For every owner who has paid the veterinary bills of a cheap claiming horse, Perfect to a Tee is an inspiration.
A partnership of four Washington lawyers spent $14,500 to claim the gelding in 1995. When the animal damaged a tendon in 1997--frequently a career-ending injury--he was out of action for 16 months. But this year, at age 7, Perfect to a Tee won a stakes for the first time, and yesterday at Laurel Park, he won the big one: the $200,000 Maryland Million Classic.
Under a well-judged ride by Alcibiades Cortez, Perfect to a Tee stalked the leaders and swooped past them on the turn. Then he held off the late charge of Steak Scam to win by a nose in the richest race on this day of stakes events for offspring of Maryland stallions.
In its 14 years of existence, the Million has established itself as the second-biggest racing day in the state after the Preakness. Breeders, owners and trainers all focus on the event, and 18,026 turned out for yesterday's Million, which produced several notable performances:
Darwin looked like a youngster with a bright future when he overpowered a field of 2-year-old colts and won the Nursery by 3 3/4 lengths in fast time. One of three winners on the card sired by the stallion Two Punch, he will at the very least be a factor in future Maryland Millions.
Saratoga Friends won the Oaks, for 3-year-old fillies, in a runaway after trainer Tony Dutrow had skillfully rested her and pointed her for this race. Dutrow took over the filly's training after his father, Dick, died in February. Owner Alvin Akman, who had been one of the elder Dutrow's principal clients, said: "I'm sure Dick is here with us today. His son Tony is going to be a great trainer."
Aristotle, a New York product, rallied from last place to win the Sprint, running six furlongs in 1 minute 9 2/5 seconds and starting a memorable parlay for owner Ernie Pargallo. Twenty minutes later his top horse, Artax, broke Belmont Park's track record by running the same distance in 1:07 3/5.
In the other $100,000 stakes on the card, Gin Talking won the Lassie for 2-year-old fillies; Flippy Diane captured the Distaff Handicap; Vaguely Rich rallied to capture the Ladies, and Private Slip set a slow pace and won the Turf.
Perfect to a Tee went into the Classic as the 9-to-5 favorite; bettors obviously put more emphasis on his current form than his humble origins in claiming races. His owners--who call themselves the Nonsequitur Stable--had decided in 1995 to take a modest fling in the horse business, and Perfect to a Tee was their second purchase. He has helped the partnership defy the probabilities of the claiming game and make a profit every year.
The gelding won a $100,000 stakes at Pimlico in the spring, and came into the Million with back-to-back victories.
"He's done everything right in the last month or two," trainer Linda Albert said. His good luck continued when he drew post position one for the Classic.
When two speedsters, Praise Heaven and Monk's Falcon, dueled for the lead, Cortez tucked his mount behind them and saved ground. As Testafly rushed up to engage in a three-horse battle, Cortez waited for an opening on the rail. He never got one. Rather than run the risk of getting blocked, he swung four-wide, surged past the leaders and got the jump on Steak Scam. The latter came through traffic on the turn, angled to the rail, rallied sharply--and just missed.
The $110,000 first-place money boosted Perfect to a Tee's career earnings to more than $450,000. "Pretty good for a horse I claimed for $14,500," Albert said. "It would be nice to have a barn full like him."