Her name means a South American tango, not a pie topping. And before Merengue could register a stakes win yesterday at Laurel Park, she had to do some dancing, the bump and grind, down the shadow-streaked homestretch.
A 4-year-old filly seeking her third straight stakes score, Merengue (pronounced Mer-ENG-gue) surged into the lead early in the $75,000 Maryland Racing Writers Handicap. She led the parade of seven fillies and mares into the stretch of the 1 1/8-mile race until Proud Run, a 5-year-old mare based at Fair Hill, threatened on the outside.
With Rick Wilson slapping Merengue and Mario Pino urging Proud Run, the two battling horses bumped, then bumped again. Proud Run thrust her nose in front, but Merengue fought back and promptly regained the lead. At the wire, as the pair passed in a blur, Merengue prevailed by a head.
"When that other horse came over and leaned on her, she pinned her ears and leaned right back," said Wilson, a wily jockey commanding a willing horse. "She is a gutsy filly."
Merengue was the 4-5 favorite, so her victory in 1 minute, 50 4/5 seconds -- her seventh in 14 races -- was not surprising. That she won for her owner, Milton P. Higgins III, was the improbability.
Higgins, who lives in Olney, intended to sell Merengue, a daughter of Broad Brush and Sentimental Tango, when she was a yearling. But at the time of the sale, her ankles were inflamed. She wasn't marketable. Higgins had to keep her.
"We were sort of forced into racing her," Higgins said. "If anybody tells you there's not a lot of luck involved in this business, they'd better think again."
Higgins presented Merengue to trainer Donald Barr, and he proceeded to do what he does so well: prepare a horse in the mornings at Laurel for optimum performances in the afternoons. Noticing early that Merengue disdained the usual late-running style of a Broad Brush foal, Barr allowed her to run as she preferred: on the lead, alone.
"She wants to be out there by herself, and then she relaxes," her jockey said. "But she won't run off. She'll wait until another horse comes up to her, and then she'll dig in and take off again."
Barr said he'll probably keep Merengue racing in Maryland, where she's become one of the top females in anyone's stable. She's earned a quarter of a million dollars.
"She's just getting better, and she's getting better, and she's getting better," Barr said. "She ran a heck of a race today."
NOTE: Laurel Park races tomorrow on this extended holiday weekend. Post time is 12: 15 p.m.
Pub Date: 1/17/99