The skies over Pimlico Race Course opened up shortly before the start of Friday’s featured race, the 93rd Black-Eyed Susan Stakes.
A few minutes later, the track seemed to do the same for Actress, a lightly run 12-1 long shot who used the prestigious race to break her maiden.
The 3-year-old filly, who had finished a close second in her only two previous starts, edged out Lights of Medina by a head to win the $250,000 Grade II race. Corporate Queen finished third.
Friday’s attendance was a record 50,339, topping the previous mark of 47,956 set last year. Total handle on the 14-race program was a record $19.895 million, a six percent increase over last year’s previous record total handle of $18.661 million. With nearly another $750,000 bet on the Black-Eyed Susan-Preakness daily double, total handle was more than $20 million.
Just as patience seemed to pay off for Actress and jockey Nik Juarez, who seemed to be holding his horse back waiting to make a move, it also finally paid off for owners Gary and Mary West.
The Wests, who also bred Actress at their Kentucky farm, had run the filly just twice, the first time two months ago at Gulfstream Park. Actress lost each of her first two races by 1¼ lengths.
“I always liked this filly,” trainer Jason Servis said. “I told [the Wests] she’s a good filly from day one. I’ve got to hand it to the Wests. They were on board the whole time and a lot of owners wouldn’t be. But they’ve been great. They’re good for the business. They deserve it. They love the game. It’s not just the money; they’ve got a good passion for it.”
Actress earned $150,000 for her owners and paid $12.80 to those who bet on her.
With a rainbow as a backdrop, Actress came from well off the pace that was initially set by Tapa Tapa Tapa and eventually by Shimmering Aspen, who had come in as a 9-2 favorite.
When those fillies faded down the stretch, Actress charged through on the fast but suddenly sloppy track and eventually passed, then held off, the Todd Pletcher-trained Lights of Medina.
“I thought Lights of Medina ran great,” said Pletcher, who should hope the same thing doesn’t happen in Saturday’s Preakness to another of his horses, Always Dreaming. “It was a tough beat. She just missed a head bob. It was a great effort by her. I thought she perhaps was going to get [Actress], but she didn’t.”
With his horse well back for the first half of the 1 1/8-mile race – Actress was running ninth, five lengths behind - Juarez tried to make a move on the inside, but found it blocked off.
Juarez then maneuvered Actress more to the middle of the track, where eventually they squeezed through an opening and moved near the front. By the three-quarter pole, they were sixth but making up ground quickly.
Near the lead at the beginning of the back stretch, Actress then charged through both the traffic and the mud to pass Shimmering Aspen and then Lights of Medina.
It was all part of the game plan, according to Juarez.
“I found she really liked being behind in the dirt,” Juarez said. “I said, ‘Let’s send her around two turns,’ and Jason said the same thing. We knew she would get the distance. They were running fast up front and I was sitting behind. She ate the dirt up. When she made her move, she started running and carried it on.”
Juarez is a third-generation jockey following in the footsteps of his father and maternal grandfather. Juarez graduated from Winters Mill High, where he was a four-year varsity wrestler. He began racing in 2013 and was fortunate enough to win his first race.
His father, now a trainer at Pimlico, had to retire in 2009 after being run over during a race and breaking several vertebrae. He hopes to someday ride in the Preakness.
“I’m from Maryland,” Juarez told The Baltimore Sun in 2016. “If I could win the Preakness here one day, that would be awesome.”
As Tapa Tapa Tapa faded, eventually finishing sixth, and Shimmering Aspen did the same in coming in seventh, the late afternoon stage was left to Actress and Lights of Medina, who came in at 8-1.
With the late-afternoon crowd showing their support, the two horses barrelled toward the finish line as Actress won narrowly.
Asked about the suddenly sloppy track, the older brother of John Servis (who guided Smarty Jones to a 2004 Kentucky Derby win) said, “I wasn’t really concerned. With her pedigree, she should run on anything.”
As for it being her maiden, Servis said, “It didn’t make any difference. I like my filly.”