After he won the Breeders' Cup Classic for a record fifth time, aboard Saint Liam, on Oct. 29 at Belmont Park, Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey returned to his home in Florida for the winter, saying he would only appear to ride select mounts on weekends while he kicked around the idea of retirement.
Yesterday in the "Fall Festival of Racing" at Laurel Park, Bailey, 48, had three of those select mounts, and he won with all of them including a tour de force, gate-to-wire victory aboard I'm the Tiger in the Grade I $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash, the feature race on a card with eight stakes races.
Bailey rode the horse for the first time for trainer Bobby Frankel, a fellow member of the Hall of Fame, and owner Frank Stronach, chairman of Magna Entertainment, the Canadian company that owns Laurel Park. Under Bailey, I'm the Tiger quickly took control when the gate opened, fended off two challenges on the turn and widened his lead inside the eighth pole to beat Tiger Heart by 3 1/4 lengths. The 5-year-old gelding covered the six furlongs in a fast 1 minute 9.06 seconds.
The crowd around the winner's circle chanted "Jerry! Jerry!" as Bailey rode in, his horse blanketed in flowers, but the jockey didn't stick around for the presentation of the trophy by track president Joe De Francis. He dismounted, weighed in and then ran as fast as he could toward the jockey's quarters.
"He has to catch a plane," said Adam Campola, the clerk of scales.
Earlier on the card, which drew a crowd of 10,904, Bailey won the $125,000 Selima Stakes, a turf race for 2-year-old fillies, on J'ray for trainer Todd Pletcher. In the race before the De Francis, Bailey patiently waited until reaching the far turn before turning loose Dreadnaught to win the $75,000 Laurel Turf Cup for Maryland-based trainer Tom Voss.
With Bailey making a hurried exit, it momentarily looked as if De Francis would have no one to congratulate on the day that honors his late father, who purchased the Laurel Park in 1986 and operated it until he died three years later.
Stronach was in Austria, according to De Francis, and Frankel, after winning, immediately turned his attention to a simulcast monitor in the clubhouse to watch another one of his horses go down to defeat in a stakes race at Churchill Downs.
Frankel appeared, accepted the trophy and then talked about I'm the Tiger, who with the victory appeared to join the ranks of the top sprinters in the country.
"He's a very nice horse," Frankel said. "The last time he ran, I didn't think I had him right. I just told Jerry he breaks really well and then left it up to him. He took the lead very easily."
Horses were shipped in from Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York and Canada to join the contingent from Maryland in contesting the De Francis Dash, and I'm the Tiger figured among the favorites.
After racing for two years in Canada, he moved into Frankel's New York barn and finished second in a stakes race at Saratoga in August and then a close-up fifth in the Grade I Vosburgh on Oct. 1 at Belmont Park. Since I'm the Tiger wasn't nominated to the Breeders' Cup Sprint, Frankel turned his focus on the De Francis.
Despite a full field of 14, the race set up as a rematch between I'm the Tiger and Tiger Heart, who finished second in the Vosburgh. Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. decided to run Tiger Heart in the De Francis instead of his Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Silver Train.
Tiger Heart ran well, closing fast along the rail in the stretch, but couldn't match the winner.
"We were running hard down the lane," jockey Edgar Prado said. "Jerry let his horse go, and I couldn't catch him."
Maryland-based Gators N Bears, the hometown favorite, raced wide on the turn, had little punch in the stretch and finished 12th. The colt will retire to the Maryland Stallion Station to begin a second career.
"This was his way of telling me it's time," said trainer Leo Nechamkin. "Everyone wants to go out on top, but this may have been one race too many for him. The rider [Abel Castellano Jr.] told me he never picked up the bit. Today, he didn't have his heart in it."
I'm the Tiger has now won seven of 16 lifetime starts. The $180,000 prize for winning the De Francis pushed his lifetime earnings to $581,462.
Also on the card, Barbaro, making only his second start, cruised to a dominant eight-length victory in the $125,000 Laurel Futurity, a historic race for 2-year-olds, like the Selima moved to the turf this year.
The colt, trained by Michael Matz at Fair Hill, won the 1 1/16-mile race in a time of 1:40.17 over the firm course under jockey Jose Caraballo, who also rode three winners.