Robert E. Meyerhoff and Grover G. "Bud" Delp circled May 12 on their calendars last fall. That was the date not only of the Pimlico Special, Maryland's premier race for older horses, but also the date their 4-year-old Include would come of age.
Yesterday, in the fading sunlight at Pimlico, the Maryland-bred Include ran down Albert the Great, the nation's third-ranked horse, to win the Pimlico Special in a thrilling stretch battle decided in the final strides.
"I don't know about that tight finish," said Delp, Include's trainer. "Spectacular Bid never did that to me."
Two decades ago, Delp, stabled at Laurel Park, trained Spectacular Bid, one of the greatest horses ever to race in this country. Few horses compare with "the Bid," but Include had flashed sufficient ability that Delp dreamed of again running the colt in top races against top competition.
But first, Include had to prove in the Pimlico Special, a Grade I stakes worth $750,000, that he belonged in elite company.
"I knew he was good, but he might be great," Delp said. "He's for real. He's Grade I."
For Include, the victory represented the first for a Maryland-based horse in the Pimlico Special since 1988, when the race was renewed after a 30-year absence.
For Meyerhoff, Include's owner and breeder, the victory was his first in the Pimlico Special after one second (Valley Crossing in 1993) and two thirds (Valley Crossing in 1994 and Concern in 1995).
Meyerhoff is perennially the leading owner and breeder of thoroughbreds in Maryland.
For Delp, the victory delivered the richest purse in four decades of training. Delp has won a couple of $500,000 races, but never before a $750,000 stakes (with $500,000 going to the winner). Now, are $1 million races in Include's future?
"I'm sure we'll be eyeballing them," Delp said. "Mr. Meyerhoff told me to nominate to anything and everything, and we'll run whenever he's ready."
The ultimate goal, Delp said, is the Breeders' Cup Classic in the fall at Belmont Park.
Include won the Pimlico Special despite what his jockey Jerry Bailey called "not your ideal trip."
Include broke awkwardly from the No. 1 post and then bumped Pleasant Breeze a couple of times jockeying for position past the grandstand. Include entered the first turn fifth. Laredo set the pace with Albert the Great right behind.
Albert the Great claimed the lead around the far turn. Accelerating along the rail, Include squeezed through a tight hole, swung wide and then, after turning for home, overtook Pleasant Breeze and then set his sights on Albert the Great.
With Jorge Chavez whipping Albert the Great left-handed along the rail, and Bailey whipping Include right-handed and then left-handed farther outside, the two dashed for the wire in their own private race. Carrying 7 fewer pounds, Include proved best, prevailing by a neck.
"I'll tell you, he ran down a good horse," Bailey said of Include. "He's a cool customer. He never batted an eye. He never flinched. I think this horse passed the test in a very big way."
As the 5-2 second choice, Include paid $7 to win. The exacta with the 3-5 Albert the Great returned $14.60. The trifecta with the 4-1 Pleasant Breeze third returned $33.20. The 1 minute 55.61 seconds for the 1 3/16 miles was the slowest since the race's 1988 renewal.
Nick Zito, trainer of Albert the Great, was not pleased with Chavez's ride.
"I told him to stay outside," said an agitated Zito. "That's all I told him: Stay outside. I wanted him to be out in the middle of the track, but he ends up down on the rail.
"We just got beat. What can I say? We just got beat."
Chavez said that he had to restrain Albert the Great after Laredo crossed in front of him during their first run past the grandstand.
"I hate to make excuses, but in a close race like this you hate to lose because of something like that," Chavez said. "But that's racing, I guess."
Chavez said that his horse did not see Include as the pair neared the wire.
"If my horse had seen him, I think he might have fought back," Chavez said. "My horse ran a big race. My horse gave me everything."
But the spotlight fell on the winner. Since Delp began training Include as a 3-year-old, the son of Broad Brush and Illeria has won eight of nine races. His only defeat came last September in the Pennsylvania Derby when he suffered a pulled muscle.
This past year, Include's record rivals any in racing.