Eighttofasttocatch gives the Hefts their first champion

Eighttofasttocatch was just that Saturday at Laurel Park, as he ignored the rain, mud and closinghorses to win the $150,000 Maryland Million Classic and set off a joyous celebration in the winner's circle.

Owned by Arnold Heft and his wife Sylvia, Eighttofasttocatch represented the couple's longtime search for a champion.

"Though I owned the Bullets and the Capitals with Mr. Abe Pollin, we never really had a champion," said Arnold Heft, who named the horse after Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, who wears the No. 8. "This has to be the biggest thing for my wife and me. This is my first real champion, and I'm 92 years old."

Sylvia Heft, couldn't stop smiling, and she kissed everyone who wished her congratulations.

"We've been in horseracing and sports a long time," she said. "This has to be the best day we've ever had."

A crowd of 20,907 came out on an overcast day to watch the 26th running of the Jim McKay Maryland Million Day at the races. Cool from the start, the weather turned wet late in the afternoon, and by the time of the Classic, the track surface was getting deep, though it remained fast.

Eighttofasttocatch's jockey Sheldon Russell said his horse was not bothered by rain or the wet track. And it showed as he closed the gap on the leader heading into the stretch, then kicked it up another notch when he felthorses closing in on the outside, pulling away for a 1 3/4th-length victory.

The 5-year-old Not For Love chestnut gelding, bred by Dark Hollow Farm and Herringswell Stable, finished the 1 1/8th-mile course in 1:50.65 and paid $3.60. He was trailed across the finish line by Cactus Charlie and Not Abroad, another length and a half back.

"He's run in slop and won," Russell said of his comfortable ride. "The key for him is to relax. I got him to switch off, and then he came back running. It was just about the perfect race."

Starting from the No. 5 post, Eighttofasttocatch was in ideal position for a fast break, and he had one. He shot from the gate and found himself in the lead as the first turn approached.

But that wasn't exactly what Russell wanted.

"I was a little concerned when the speed horse didn't break," Russell said. "But then the seven [Regal Warrior] went to the front, and my horse settled in. He likes to be about three lengths off the lead, and five is even better."

In the grandstands, trainer Tim Keefe had the same early discomfort. But he too relaxed when Regal Warrior took a six-length lead by the half-mile. It was a situation that didn't please Regal Warrior's jockey Jorge Chavez.

"My horse broke okay, and he drug me to the lead," Chavez said. "I tried to slow him down, but he just gave up."

Nick Petro, who rode third-place finisher Not Abroad, was pleased with the way his horse ran, and could do little but tip his hat to the winner.

"He tried real hard and finished up well, but plain and simple, we just got outrun," Petro said.

Which, in the end, was no surprise to Keefe, who won his third Million race but first Classic.

"Once the seven horse got the lead, we were sitting exactly where we wanted to be," said Keefe. "Sheldon did a great job getting him to relax and he ran his 'A' race. If I had been drawing it up before the start, this would have been exactly the way I would have done it."

Keefe noted that all trainers dream of the Kentucky Derby, but he found great satisfaction in winning Saturday on his home track.

"To me, winning here on my home track in front of the home fans is wonderful," he said. "Maryland racing has been going through some hard times, but Maryand Million Day shows just how great our sport still is."


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