In the film Seabiscuit, the hero rebounds from near death to win a big race at the end of the movie. Magic Weisner's comeback may still end that way, but it began with a stunning disappointment yesterday at Laurel Park.
In his first race since nearly dying from West Nile Virus, Magic Weisner, the runner-up in last year's Preakness, finished last in a $36,000 non-stakes race against veteran local horses.
Owned, trained and bred by Nancy Alberts, Magic Weisner finished 21 1/4 lengths behind the winner, Inner Harbour, in the seven-furlong race.
"That's sad," Alberts said, watching through binoculars as her 4-year-old gelding lagged behind his five competitors. "Poor Magic. I didn't think he'd run that bad."
Ryan Fogelsonger, his jockey, said Magic Weisner warmed up well, but that as soon as he broke from the gate he could feel the horse was weak in his hind end. That's where the disease most affected Magic Weisner. He was so weak he couldn't stand up.
This was Magic Weisner's first race since finishing second last August to War Emblem in the Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth Park. Still, bettors made him the 6-5 favorite against a solid group of veteran Maryland runners. He never threatened them.
He broke last and fell far behind down the backstretch. He finished running, but not fast enough even to challenge the long shot, Suave Rhapsody, who finished fifth, 12 3/4 lengths ahead of Magic Weisner.
Alberts, who is stabled at Laurel, had hoped Magic Weisner would run well enough for her to point him to the Maryland Million Classic on Oct. 11 at Laurel.
"Back to the drawing board," Alberts said.
Magic Weisner's comeback came on opening day of the Laurel summer meet before 4,248 patrons. After the race, Frank Carulli, the track handicapper and oddsmaker, walked across the track apron.
"It was deathly quiet," he said. "I'd never seen anything like that at a racetrack."
Magic Weisner became one of the country's most popular horses last year with his rags-to-riches rise from anonymous Maryland-bred to Preakness runner-up. He won the Ohio Derby and finished fourth in the Belmont.
Alberts bred Magic Weisner from a crooked-legged mare she had purchased for $1. A veteran Maryland horsewoman, she had neither bred nor trained a horse of such stature. She was preparing him for the Pennsylvania Derby when he became ill last September. He had contracted West Nile Virus, apparently from a mosquito bite, and nearly died.
"My mom's just happy that he's here," said Will Alberts, Nancy's son, after the race. "He's really special to my mom. She's not going to give up on him.
"She'll be back. And he'll be back. That's what makes them such a great team."
NOTES: River Cruise powered to a seven-length victory in the opening-day feature, the $75,000 Twixt Stakes for 3-year-old Maryland-bred fillies. The Larry Murray-trainee is another quality runner from Sondra and Howard Bender's breeding program at their Glade Valley Farm in Frederick. ...
King Leatherbury failed in his first chance at Laurel to inch closer to the 6,000-win mark when Private Cat, his lone entrant yesterday, finished sixth in the second race. Leatherbury is two wins shy of becoming the third trainer to win 6,000 races.
He has two horses running today, one tomorrow and two Sunday. He has passed up chances to enter horses at Charles Town because he wants to reach the mark in Maryland, he said.
"I hope it doesn't take too long," he said. "As you know, these kind of things can drag out."
Veteran Maryland jockey Mark Johnston, who had left to compete in California, returned to ride Private Cat and will ride all of Leatherbury's horses for the time being - at Leatherbury's request, Johnston said.
"I considered that an honor," he said. "I give Mr. Leatherbury a lot of credit for my success. He put me on a lot of winners. He stuck with me through thick and thin."