The nerves trainer Marty Ciresa felt when he woke up Saturday morning compounded late in the afternoon when his high-strung gelding Presidentialaffair panicked under the entrance of the claustrophobic paddock at Pimlico Race Course.
The horse, blessed with blazing speed and cursed by abscessed hooves, finally settled down for saddling then blew away the field with a gate-to-wire victory in the $200,000 Maryland Million Classic.
The win elated Ciresa, who co-owns Presidentialaffair with his father, Edward, and Vincent Papandrea. The horse lost the Classic by a nose last year and came into the race Saturday off a crushing 36-length defeat in the Woodward Stakes last month at Belmont Park.
Ciresa said during the week that Presidentialaffair, a 5-year-old by top Maryland stallion Not for Love, came out of the Woodward with an abscess in his left front hoof and, even if healthy, probably couldn't have beaten winner Ghostzapper.
The 43-year-old Ciresa, from Oxford, Pa., the son of a gambler and grandson of a trainer who plied his trade at long-shuttered tracks in New England, expected a better run in the Classic, and he got it. Presidentialaffair bounced right to the lead and sailed home to beat Aggadan by 1 3/4 lengths. He ran the 13/16-mile race in a scorching 1 minute 55.58 seconds over a deep dirt track.
"A horse like him just wants to be a racehorse," Ciresa said, standing in the infield holding a box with a Waterford crystal trophy. "A lot of times the abscesses are bought out by stress. I wish he'd relax a little more in the morning. But I think he could get better. I think he's maturing."
The victory by Presidentialaffair highlighted a day in which the struggling Maryland racing industry glimpsed its former glory. A crowd of 16,339 showed up at Pimlico for the 12-race, $1.125 million card for the offspring of Maryland stallions. The all-source handle, including wagering from out-of-state on the Pimlico simulcast signal, totaled $4,642,444, the most ever in the 19-year history of the event.
The Classic almost went off without two of its eight runners. The van carrying former Preakness starter Cherokee's Boy and Off the Glass broke down on its way from the Bowie Training Center. Another was dispatched to pick them up, but the horses didn't arrive until after 4:30 p.m., a little more than an hour before the race.
Neither had an impact on the outcome, but once Presidentialaffair got away with an easy half-mile in 47.84 seconds under jockey Stewart Elliott -- rider of Smarty Jones -- the winner was going to be hard to reel in.
Aggadan and Irish Colony ran gamely in the stretch but couldn't catch up.
Presidentialaffair has now won nine of 21 lifetime starts and earned $495,970. Ciresa could see him one day running in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but right now he plans to give the horse the rest of the year off.
In other races:
* MILLION LADIES: Hail Hillary, a 4-year-old filly based in Chicago, returned to Maryland and defended her title in the $100,000 Maryland Million Ladies, a 11/8-mile turf race for fillies and mares.
Normally a filly with speed to stalk the leaders, Hail Hillary broke uncharacteristically slow, running ninth in a field of 11 after the first quarter-mile. Jockey Mario Pino, however, showed why people around the track use the term "Peen on the green" when describing his expertise.
With consummate patience and skill, Pino, with more than 5,400 career victories, saved ground on the rail until timing his move out to the center of the course perfectly, speeding past leader Love Match and Rowdy to win in a time of 1:51.09.
"She's a beautiful filly," Pino said. "That was a fun ride."
* SPRINT: New York-based My Poker Player ran between tiring leader Ameri Brilliance and Crossing Point in the stretch to win the $100,000 Sprint, running the six furlongs in a sharp 1:10.13. The victory was one of two on the card for jockey Ryan Fogelsonger, who also took the Nursery for 2-year-olds on What's Up Lonely. That colt, trained by Dale Capuano, also closed in the stretch, winning in a time of 1:11.72.
The victory by What's Up Lonely was a Maryland Million-leading 16th for the late stallion Allen's Prospect.
* TURF: Dr Detroit, a gelding who had won just twice in 25 career starts and couldn't hit the board last year in a $7,500 claiming race, pulled off a stunning upset by beating vaunted multiple stakes winners Slew Valley and La Reine's Terms to win the $100,000 Turf. Ridden by Pino, Dr Detroit led after a quarter-mile, dropped back to third and then came on to win by a nose over Private Scandal at odds of 23-1.
Trainer Ann Merryman said the racing office at Pimlico had coaxed her into running to help fill the field. Slew Valley, a winner of more than $700,000, had been preparing to run in his second straight Canadian Grade I stakes race before owner-breeder Jim Hindman decided to support the Maryland program. He finished off the board .
* DISTAFF: In the $100,000 Maryland Million Distaff Handicap, an expected battle between Ribbon Cane and Bronze Abe never developed as long-shot Merryland Missy ambushed the field and beat Spirited Game by 1 1/2 lengths, running the six-furlong race in 1:10.67.
* TURF SPRINT: In the first running of the $100,000 Maryland Million Turf Sprint, trainer Ben Feliciano, a former parking attendant at Pimlico, entered three horses and won with the one with the longest odds at Namequest took the five-furlong race in 57.22 seconds.