Cuba, a 7-year-old horse sired in Maryland and bred in New Jersey, took the lead coming out of the far turn of the Jim McKay Maryland Million Classic yesterday and outraced Diamond David and defending champion Evil Storm down the stretch for a four-length victory in the feature race of a card at Laurel Park restricted to offspring of Maryland stallions.
Nearly 22,000 showed up at Laurel for the 23rd running of what is considered Maryland's second-most important race day next to the Preakness, and $2.96 million was wagered at the track and elsewhere.
Although Cuba, who paid $4.40 to win, was a short-money favorite along with Five Steps in the five-horse field, he was coming off a quick turnaround from the Massachusetts Handicap, in which he finished third Sept. 20.
"What people don't know is what a special horse this is," trainer Bobby Dibona said. "We had a big problem up in Boston at the Mass 'Cap, where I thought he was almost going to get scratched. To show his resilience to rebound from a little complication he had really shows the heart he has."
Cuba needed to have his tendon sheath treated shortly before the Massachusetts Handicap, Dibona said.
Dibona was encouraged to enter Cuba in the Maryland Million Classic when the field shaped up as thin. The decision turned out to be a good one as Cuba, an $18,000 claimer, enjoyed his biggest career payday in winning $165,000 of the purse in the $300,000 Classic yesterday. The win pushed his 2008 earnings to nearly $400,000.
"He's just the coolest horse," Dibona said. "He's great to be around; he does everything, push-button like a champ. Don't think for one minute that he didn't know what was going on today. As soon as he's on his way up, he likes it as much as we do."
Cuba is also an example of how trainers are tactical about picking horses in an era of state-by-state added purses. Besides being eligible for the Maryland Million for being sired in Maryland, he is also eligible for added purses in New Jersey as a Jersey-bred. That was part of Dibona's strategy when he claimed him, the trainer said.
Yesterday, Cuba - with Pedro Cotto Jr. in the irons - stalked front-runner Diamond David and Blue's Baby Boy for the middle portion of the 1 3/16 -mile race and made his move at the far turn going outside first Blue's Baby Boy and then Diamond David. After hitting the stretch, Cuba pulled away from his closest pursuers, finishing in 1 minute, 57:78 seconds as Diamond David, ridden by Mario Pino, finished second and defending Classic champion Evil Storm, with Jeremy Rose riding, rallied for third. Five Steps, a favorite along with winner Cuba, was fourth, and Blue's Baby Boy faded to fifth.
"We thought the one and five [Diamond Dave and Blue's Baby Boy] would go, and they did," Cotto said. "It played right for us. We waited, then when I asked [Cuba] he went."
While the Classic was the Maryland Million feature race, the most competitive was the $150,00 Distaff won by Spectacular Malibu, a 4-year-old gray-roan filly ridden by Julian Pimentel and trained by Laurel-based Mike Trombetta.
"She had a tough beat last time out," Trombetta said of Spectacular Malibu's loss by a nose at Presque Isle Downs in mid-August, "so it was nice to turn it around at home."
Spectacular Malibu missed all of 2007 with an ankle chip but this year had finished in the money six times in nine outings before yesterday's win.
"This was a great group of horses, all stakes winners," Trombetta said of the eight-horse Distaff field. "She probably ran one of her lifetime best ."
All Giving, who helped set the pace before yielding to Spectacular Malibu ($9 to win), was second, and Jet Away Jane was third.