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Named after Alex Ovechkin, Eighttofasttocatch the favorite at Maryland Million Classic

Eighttofasttocatch has gone from being an excitable horse to a well-mannered, explosive performer who is the morning line favorite for Saturday's Maryland Million Classic at Laurel Park.

The 5-year-old gelded son of Not For Love owes that in part to the companionship of a pygmy goat named Gigi.

As trainer Tim Keefe and his exercise rider Peter Brown-Whale worked on Eighttofasttocatch's on-track etiquette, Gigi worked on the Laurel Park-based horse's nervous system.

She settled into the chestnut's life and lowered his heart rate, calmed his nerves and improved his level of performance.

"Gigi has been one of the keys," Keefe said.

The improved Eighttofasttocatch was given 7-5 odds for Saturday's seven-horse, 1 1/8th-mile Clasic after drawing he No. 5 starting gate Wednesday.

Arnold Heft, 92, who once co-owned the Baltimore Bullets and Washington Capitals with the late Abe Pollin, owns Eighttofasttocatch with Sylvia, his wife of 71 years. They named him after the Capitals' star player, Alex Ovechkin, who wears the no. 8 jersey and is often too fast to catch on the ice.

It is a trait the Hefts hoped their horse would have.

People don't always get the meaning — "I had to leave the spaces out because of the jockey club requirements for the length of names," Heft said — but the horse is living up to his name.

Since turning four last year, Eighttofasttocatch has won on dirt and grass and in the mud. And he's won both long and short races.

His best performance came in his last race, The Japan Racing Association Stakes at Laurel Park Sept. 10, which was contested over a mile. He raced in third most of the way before taking off at the top of the stretch, grabbing the lead and then pulling away for the finish.

Being able to relax and run comfortably in traffic comes from the hands-on work of Brown-Whale, and the company of Gigi.

"Catcher", as Eighttofasttocatch is often called, and Gigi hang out together after workouts and sleep in the same stall.

"When Catcher comes back after cooling down, if Gigi isn't in the stall, he just stands outside and hollers," Keefe said. "If he ships to another track, Gigi goes with him. She keeps him nice and relaxed."

Keefe had a sense that Eighttofasttocatch had a winning makeup when he persuaded Heft to buy him at a Timonium yearling sale.

"I like his breeding," Keefe said. "I liked the way he was built. He had a nice hind-end and shoulders. And he had a nice look in his eyes. I do look at that. You're buying a horse not only for his physical attributes, but for the mental piece as well.

"It's hard to see, but it takes a lot of nerve and toughness to be a good horse. If you can see confidence, how they carry themselves, it's an indication."

Keefe, 44, can relate to what is needed to be a strong competitor. He not only trainshorses — a job he has had ever since graduating from the University of Maryland with a business degree — but he also runs triathlons.

On September 11 he ran the Revolution3 Triathlon in Sandusky, Ohio, to raise money for the Maryland Therapeutic Riding School and for Kimberly Clark's Thoroughbred Placement and Rescue, Inc. He finished in 11 hours, 42 minutes and 44 seconds, 63rd overall out of 303 competitors, and raised more than $5,000 for each of the designated organizations.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done," he said. "I hired a coach and I trained for it. My goal was to finish [the course, which included a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike race and a 26-mile marathon run]. I was a little overwhelmed at the finish. My kids were there. My wife was there. I was running for two causes I believe in. There was an American Flag. A lot of emotion, rather than just physical exhaustion."

Going through that, Keefe understands how it can take time for both a person and a horse to comprehend what's necessary for success.

In the case of Eighttofasttocatch, he's never been an easy horse to work, because he wanted things his way and his way didn't include working along side otherhorses.

"But every time in training, I saw something better or different," Heft said. "But he looked gawky. I sat with Tim — who is a heck of a trainer — one day and said, 'He reminds me of a kid, a 16 year-old, who's 7 feet tall with lots of basketball talent. But he hasn't developed yet.' What we decided to do — with Tim's urging — was to go slow and not run him early."

Keefe took him to his farm to let him grow up. While he was there, Eighttofasttocatch had chips removed from his knees and didn't run as a 3-year-old. When he came back to the track, he started to put his lessons together.

As far as Gigi, Heft credits that idea to Keefe.

"I have nothing to do with the goat," Heft said, with humor in his voice. "That's Tim's department, and whatever Tim has done, it's working."

Heft said Catcher has been "something else" over the last year and a half, and his jockey Sheldon Russell lights up when he talks about him.

"I love him," Russell said. "He's matured and gotten better and better. It's just nice to see it. It's hard to be a horse and get better and better every time out and do it over a year and then two years. This one does that. We still don't know how good he can be."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

Maryland Million Day

When: Saturday

Where: Laurel Park

First post: 12:35 p.m.

Tickets: Grandstand and clubhouse seats $5; box suite seats $7.50

For more information: laurelpark.com

Maryland Million Classic Post Position & Odds

1 Fred High 12-1

2 Cactus Charlie 10-1

3 Not Abroad 9-5

4 In the Juice 5-1

5 Eighttofasttocatch 7-5

6 Sumacha'hot 20-1

7 Regal Warrior 12-1

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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