Jockey Rick Wilson, fresh off a weeklong vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., said he felt revived for yesterday's races at Laurel Park. Turns out, he needed every reserve breath to prevail in the $75,000 Stefanita Stakes.
With a 46-year-old jockey on her back pushing and whipping like a man half his age, the 5-year-old mare Cottage Garden surged ahead in the final strides to prevail in a six-horse blanket finish and take the winner's share of $45,000. It was a nice return to work for Wilson, who was making his debut ride aboard Cottage Garden.
"I knew this filly ran some good races against some very good horses," he said. "There was plenty of speed in this race, so I just wanted to keep in good position. At the top of the lane, I knew I had a chance and it opened up for me."
Cottage Garden and Wilson benefited from the wide trip taken by Tookin Down, the strong favorite in the field of nine fillies and mares racing 7 furlongs. Tookin Down has limited experience in sprints and was far back before mounting a rally that took her eight-wide. She gave up too much ground and lost by a half-length.
It was a neck back to Nothing Special, who held a narrow edge with 70 yards to go, and a nose back to Passeggiata, another late rallier who just missed. Cottage Garden covered the 7 furlongs in 1 minute, 24.52 seconds and paid $31.80 as the second-longest shot in the field.
Tookin Down paid $2.40 to place and was part of a $81.60 exacta.
Wilson made a winner of Laird George, a 35-year-old trainer who was introduced to thoroughbreds on the spacious Whiteley Farms in South Carolina. It was Frank Whiteley who helped school trainers Shug McGaughey, Nick Zito, Barclay Tagg and Charles Hadry. George has been training on his own for three years.
"I was fortunate to have a Harvard education when it came to horses," said George, who has five horses in his Delaware-based stable, all owned by Helen K. Groves, another person with deep roots in the racing industry. Cotton Garden has supplied both of George's stakes victories.
Cottage Garden has nine wins in 30 lifetime starts and almost $300,000 in earnings.
It was a disappointing second-place finish for Tookin Down, trained and owned by Richard Small. Last month, Small lost his contract to train for big-time owners Tom and Robert Myerhoff, making this small stakes races more important.
"It was a great race," said Small, 54. "I wish we could have got it. I'm fortunate that I have some nice horses on my own at this point. In some ways, though, it's all probably better. I'm getting old, and working at that level all the time was like working against a full-court press day after day, year after year."