-- Two years ago, trainer Ben Perkins Jr. had a couple of 2-year-old colts named Wildcat Heir and Cajun Beat. When he worked them together on the track, Wildcat Heir whipped Cajun Beat every time.
After a poor start at Delaware Park, Perkins sent Cajun Beat to the farm for some rest, and the horse's owner wound up transferring him to a different trainer. Wildcat Heir, meantime, fractured a hind leg finishing second in a stakes race at Saratoga.
The following year, while Wildcat Heir slowly recovered from his injury, Cajun Beat blossomed and won the Breeders' Cup Sprint. So Perkins could scarcely believe it, but on Saturday afternoon the trainer saw who he long believed was the better horse finally fulfill his potential. Wildcat Heir bulled his way between horses at the top of the stretch and held off the late rush of favorite Midas Eyes to score a stunning victory in the Grade I $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Pimlico.
The race, one of only three Grade I's in Maryland, attracted a stellar field, including four horses exiting the Breeders' Cup Sprint as well as the top three finishers from the 2003 De Francis. The best Wildcat Heir had managed in nine prior starts was a win in a small stakes race in September at Monmouth Park. He was dismissed Saturday by the Pimlico crowd of 6,719, who let him go at odds of 16-1, eighth choice in the 10-horse field.
"We wouldn't have come if we didn't [think we could win]," Perkins said after accepting the trophy in the winner's circle. "At the five-eighths pole I said, 'The race is over.' I knew the move he can make, and I knew the horses would die inside."
Wildcat Heir tore through the six-furlong De Francis in a blazing time of 1 minute 9.45 seconds on a dull track labeled "fast." The win was worth $180,000 to owner Ebbie Novak, who owns New Farm, a longtime client of Perkins.
The winning connections have become the dominant force in the De Francis in recent years, having won the 2001 renewal with Delaware Township, while New Farm bred 2002 winner D'wildcat.
Four years ago, Lou Raffetto, the chief operating officer at Pimlico, moved the De Francis Dash from July to November to offer vindication for horses who might not have gotten a good run in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Midas Eyes, conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, fit the profile perfectly.
In the Breeders' Cup, Oct. 30 at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Tex., the speedy colt had drawn the outside post position in a field of 13 and suffered an extremely wide trip in finishing 10th.
Midas Eyes brought his vaunted reputation to Pimlico, drew the rail and was hammered down to odds of 6-5.
When the gate opened, Wildcat Heir hurtled to the front before Elliott settled him down to track dueling leaders Shake You Down and Philadelphia Jim.
"He broke good, which was the main thing because he doesn't always break good," said Elliott, who has ridden for Perkins for years but never on Wildcat Heir. "The horse, I'm told, likes to run outside, so I put him in the perfect spot off the turn."
Coming off the far turn, Elliott let Wildcat Heir go, shaking his reins to get him to change leads. Midas Eyes, meantime, raced close up, maintaining his position along the rail, and jockey Edgar Prado let him swing out in midstretch for a late charge.
"It set up beautiful," said Prado, but he just couldn't make up the final bit of ground, losing by a neck.
Another Breeders' Cup runner, Clock Stopper, closed from last to finish third. Local star Gators N Bears shied away from getting dirt kicked in his face, according to jockey Javier Castellano, before closing to be fourth. 2003 De Francis winner A Huevo finished sixth.
Perkins's father, retired trainer Ben Perkins Sr., said Wildcat Heir will take a break on the farm and then gear up for another return to Maryland.
"This horse's hind leg has been broken twice," Perkins Sr. said. "That's why he's so lightly raced. We plan to lay him up, get him ready and bring him back here for the General George" in February.