The stories behind most horses in tomorrow's Maryland Million involve the complexities of mating a mare to the right stallion, with breeders contemplating terms such as "nicks" and "crosses" and "out-crosses." Then there's Bob Ingham.
A semiretired investment adviser from Timonium, Ing- ham purchased a mare in the mid-1980s on whom he had never laid eyes. He liked her name: Guardian Angel.
"My wife had been in an automobile accident, and she didn't want to get back on the road," Ingham said. "So I bought her an LTD with a long hood. She called it the guardian angel."
Ingham, 67, had owned horses before, but none in about 20 years. He recalls that he paid about $5,000 for Guardian Angel. She was pregnant, but shortly after birth her foal died. Ingham bred her the next year, but the foal was kicked by a gelding and put down.
"For a guardian angel," Ingham said, "she didn't start out too well."
But then Ingham bred her to the stallion Salutely, and the mating produced a Virginia steeplechase champion. A subsequent breeding to Acallade, a little-known stallion now standing out of state, produced the gutsy chestnut Praise Heaven.
Tomorrow, in the $200,000 Maryland Million Classic, Praise Heaven will line up with the 10 other starters in one of the most evenly matched races in the 13-year history of the Maryland Million series.
This is the 14th version of Maryland's day at the races, a fair-like extravaganza at Laurel Park centered around 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions. That Praise Heaven has reached this pinnacle of competition in one of the state's premier races is, well, a bit of heavenly handiwork.
As a 3-year-old, he chipped an ankle and underwent surgery. At 4, he tore a ligament in his leg and was sidelined 12 months. And then last year, running in a muddy allowance race at Pimlico, he broke a bone in his left rear leg. Surgeons operated and inserted three screws. But still Praise Heaven ran on.
In his comeback race in April after the 10-month layoff, he won his first and only stakes, the $100,000 Jennings Handicap at Pimlico.
As a 7-year-old gelded senior citizen, Praise Heaven is having his finest year: seven starts, two wins, one second, two thirds. He has earned $103,120 this year for a career bankroll of $275,885.
"He's a special horse," said Dale Capuano, his trainer. "He tries hard. He gives you what he's got all the time.
"Usually after surgery like that [insertion of screws], you're thankful if they come back and stay the same or even regress a little bit. But he's come back better than ever."
Still, Praise Heaven will not rate among the favorites in the 1 3/16-mile race. Four or five horses will probably attract more wagers.
But Ingham, his breeder, has kept the faith -- even as events have altered the course of life since his purchase of Guardian Angel. His wife, Joanna, died last year.
Five years ago, Guardian Angel was euthanized because of cancer of the uterus. And Ingham sold Praise Heaven, in whom he saw little promise, even before the horse ran his first race. Louis J. Ulman, a Columbia lawyer, eventually claimed the gelding for $11,500.
As the breeder of Praise Heaven, Ingham collects Maryland-breeder bonuses every time the horse wins a race in the state. He figures he has collected $12,000 to $15,000 over the years.
"I've lost money in the horse business, but not a lot," Ingham said. "If I'd have kept Praise Heaven, he'd have made up for the losing years.
"But no regrets. In horse racing, you can second-guess yourself the rest of your life. You just do what you think's best at the time and live with it."
And he still owns horses, fewer than 10, including three in training with Bobby Kees. But his focus is still breeding, especially the breeding of one mare.
Several years ago, he and a former partner went to the Timonium sale to buy horses. They bought more than they were supposed to. Ingham had gone home, and his partner kept calling from the sale. Joanna kept asking why all the phone calls. Ingham didn't tell her until later.
One of those purchases is now the proud mama of a weanling colt by the promising young sire Lite the Fuse. Ingham said the colt might turn a nice profit in the sales ring.
The mama means more to Ingham than even Guardian Angel. That's because he named the mare after his wife. He named her Don't Tell Joanna.
Md. Million Day
What: 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions
Where: Laurel Park
When: Tomorrow, first race 12: 35 p.m. Doors open 10: 30 a.m.
Featured race: $200,000 Classic, 1 3/16 miles
TV: Ch. 45, 4 p.m.-6 p.m.