LAUREL -- Her morning exercise complete, Miss Josh began the long walk back to Barn 19 at Laurel Race Course.
Barclay Tagg, her trainer, was on the other end of a shank, gratified with yesterday's workout, the last for Miss Josh before Sunday's $300,000 All Along Stakes.
Tagg, 53, was undaunted by the half-mile or so trek from the turf course to his stable -- because for much of this year, he and Miss Josh have found themselves farther from home. Much farther.
They have been to Florida, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Louisiana, running in and winning big races for the Bonner Farm of George Rowand and family. They have racked up a record impressive enough to possibly win the only Eclipse Award for Maryland connections this year, theirs for top filly-mare turf runner.
Miss Josh will be the heaviest favorite in the five races that compose the Turf Festival, traditionally Laurel's biggest event of the year. On Saturday, the 40th Budweiser International will be run, along with the Laurel Futurity and Selima Stakes; on Sunday, the track plays host to the All Along and Laurel Dash.
"She's better than she's ever been," Tagg said, moments after a five-furlong work that Daily Racing Form clockers timed in 1 minute, 2 1/5 seconds. "She's an incredible mare to hold her form the way she has the last two years."
Miss Josh has won five of eight 1991 starts, with two seconds and a third. All of her races have been on grass, which the Turf Festival, barring unsuitable conditions, will be run on. The 5-year-old mare has earned $468,560 in 1991 for Bonner Farm, located in Virginia. That's an incredible sum for a horse of mediocre breeding and beginnings.
Miss Josh is by Nasty and Bold and out of Highland Mills, a mare Rowand bought for $27,000 in 1980. In her first start, Miss Josh ran against $12,000 maiden-claiming company, a sign that Tagg certainly did not think she would develop into an Eclipse hopeful.
"She hadn't shown me much," he recalled.
But she showed plenty soon after Tagg began entering her in grass races, the trainer's specialty. Last year, a year in which she earned $259,622, Miss Josh lost the All Along by the barest of noses to Foresta, who was regarded as her main Eclipse rival until an injury in May forced her retirement.
Fire the Groom, a California-based filly trained by Bill Shoemaker, has since become Miss Josh's top Eclipse threat. With the female-turf division usually among the most difficult gauge for Eclipse voters -- there are fewer definitive races than in other classes -- Tagg often finds himself explaining how and why Miss Josh, up to now, is most worthy of the award.
"She has accomplished more than any other horse, by a long shot," he concluded.
Skipping the All Along are Fire the Groom and Colour Chart, the one-two finishers in the Beverly D. Handicap in September, a race in which Miss Josh finished third as the favorite. (Miss Josh and Fire the Groom are 1-1 in their two meetings.) Tagg mentioned Colour Chart and another California mare, Bequest, as possible threats Sunday, but both have been declared.
Willing out-of-towners will have to face Miss Josh on her home turf -- which Tagg, ironically, does not see as a particular edge for his mare. Historically, for many Maryland runners in the Turf Festival, their only edge over more talented invaders is a local one. In Miss Josh's case, Tagg said, that doesn't seem to apply.
"She loves to get on planes and vans," he said. "She's run well all over the U.S. She doesn't need a home-court advantage. If anything, maybe I should put her on a van and drive her around the block a couple times."
Things were quiet on other Turf Festival fronts yesterday -- in mid-morning, only two horses were stabled in the International Village. A planeload of 10 European horses was scheduled to arrive on an Air France flight last night at Dulles International Airport. After a brief quarantine period, and as other shippers file in, the races should come into keener focus.
Entries for all Turf Festival races will be taken tomorrow, with post positions drawn at a 10:30 a.m. breakfast.