Overnight rains helped end a drought of sorts for King Leatherbury, whose colt Eastover Faith took the $75,000 Damascus Stakes at Laurel Park yesterday and gave the legendary trainer his first stakes victory of the year.
The Damascus Stakes was originally scheduled to be run on Laurel Park's turf course. But because of the precipitation, track officials moved all the races onto the outer dirt oval. That shift prompted trainer Ann Merryman to scratch her entry, Grapeshot, the morning-line favorite. Grapeshot, a 5-year-old Kentucky-bred, had won four of his last five starts, including the $75,000 C Rodney Stakes at Delaware Park, but runs only on grass.
Eastover Faith, in turn, had never won on turf. In fact, when Leatherbury claimed the horse for $25,000 last year, Eastover Faith had not yet run on turf. But Leatherbury convinced new owner Lakeville Stables that Eastover Faith was bred for the surface: Eastover Faith's grandfather is Seattle Slew, whose offspring have proven to be great turf sires. Last month, in Eastover Faith's first start on turf, he finished third against allowance company. So going into the Damascus Stakes, even his owners figured he wouldn't stand much of a chance against Grapeshot if the race remained on grass.
"We still think he does have a grass future, because of that breeding," said Baird Brittingham, a partner in Lakeville Stables, "but we were doing a little war dance last night, hoping to get it taken off the grass."
In the paddock before the Damascus Stakes, Leatherbury instructed jockey Mark Johnston to hold Eastover Faith off the pace and let the other horses burn themselves out early, then go for the lead with a late kick. Coming out of the fourth gate, Johnston did his best to follow the trainer's instructions, but got little cooperation from his mount.
"He was pulling me out of the saddle. He's one tough horse to try to rate," said Johnston, who would have been aboard Grapeshot had he not been scratched. "He's big and strong, and he just wants to go."
In fact, Eastover Faith carried Johnston to the front of the pack entering the turn of the mile-long race. Luckily for both, pacesetters Smart Sunny and Private Slip both burned out earlier and more conspicuously than even Leatherbury expected. By the end of the turn, Eastover Faith already had opened up a five-length lead. With minimal prodding from Johnston, the colt extended it to seven lengths by the wire.
Eastover Faith finished in 1 minute 45 3/5 seconds, and paid $5.40.