Elizabeth “Binnie” Houghton could not have conceived a better name for a Maryland-bred champion: Crabcakes.
Patrons shouted it with a smile Saturday as they watched the 3-year-old filly hold on to win the $100,000 Maryland Million Distaff as a commanding 1-5 favorite.
Houghton, a longtime Maryland breeder and owner, was not at Laurel Park to watch her horse win for a sixth time in 10 starts. She died in August at age 79.
But she planned ahead, willing the gifted filly to her friends, Wayne and Susan Chatfield-Taylor. They hugged and cried in the winner’s circle along with Houghton’s nephew, Bernie, who trains Crabcakes.
“It’s hard not to cry, isn’t it,” Bernie Houghton said after clapping jockey Forest Boyce on the back.
Such stories are the heart of Jim McKay Maryland Million Day, the annual fall showcase for Maryland-sired thoroughbreds. As often as not, winners from the Million’s 11-race card never make a big splash beyond the state’s borders.
But that’s beside the point for the Maryland owners, trainers and racing fans who gather to celebrate the heritage and renewed good health of the state’s thoroughbred industry.
Bernie Houghton said Crabcakes’ victory in the seven-furlong race resonated more deeply because of the setting and his aunt’s legacy in the state.
“At the end there, I was waiting for the wire to come,” he said. “It’s hard not to bring a tear to your eyes every time we do this, because my aunt loved horse racing more than anything in the world.”
In the headline race of the day, the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic, another local boy, jockey Nik Juarez, picked up his third victory of the day aboard Todd Pletcher-trained Bonus Points.
Juarez graduated from Winters Mill High School in Westminster 2011, and though he’s based in New York now, some of his old wrestling teammates and his childhood best friend were in the stands cheering. His father, Maryland-based trainer Calixto Juarez, was also on hand.
“Man, it’s really special,” Nik Juarez said. “It’s great to come back home, just to be here. But to win three is even better.”
Bonus Points also brought glory to Country Life Farm in Fallston, where he was bred. Country Life is one of the state’s top breeding operations, but this was the farm’s first Maryland Million Classic winner.
“It’s nice because it’s part of the rebirth of Maryland breeding,” said Mike Pons, who operates the farm with his brother Josh. “I’m just so tickled. What a day. I don’t know what the numbers are, but it was a Preakness-like feel.”
Aided by sterling weather, the Million drew a crowd of 22,682, up 4.4 percent from 21,722 last year. Betting handle was down 2.3 percent, from $4.48 million to $4.38 million.
On a sadder note, another Pletcher-trained Classic starter, Jerandson, pulled up with a broken right rear ankle and was sent back to the barn for observation.
In the wildest performance of the day, gifted but temperamental filly Limited View lost her composure going into the gate for the $100,000 Maryland Million Lassie, turned right after the break and still came back to win.
Veteran jockey Edgar Prado delivered a superb effort to get Limited View to run at all, much less win.
“You never know what she’s going to do next,” trainer John Salzman Jr. said. “She trains so good. She’s one of the best horses I’ve ever had. But when she gets something in her head, it’s just hard to deal with.”
This is nothing new for Salzman and his 2-year-old filly. He took her to Saratoga this summer and couldn’t even saddle her for one race because she was so rattled from walking through the bustling crowd. But she’s now won three times in four career starts, so her talent demands patience.
“I lost 15 pounds at Saratoga and probably three more today,” Salzman said. “I’m not going to give up. I might not live through it, but I’m not going to give up.”
In the $100,000 Maryland Million Nursery, Graham Motion-trained Clever Mind made an impressive debut, overcoming a rough break from the No. 1 post to run down the favored Jamaican Don over six furlongs.
“We got away a little slow, but Graham told me not to rush him,” said Juarez, assessing his first victory of the day. “Coming for home, he really kicked in.”
Juarez said the 2-year-old Clever Mind galloped out strongly and could be a candidate to shine at longer distances. He called him a “classy colt” who reacted surprisingly well to having dirt kicked in his face at the start.
The win was Motion’s eighth at the Maryland Million, tying him for third all time among trainers.
Juarez also rode Spartianos to victory in the $125,000 Maryland Million Turf.
In the $125,000 Maryland Million Ladies, My Sistersledge won a back-and-forth stretch battle with the favored Great Soul.