Mark Johnston, who is having the best year of his riding career since winning the Eclispe Award four years ago as an apprentice, attempts a three-race sweep of the Fourth of July stakes program at Laurel Race Course today when he rides California invader, Stark South, in the $100,000-added Fort McHenry Handicap.
The 23-year-old jockey started his stakes skein Saturday by nosing out Pat Day in the Baltimore Budweiser Breeders' Cup aboard Taking Risks.
Then yesterday, Johnston added to the streak by sitting patiently on 3-5 shot Vice On Ice and then exploded with her in the stretch to defeat pacesetter Sherunsfornanny by three-quarters of a length in the $60,000 Pearl Necklace Stakes.
The winner, bred in Maryland by Richard Golden of Chesapeake City but owned by New Yorker Hector Sanchez, was squeezed back coming out of the gate. But she overcame her poor start and moved from last in the eight-horse field about 12 lengths off the pace to overhaul Sherunsfornanny at about the eighth-pole.
Jockey Mario Verge slowed the pace with Sherunsfornanny, who ran six furlongs in a leisurely 1 minute, 14 2/5 seconds and the mile in 1:40 2/5, but could not hold off Johnston's rally.
The winning time for the nine furlongs was 1:53, seven seconds off the track mark.
The course was officially listed as firm, but was softened by showers earlier in the day. Johnston said he wasn't worried about the slow early fractions. "I saw front-runners tire in a previous turf race, so I thought the course would slow them up again in the stretch in my race," he said.
The added-money victory pulled Johnston into a tie with Mario Pino as the year's leading stakes rider. Each has now won 10 Maryland stakes in 1994.
Pino also has a mount in today's Fort McHenry Handicap. He rides Marry Me Do, winner of his last three starts, including the Chieftain Handicap.
Johnston was named on two horses, Royal Mountain Inn and Stark South.
Royal Mountain Inn is the morning line favorite although he hasn't raced in nearly a year.
Gordon Becraft, Johnston's agent, said that Barclay Tagg, trainer of Royal Mountain Inn, hadn't intended to run the horse until the last minute. "By that time, I had already been contacted by John Russell, trainer of Stark South, and gave him a call for the race. Russell was going to run his horse in New York on Saturday in the Bowling Green Handicap, but scratched him there to run here. So I thought after all that, especially shipping across country, we should ride Stark South. Barclay agreed, and didn't get upset."
Becraft said that Donnie Miller Jr. will probably ride Royal Mountain Inn.
NOTES: Bill and Phyllis Dixon's Mz. Zill Bear finished fifth, beaten about six lengths, yesterday in the Grade I Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park. The race was won by Corrazona in an upset over champion Hollywood Wildcat. Corrazona is a Maryland bred and was foaled in Howard County at Diane Rachuba's Willow Wood Farm and sold as a weanling for $550,000 in Kentucky . . . Valley Crossing breaks from gate 2 today in the 5-horse Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park. Northern Trend, one of the original six entries, won the Elkwood Stakes yesterday at Monmouth Park and will likely be scratched . . . The Suburban Handicap can be bet at Maryland outlets through the Philadelphia Park simulcast card. It is the first race in the National Best Seven, followed by Laurel's Fort McHenry Handicap.