Not long ago, Flying Punch was about to be sold as an underachiever. Today, he's being pointed to Maryland's premier race for 3-year-olds.
The difference: a pair of scissors and a harder training schedule.
Sporting clipped blinkers and fresher spirit, Flying Punch pulled a major upset in yesterday's $50,000 Private Terms Stakes in a bump-and-grind stretch run against favored Oliver's Twist. He's Got Gall was third.
The trio will likely meet again April 22 in the $200,000 Tesio Stakes at Pimlico, the state's primer for the Preakness Stakes.
Yesterday, Flying Punch was regarded as a minor player, dispatched at 24-1 by the Laurel and Pimlico patrons.
But trainer Donald Barr believed his 3-year-old belonged in added-money events. Although the horse ran fourth in both his previous stakes attempts, Barr never felt Flying Punch was outrun.
Two little tricks turned Flying Punch around.
Sensing his horse was hesitating while wearing standard blinkers, Barr trimmed the blinders to give his horse more vision.
Furthermore, he worked him harder in the mornings.
"He would come out of races and look like he was just getting winded," Barr said. "Sometimes you see a horse is giving his all and is just getting beat. But this horse gave me the impression that he could compete, but that I just wasn't getting his best performance. I knew I had to do something. I started working him harder and I found out he thrives on it."
Oliver's Twist, last year's Maryland-bred 2-year-old champion, was coming off respectable performances in graded stakes races in Florida and was clearly the horse to beat at odds of 4-5.
But he found Flying Punch too much to overcome, even when he appeared to have clear aim to victory with 200 yards to the finish. Flying Punch, with Omar Klinger riding, prevailed by a head over Oliver's Twist and jockey Alberto Delgado.
It was three-quarters of a length back to He's Got Gall, the solid second choice from the Carlos Garcia barn.
Flying Punch paid $50, $12 and $4.20. The exacta was $164.60 and the triple was $351.20.
Owner Milton Higgins admits he is now relieved that Flying Punch wasn't resold by breeder Wendy Lyons, something that seemed a possibility a few months back. Because Two Punch's offspring are now a hot commodity, and because Flying Punch wasn't achieving as promised, a deal was in the works.
But the opportunity fell through, leaving Barr and Higgins with the horse, and now with a bright future.
"If Donald Barr believed this horse ought to be in a stake, then we believed he should be," Higgins said. "I guess he proved it now."
The Flying Punch contingent had to wait out a steward's inquiry before the victory was official. A mild drifting incident in the stretch was ruled insignificant.
Even in defeat, Oliver's Twist put forth a strong performance. He overcame a dreaded outside post in the 1 1/16-mile race, going wide in both turns. He then was slightly impeded in his stretch run.
"I think we ran the best horse today," said trainer Bill Boniface.
NOTES: Trainer Graham Motion continued his hot streak with first-time starters, winning yesterday's fifth race with Star Trace for his fourth debut winner this meeting. Interestingly, Motion wanted to purchase the son of Star De Naskra at a Keeneland invitational sale last year, but his top bid of $40,000 didn't exceed the $45,000 reserve amount held on the horse.
Motion received a second chance, however, when original owner Larry Johnson offered Motion a share of the Maryland-bred. Motion, in the purchasing agent role for his wife's aunt from England, made the investment and became the horse's trainer.
Star Trace's victory, in an impressive 1:10 4/5, came at the expense of Cappuccio, a $200,000 yearling purchase by Giant Food magnate Israel Cohen. Cappuccio, trained by Dean Gaudet, went to post at 6-5 but tired in the stretch and finished seventh out of eight. . . .
Apprentice jockeys Francisco Maysonett and Eric Payne were both issued seven-day suspensions for riding infractions. Veteran Alberto Delgado, recently disqualified when his mount impeded another, was held blameless for the incident, avoiding a suspension.