Craig Perret looks like a man on a mission.
At 39, he's on the brink of middle age and has certainly reached the time when most athletes have passed their peak.
But Perret has never ridden better. His confidence and poise, much in evidence yesterday at the Maryland Million, had virtually gone unnoticed nationally until at the ripe old age of 36, he won the 1987 Belmont Stakes with Bet Twice.
Up to that point, he was just another rider in New Jersey. Now he's one of the most sought-after stakes jockeys in the nation.
"Not very sociable" is how some of his peers describe him.
When the New Orleans native was in town yesterday to ride eight horses on the Maryland Million card, he didn't have much time for small talk.
He was too busy hopping on and off horses' backs. When the day's work was done -- and Perret was out the door grabbing the quickest cab away from Pimlico -- he had compiled the best record of any jockey in the five-year history of the $1 million event.
Perret rode eight horses and all of them finished in the money. Three won. Four were second and the last one, 3-5 shot Divine Warning, finished third.
When he won the featured Budweiser Maryland Classic on Timely Warning by outfoxing Edgar Prado on Silano and outfinishing Julie Krone on Master Speaker, it was Perret's 42nd stakes win this year.
He is almost certain to be named the nation's champion jockey of 1990. Among his achievements: The winning ride on Unbridled in the Kentucky Derby and a stellar day a couple of weeks ago when he won back-to-back Saratoga stakes on Rhythm and on Housebuster, a leading candidate for Horse of the Year.
Perret's Maryland Million day started predictably. He finished second with Amy Be Good behind Julie Krone on Safely Kept in the $100,000 Distaff Handicap.
Perret's first Maryland Million win came aboard Xray, a 2-year-old colt who was at 4-5 odds to win the Maryland Nursery. But the colt needed all of Perret's persuasive powers to get the job done.
"This colt doesn't have a lot of speed, but he comes on late," Perret said afterward. "He wasn't going anywhere rounding the turn, but he showed a lot of guts and courage to come through a tight spot like he did. That's a good sign for a 2-year-old."
Perret's easiest win came on Jeweler's Choice in the USAir Maryland Sprint Handicap. The 5-year-old gelding, who like Perret might be classified a late developer, circled the field and won by 3 1/4 lengths.
In the Budweiser Maryland Classic, Perret was riding Timely Warning, considered the weaker half of the Buddy Raines-trained entry that included Master Speaker, last year's winner. Timely Warning was supposed to run like a "rabbit" and set a fast pace to help his stablemate make a winning late bid. Instead, Perret laid comfortably along the rail. Prado, on the speedy Silano, never pressed the pace, even when the first half-mile was run in a leisurely 49 2/5 seconds.
"I was confident most of the way," Perret said. "I didn't want to go too much in a hurry." Prado, who was probably still smarting after Perret ran him into the ground causing his unexpected defeat on Valay Maid earlier in the Maryland Oaks, elected not to go after him.
It was a fatal mistake. Perret had plenty of horse left and beat Master Speaker by a length.
Though she finished second on Master Speaker, Krone duplicated her feat of a year ago by winning two races. She not only won with Safely Kept, but also with Countus In in the Maryland Ladies turf race.
Rick Wilson, a leader on the Pennsylvania circuit who recently started riding at Pimlico, also won two races. Both were on long shots -- Arugula ($47.40) in the Starter Handicap and Hear The Bells ($22.40) in the 3-year-old turf race.
The stallion Allen's Prospect, who stands at Country Life Farm in Bel Air, sired both winners of the 2-year-old races: Xray come through as anticipated, and the stallion's daughter, Ameri Allen, won the Lassie Stakes for 2-year-old fillies.