NORTH EAST -- Imagine having a horse so fast that no one in Maryland will race against him.
That's the situation David Wade -- trainer, driver, breeder and part-owner of S J's Photo, the speediest and richest Maryland-bred harness horse of all time -- finds himself in.
"I'd love to try to break the world record for a mile with this horse at Rosecroft [Raceway, near Washington]," Wade said. "But they won't take my entry. If I put his name in the entry box, they'd throw it out. Essentially, he's barred from racing in Maryland because the officials say he's just too darn good."
Billy Perkins, racing secretary at Rosecroft Raceway, acknowledged that it's virtually impossible to find another horse in Maryland to race against S J's Photo.
"I'd love to see David [Wade] race here and set a track and world record," Perkins said. "But the guys I have here won't race against him. His horse is about six seconds faster than anything we have on the grounds. I tried to put on a race for S J last year. I invited every trotter I could think of in the country and thought I'd run it if I could get five horses. But I couldn't.
"To put on a race for him would be a complete favor. I'd have to have the purse money to do it, which I don't have right now. And we'd have to bar S J from wagering. We really don't have that caliber of horse here to race against him."
But no matter.
The 5-year-old horse, who is undefeated in 17 starts in Maryland, and his 50-year-old trainer are taking their show on the road and making names for themselves worldwide.
Earlier in the month, they were in Canada. Earlier in the spring, they took on Scandinavia in a four-country tour that lasted two months and netted nearly $225,000. And later this year, after competing in the most prestigious U.S. races for older American trotters, Wade and "S J" will head to Italy and France. The horse's earnings are approaching $1 million.
Having a horse this good -- plopped down on your farm as a baby and raised in your pastures -- is a little like hitting the lottery, Wade said.
"Only it's better," he said. "You have the day-to-day challenge of training him, keeping him happy and healthy and wanting to go out there and compete."
Last week, S J's Photo looked a little tired. He had spent the good part of a sultry July weekend on a truck, going to and from Toronto. He had raced in a $200,000 stakes at Woodbine Race Course, where he came from last at the top of the stretch and just missed winning by a head, but was disqualified and placed fifth. Wade is appealing the ruling.
But expect the little iron horse -- who stands only 15 hands (5 feet), weighs less than 1,000 pounds and makes his living pulling a 205-pound man and 30-pound sulky around a stone dust oval in near-world-record times -- to rebound quickly.
More than once, S J's Photo has proven his true grit.
This spring, the horse stood in a trailer for 17 hours on a Sweden-to-Finland ferry, but won the Finlandia Cup a day later by defeating that country's premier trotter.
A couple of weeks later in the Elit- lopp (Swedish for "elite race"), the horse broke stride after Wade uncustomarily tried to hustle him to the lead and finished a disappointing sixth before a record crowd of 35,000 at Stockholm's Solvalla racetrack.
"I got a little caught up in the hoopla and hype and tried to make him do something he didn't want to," Wade said. The laid-back S J's Photo is routinely a "slow leaver" and prefers to relax early and make a charge in the stretch, he said.
But S J's Photo left Europe a winner. He won the Copenhagen Cup in Denmark in his next start.
"Each time I climb out of that sulky, I constantly look at him and shake my head in amazement," Wade said. "Here is this little, modestly bred horse from Cecil County, Md. He doesn't move the best. He does what you call paddling in front. I look at him and ask myself, 'Where does it come from?' "
How long will S J's Photo keep racing?
"I thought I'd retire him after I take him to France next winter and race in the Prix d'Amerique, their biggest race," Wade said. "But now I've changed my mind. By taking him to Europe this spring, I found out just what he's made of, how strong he really is.
"I want to go back and win the Elitlopp. But I'll only go if he's dead-on. He'll tell me by his actions when he doesn't want to race anymore."