La Reine's Terms has a big mop of wavy bangs hanging over his forehead, but when trainer Larry Murray reaches up to stroke it, the big horse opens his mouth and tries to take a finger off.
"He's chief honcho around here," Murray said, laughing at his still-feisty 10-year-old. "I'd best describe him as an alpha male. I can't see him ever hurting anybody, but he's the big daddy -- 'We're going to do things my way.' He's spoiled rotten."
In the classy band of horses Murray breeds and trains for Howard and Sondra Bender of Bethesda, La Reine's Terms has earned his deference and top spot in the pecking order. He has won 15 of 39 lifetime starts, numerous stake races and $722,091. Like an aging prima donna who chooses only to sing at gala events, La Reine's Terms, at this late date, dictates to Murray when it's time for an appearance on the track.
The old grass horse hasn't been out since finishing third last October in the Maryland Million Turf, but renewed vigor in recent morning workouts has Murray encouraged enough to take another shot at the big race this afternoon.
"It looks like a good spot to come back in; there's not much in there," Murray said of the $150,000 turf race for 3-year-olds and up. "I always said this horse could have a career just running in the Maryland Million and the Find Handicap. My gut feeling is I've seen him better. I don't have overwhelming confidence coming into this spot. This horse went all summer like he wasn't going to make it back, but when this horse is great, he's King Kong."
The return of La Reine's Terms, long one of the most popular racehorses in Maryland, is one of many story lines to be played out in the 20th Maryland Million at Laurel Park. The event, with a first-race post time of 12:35 p.m., is the second biggest day of racing in the state, with 12 races -- nine with purses of at least $100,000 -- for the best offspring of Maryland-based stallions.
In the featured event, the $250,000 Maryland Million Classic, the torridly fast Presidentialaffair is the 9-5 favorite to win the race for a second year in a row against six others, including 2003 Preakness entrant Cherokee's Boy.
As a son of the no-longer-fashionable stallion Private Terms, and with an exclusive preference for grass, La Reine's Terms has little appeal on the commercial breeding market, Murray believes. So even though the horse hasn't been gelded, he isn't worth the financial risk of breeding valuable mares who could go to proven stallions elsewhere.
Yet instead of putting him out to pasture at the Benders' Glade Valley Farm in Frederick, Murray lets his old warrior think he's in charge of the younger horses inside the No. 5 barn on the Laurel Park backstretch.
Val Kounelis, exercise rider for Murray the past 13 years, lets La Reine's Terms do whatever he wants when they go out to the track in the morning. Sometimes it will take 15 minutes of La Reine's Terms just standing around before they loosen up for a five-furlong work.
"He probably eats 10 peppermints while she's on him," Murray said.
Groom Karen Bright is less indulgent.
"I don't give him candy," she said. "I have tough love."
Bright said La Reine's Terms has "gotten a little more mellow. He was a little rough when I started working with him." Yet if the horse can recapture his old, aggressive form, he will be hard to defeat in the Million.
In 2002, La Reine's Terms reeled off successive wins in the Da Hoss Stakes at Colonial Downs, the Find Handicap at Laurel, the Labor Day Handicap at Mountaineer Park and the Maryland Million Turf at Pimlico. After a close-up sixth-place finish in a Grade III race in Chicago, Murray sent La Reine's Terms to Houston for a one-time event called the NTRA Great State Challenge, where he upset Forbidden Apple, at the time one of the top turf horses in the country.
The race took a lot out of La Reine's Terms, and he didn't return to the track for 18 months, a lifetime away. Yet he still remembered how to win when he did come back, just getting to the wire first in the final strides of an allowance race at Colonial Downs.
"When this horse won that race down in Virginia, I thought that was tremendously emotional for all of us," Murray said. "For him to come back and win a race after he hadn't run the year previous, I got very emotional. He's 10. He's been through a lot. We've had some great days with him."