Trainer Tim Keefe knew all week it would be an emotional Saturday if Eighttofasttocatch became the first horse to win the Maryland Million Classic three times.
With the death of his primary benefactor, Arnold Heft, in March, and then his father on May 3, Keefe went into the race without the support of two of the most important people in his life.
Bounding to the front at the start and getting away with a relaxed opening quarter-mile under jockey Forest Boyce, Eighttofasttocatch had plenty left for the stretch drive and won the centerpiece of the Maryland Million Day race card by 4 1/2 lengths at Laurel Park.
In a throwback to yesteryear, fans ringed the rail of the winner's circle three deep to applaud the 8-year-old gelding as he sauntered in to face a battalion of photographers.
A large crowd, including members of Heft's family, filled the winner's circle, as well, and Keefe, holding back tears, embraced a woman who congratulated him.
"I have no idea who it was," Keefe said later. "I just hugged whoever had their arms open. The euphoria I'm on now. ... Arnold [was] the biggest owner I had, and him not being here and my father not being here this year too, that got me a little bit choked up."
The victory by Eighttofasttocatch proved popular with the announced 18,870 as he went off as the overwhelming 3-5 favorite in a field of eight. He ran 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute, 50.54 seconds to finish well ahead of runner-up Concealed Identity and third-place finisher Turbin.
Maryland Million Day is the third-most-important day on the state's racing calendar after the Preakness and Black-Eyed Susan, and it spotlights the progeny of stallions standing in the state.
Eighttofasttocatch is a son of Not for Love, whose offspring dominated the proceedings, winning four of the eight Maryland Million races.
Not for Love, who remains an active sire at the advanced age of 24 at Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City, is widely considered the most successful Maryland-based stallion ever. He ran his total of Maryland Million victories to 32, 10 ahead of the late Allen's Prospect.
Eighttofasttocatch entered the Maryland Million as one of two star runners on the race card, having won the Classic in 2011 and again last year. The other, Ben's Cat, suffered his second straight defeat in the Maryland Million Turf by the smallest of margins.
A winner of 27 races — 22 in stakes — and more than $2.2 million, Ben's Cat had sailed to victory in the Maryland Million Turf Sprint Handicap three times before the race was discontinued before last year
Versatile, though not long-winded, Ben's Cat was cross-entered by trainer King Leatherbury in the six-furlong Sprint on the dirt and the one-mile Turf. The 8-year-old gelding lost the Turf last year by a neck to Roadhog, yet Leatherbury elected to give the race another shot.
When the gate opened, Ben's Cat, under jockey Julian Pimentel, closely tracked front-runner Capital Fellow in second place, two lengths off the pace. The 9-5 favorite in the field of nine, Ben's Cat took over the lead on the turn for home.
He held his nemesis Roadhog at bay, but could not withstand the charge on the outside by Talk Show Man, who beat him by a half-length.
"He ran a dynamite race," Leatherbury said. "I've got no complaints on that. He didn't want to go a mile, but he dug in the best he could."
The victory, in a time of 1:39.20, was veteran trainer Hamilton Smith's fifth in a Maryland Million race.
"At the three-eighths pole, when he made his move, it looked like it would be three horses to the wire," Smith said. "He ran a tremendous race, and I'm really proud of him."
The biggest upset of the day came when jockey Horacio Karamanos put 66-1 long shot Bear Access on the lead and never looked back to win the Maryland Million Ladies, a 1 1/8-mile turf race for fillies and mares, by three-quarters of a length.
Trained by Larry Murray for longtime owner Howard Bender, Bear Access paid $134.20 for a $2 win bet, the largest payoff in the 29-year history of the event.
"I told Karamanos in the paddock, 'You're going to be 50-1. They might put you on the front end and forget about you,'" Murray said.
A total of $2,801,971 was wagered on the Maryland Million, up from $2,288,125 in 2013.