2017 stand. His previous graded-stakes wins came with Fly On Angel in the Charles Town Oaks (G3) Aug. 28 and Chublicious in the 2017 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash (G3).
Fly On Angel is entered in Saturday’s $150,000 Miss Preakness (G3) for 3-year-old fillies.
“I’m so happy and so blessed to be in this position. I work hard with Claudio and we work together. It’s just amazing to work for him,” Cruz said. “It is important. As a team we work hard every day and for Claudio to get this one is special, because this is home.”
Breaking from the far outside in a field reduced to seven by the scratches of Monongahela and Plus Que Parfait, Cruz was able to settle Harpers First Ride on the lead through a quarter-mile in 24.41 seconds and a half in 48.41, pressed to his outside by Owendale, a three-time Grade 3 winner that ran third by less than two lengths in last year’s Preakness.
Harpers First Ride was still there after six furlongs in 1:12.11 with multiple stakes winner Cordmaker – third by two necks in last year’s Pimlico Special – working to keep up in third. The two leaders remained heads apart around the turn and approaching the stretch, but Harpers First Ride found another gear once straightened for home and edged clear late.
“I settled good in the front. I took the lead really easdy and slowed it down. Nobody wanted to go so I just took the lead and the horse kept digging in the stretch,” Cruz said. “I just feel so happy and so blessed to be in this position, to work for Claudio and for him to give me all the chances that he gave me. I just take advantage of it and do my best.”
Owendale, sent off at 3-5, stayed up for second, a half-length in front of Cordmaker. It was a head back to defending champion Tenfold in fourth, followed by Forewarned, Someday Jones and Clubman.
Harpers First Ride had a two-race win streak snapped when he was fifth in the 1 1/8-mile Monmouth Cup (G3) July 18. He rebounded to be second in an open allowance over a muddy Parx surface Aug. 12 and was a popular 3 ¼-length winner of the Deputed Testamony Stakes Sept. 5 at Laurel.
The Pimlico Special was created in 1937 by Alfred Vanderbilt, the master of Sagamore Farm, as the first major stakes in the United States set up as an invitational, and was won by Triple Crown champion War Admiral. The following year, he was upset by Seabiscuit in what Sports Illustrated called the “Race of the Century.”
Revived in 1988 by the late Maryland Jockey Club president Frank De Francis, the Special’s illustrious roster of winners includes Triple Crown winners Whirlaway, Citation and Assault and modern-day Horses of the Year Criminal Type, Cigar, Skip Away, Mineshaft and Invasor.