On one of the brightest days of his career, trainer Howard Wolfendale was left shaking his head.
"No excuse," Wolfendale muttered after heavily favored Colonel Hill was soundly beaten by Haymaker in the $150,000 Maryland Juvenile Championship at Laurel. Just four races earlier, Wolfendale was part of a small celebration after Special Ruler overcome a jarring trip to give Rocco DeMilio his 10th straight victory as an owner. This might be an unprecedented achievement, but no one is certain; apparently no thoroughbred-racing authority keeps such a record.
Unlike Colonel Hill, Special Ruler did have an excuse -- or two. The 6-year-old gelding, who twice had contributed to DeMilio's streak, was slowed around the far turn and squeezed near the wire, but he proved best by a nose in a three-horse photo finish.
The 3-2 favorite in a $20,000 claiming race, Special Ruler was advancing between horses on the turn when jockey Rick Wilson had to stall his mount to avoid contact. But Special Ruler renewed the chase, and with about a sixteenth-mile left he was almost up to the front-running Amandare. Rambo Phil, however, was pressed to Special Ruler's right side, and the favorite became wedged for an instant. Wilson pressed on, and Special Ruler bulled between them.
"I wasn't about to take out of there for anything," Wilson said.
DeMilio, a plumbing distributor from Crofton, has done all his winning with just four horses. Without a stakes victory they brought him more than $90,000 in purses last month, he said.
His next starter probably will run Tuesday at Laurel; Sir Sprite and Sir Dance are both entered in a $50,000 claiming race, but only one is likely to go.
"We didn't pick soft spots for our horses to get to this point," DeMilio said. "Pretty much, Howard has a free rein to do whatever he wants to do. He has an uncanny way of looking at races and putting them in the right spot. He doesn't tell me how to sell bathtubs, and I don't tell him how to spot racehorses."
DeMilio's joyride has come during Wolfendale's best meet ever -- 25 victories in 58 starts.
"After the sixth or seventh race, I was hoping I could just hit the board," DeMilio said. "Realistically, how many can you expect to win? Then it began to become a big thing. No one has ever kept this kind of record. I don't know what to say or what to do."
Two hours later, Wolfendale was struggling for words after Colonel Hill failed to get past Haymaker, which he had done Nov. 18 in the Devil's Bag Stakes. Trainer Carlos Garcia said he wasn't intent on challenging Colonel Hill again, but two factors swayed him.
An allowance race he had planned for Haymaker didn't materialize for lack of horses, and Garcia said he was unimpressed with a recent seven-furlong workout by Colonel Hill at Laurel.
"He was drunk the last quarter-mile," Garcia said. "I saw that, and I said, 'We have to try him. If we don't beat him now we never will.' "
Haymaker set a quick pace under Marco Castaneda, but Colonel Hill moved within 1 1/2 lengths turning for home. Haymaker pulled away to an eight-length victory, paid $12.60 and submitted his candidacy for Maryland-bred 2-year-old champion. Garcia won the title last year with Super Cholo.
Haymaker is the first horse Garcia has trained for the prominent British owner Robert Sangster, who grossed $90,000 with the victory. Sangster's Kentucky-based representative, David Lambert, was impressed by Haymaker's second-place debut and pedigree -- by Two Punch out of the Vice Regent mare Lantana Lady -- that he made an immediate offer to Bernard Sparenberg of Ross Valley Farm.
"Carlos was doing such a good job, there was no sense in moving him," Lambert said.
With his 1 1/16-mile run in 1:45, Haymaker may be going places after all.