The appropriate horse won the biggest race on the second-biggest day of racing in Maryland. His name: Perfect to a Tee.
The 7-year-old gelding captured the $200,000 Maryland Million Classic yesterday at Laurel Park, holding off the dramatic late charge of Steak Scam, a gelding 2 years younger.
Perfect to a Tee's trainer, rising star Linda Albert, said afterward that she worried early in the race that her horse, running snug against the rail, might become stuck inside traffic. But when Perfect to a Tee reached the final turn of the 1 3/16-mile race, his jockey Alcibiades Cortez swung the favorite to the outside and into the clear.
"When they got to the turn, I said," Albert recalled, pausing for effect, " 'we ... are ... perfect.' "
Her thought at that moment about her aptly named horse described the day to a tee. The 14th Maryland Million, a salute to Maryland thoroughbred racing, lured 18,026 patrons to a sun-drenched Laurel Park on a sparkling fall afternoon.
They wagered on 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions, watched trick-riding and jousting demonstrations, listened to the track bugler play the theme from "Mr. Ed" and witnessed the outcome of races that always seem -- on Maryland Million day -- to warm the heart.
In the $100,000 Maryland Million Oaks, 3-year-old filly Saratoga Friends romped by 7 1/2 lengths for her seven owners, all close friends. There were eight until Dick Dutrow, the respected trainer, died in February.
"He's here," Al Akman, one of the "Saratoga friends," said in the winner's circle. "I talked to Dickie this morning. I told him we were going to be in the hunt today."
In the $100,000 Maryland Million Lassie, Gin Talking surged down the stretch to win by a length for her three owners from Clarksville. So many jubilant supporters poured into the winner's circle that the post-race photo had to be taken on the track.
"I can't tell you how much this means to us," said Lou Rehak, one of Gin Talking's owners. "Everybody who races in Maryland wants to win on Maryland Million day."
The competition among owners, breeders, trainers and jockeys -- not to mention the stallions without whom there would be no show -- bestows bragging rights upon the winners until at least the next Maryland Million.
Stallion Two Punch and jockey Rick Wilson earned those rights this year. Three of Two Punch's offspring -- Tropical Punch, Darwin and Aristotle -- won races, and Wilson, the veteran jockey, rode three winners.
For Albert, the trainer of Perfect to a Tee, the victory in the Classic with its purse of $200,000 was the richest of her 11-year training career. Her horses won two Maryland Million races last year, and one, Miss Angelina, was owned by the same group that owns Perfect to a Tee.
That foursome of Washington lawyers races under the name Nonsequitur Stable. Ellen Fredel, Patrick Dooher, David Dorsen and Italo Ablondi have owned horses together since 1994, all with Albert. "We wouldn't put a horse anyplace else," Fredel said. "She has the horse's interest at heart. If she tells us a horse needs time, we listen. If she tells us it's time to drop one, we listen to that, too."
Albert, in turn, praised the owners for their patience, a quality all trainers hope for in their owners but few receive. Four years ago Albert claimed Perfect to a Tee for the group for $14,500.
"We took a long time with this horse," Albert said. "We weren't expecting anything too exciting from him. But the owners let him become a good horse."
They granted him the time to learn and mature until he developed into a stakes winner. And Albert started running him in longer races, which he relished.
"Now he's a nice old horse," Albert said, "a nice, sound old horse."
He was the 9-5 favorite in a field of 10. Eleven were entered, but the stewards scratched Fred Bear Claw before the race because of what they described as a dispute over the horse's ownership. They declined to elaborate.
Perfect to a Tee raced fourth along the rail as Praise Heaven and Monk's Falcon whistled side by side on the lead. Testafly bulled his way between those two on the far turn and looked for a moment as if he might run off by himself.
But Cortez steered Perfect to a Tee to the outside, and the gelding wore down Testafly in the stretch. Steak Scam and his jockey Mark Johnston surged powerfully along the rail, gaining on the leader with every stride.
The two horses passed under the wire in near unison. The photo revealed the winner, the appropriate winner on this day: by a nose, Perfect to a Tee.
Maryland Million day
Distaff Starter: Trop. Punch
Lassie: Gin Talking
Distaff: Flippy Diane
Oaks: Saratoga Friends
Ladies: Vaguely Rich
Turf: Private Slip
Classic: Perfect to a Tee
Starter: Pride of Benray