Two Maryland-bred champions -- Triple Crown-age Oliver's Twist and the state's 1994 Horse of the Year Concern -- face major tests this weekend at southern racetracks.
Today at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., Oliver's Twist gets another chance to prove he belongs in the sport's top echelon of 3-year-olds.
At 15-1 odds in the morning line, the colt, who was voted 1994 state-bred juvenile colt champion and is owned by Aberdeen insurance broker Charles Oliver, is the second-longest shot in the 10-horse field set for the $500,000 Florida Derby.
Then, tomorrow in New Orleans, Robert Meyerhoff's 4-year-old Concern makes his first start since winning the 1994 Breeders' Cup Classic, running in the $200,000 New Orleans Handicap at the Fair Grounds. Unlike Oliver's Twist, Concern is the 6-5 favorite.
Both races will be available at all Maryland betting outlets as part of full-card simulcasts from the Florida and Louisiana tracks.
Although Oliver's Twist was beaten by a total of 15 lengths in his last two starts at Gulfstream Park, Billy Boniface, his trainer, is flinging him into Grade I competition in the Florida Derby.
"I'm convinced I've got the best horse," Boniface said. He called Derby favorites Thunder Gulch, Suave Prospect and Jambalaya Jazz "just horses," even though they soundly defeated Oliver's Twist in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 18.
Thunder Gulch is ridden by double-Eclipse Award-winning Mike Smith, who is neck-and-neck with Jerry Bailey for the Gulfstream Park riding title. Bailey will ride Suave Prospect in the Derby.
"Yeah, Billy is really high on this horse," said Maryland jockey Albert Delgado, who will fly from Laurel to ride Oliver's Twist. "I don't know if that's good or not."
Boniface still is mystified over the rides Delgado and Jose Santos on Ops Smile gave his horses in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, a prep for the Florida Derby.
Instead of following his regular routine and coming from off the pace, Oliver's Twist broke sharply with Delgado and made the lead. He soon was joined by Santos on Ops Smile and the two stablemates burned themselves out.
Boniface was so exasperated afterward that his father, retired Baltimore Sun racing editor Bill Boniface Sr., who was at the race with his wife, Mary, said his son told them: "Next time, I'm going to get you and mother to ride these horses."
Ops Smile won't be a problem this time. He's bypassing the Derby and is being aimed for a career on the turf.
Oliver's Twist also will be getting Lasix for the first time. "I felt him weaken in the last eighth of a mile [in the Fountain of Youth]," Delgado said. Boniface had the horse examined afterward and discovered that he had bled.
Since then, Boniface has worked Oliver's Twist in the morning with Lasix, "and he was breathing well and didn't want to pull up. So it should help him," Boniface said.
However, history is against the horse. No horse foaled in Maryland has won a Florida Derby in the race's 43 runnings.
But that's not deterring Boniface.
"Heck," he said. "Horses can't read odds boards or history books."
On Monday, Boniface will put Oliver's Twist and his five other horses that have been stabled in Florida this winter on a van and ship them back to Maryland. Local fans could see Oliver's Twist in action at Pimlico next month in the Federico Tesio Stakes.
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, trainer Dick Small will employ
Meyerhoff's stakes-winning sprinter, Sticks and Bricks, as a rabbit for Concern. Small wants to ensure a quick pace, which should aid Concern in his come-from-behind tactics.
Small is using Smith on Concern for the first time. The horse will be the highweight at 125 pounds.