Virtually all the obituaries for Joe Pons last week called him "the patriarch" of Country Life Farm. Having built the Bel Air breeding operation into perhaps the most powerful in Maryland, Pons, who died last Wednesday at 83, missed by three days seeing the stunning legacy of his work as offspring of Country Life stallions dominated the 20th running of the Maryland Million yesterday at Laurel Park.
Surf Light, the only horse to run in the name of Country Life, won the $150,000 Maryland Million Ladies on the turf, setting off an emotional celebration in the winner's circle for Pons's sons, Michael and Josh, and mourning friends and family. The 4-year-old filly, who won at odds of 16.80-to-1, is a daughter of Malibu Moon, who Pons developed into a national sensation before selling majority interest to a major farm in Kentucky.
In all, Country Life stallions were responsible for five winners of the 12 Maryland Million races with four seconds and one third on a day that management at Laurel Park dedicated to Pons's memory.
The stallion Not For Love, who stands stud at the Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City, was the only other to make a significant impact with three winners, two seconds and a third from his offspring. The late Country Life stallion Allen's Prospect, who had sired a leading 16 Maryland Million winners going into the day, added three more to his resume with victories by Sarah's Prospect in the $100,000 Maryland Million Turf Sprint, Marley Hart in the $50,000 Maryland Million Distaff Starter Handicap and Foxs Gold Digger in the $30,000 Maryland Million Sprint Starter Handicap.
"I'm stunned," said Josh Pons, fighting back tears after Surf Light's victory. "I've tried all day not to get into some unreal place where you're seeing signs and stuff. He lived a great life. Everyone we see today has their own grief they're dealing with. All these people here are his buddies."
The Maryland Million lived up to its billing as the second most important racing day in the state after the Preakness. A crowd of 18,887 turned out at Laurel Park for the event, run a week late after being postponed Oct. 8 because of torrential rains. Fans at the track and around the country bet a record $5.05 million on the card.
In the feature, the $250,000 Maryland Million Classic, defending champion Presidentialaffair flashed his vaunted speed, opening a six-length lead, but fell apart in midstretch as Play Bingo rushed from last to first to win by a length over Aggadan.
"I thought that he was too far back," said trainer John R.S. Fisher. "I told the jockey [Ryan Fogelsonger] to take him back a bit because in his two previous races he was close up to the front and he has two bad front feet which tend to bother him (in) the stretch when he's aggressive early. I couldn't believe the jockey had him that far back."
Play Bingo won the biggest race of his career, running the 13/16-mile race in 1 minute 59.08 seconds. Presidentialaffair, the even-money favorite, faded to fourth.
Michael Pons, one of the leading spokesmen for the Maryland breeding industry and president of the Maryland Million Board, looked flush in the winner's circle after Surf Light won her race.
"It was just so cool," he said. "You dream something and it happens, and Maryland Million Day is our day. I'm overcome with emotion."
Joe Pons's widow, Mary Jo Pons, watched the races at home, nursing the arm she broke after falling Wednesday trying to get help after her husband died.
"He literally died laughing," she said yesterday by telephone. "I said, 'Joe Pons, you're the funniest man in shoe leather.' He said, 'You're funny, too,' and he started to laugh and he died. It was a beautiful way to go."
With her two sons taking over Country Life and horses connected to the farm winning right and left on the day that spotlights the Maryland breeding industry, she said her husband had left a strong foundation.
"It's a good mob," she said of her family.
Note: Jockey Ramon Dominguez rode five winners yesterday, a Maryland Million record.