For a couple of decades, Skip Leviton and his wife, Gertrude, have had their picture taken numerous times in the winner's circle at Maryland racetracks with a succession of stakes winners such as Gala Lil, Gala Harry or Gala Goldilocks.
But the couple has never looked happier than they did yesterday when their 5-year-old horse, Gala Spinaway, won the $100,000 Polynesian Handicap at Pimlico Race Course.
Jockey Mario Pino said the horse literally "charged away" from the opposition in the stretch, defeating runner-up Ibex by nearly three lengths.
Four horses were bunched up in a photo finish for second, including Belmont Park shipper Lost Mountain, who carried the Preakness-winning colors of the Loblolly Stable and finished a head behind Ibex in third. Favored Root Boy, who didn't have the clearest of trips, was fourth.
"This horse is back to where he was," said a jubilant Skip Leviton about his former Maryland-bred champion who had spent nearly a year on the shelf, returning to the races last month.
When Gala Spinaway started to tail off form last year, Leviton, 78, began thinking about getting out of the business. When his longtime trainer, Bernie Bond, died last winter, Leviton didn't know what to do.
"When I got home from Bernie's funeral, there must have been 12 messages on my answering machine from trainers, all wanting to train my horses," Leviton said. But he decided to stick with Bond's young assistant, 29- year-old Graham Motion. "I figured he had worked hard for Bernie for 3 1/2 years and had learned a lot from him, so I stayed with him," Leviton said.
Motion's career took a leap forward yesterday when he saddled his first winner of a graded stakes and proved he could bring one of Maryland's most consistent stakes horses back to top form after a long layoff.
Gala Spinaway has now won stakes at Laurel or Pimlico for four straight years.
In addition to Bond, whose ashes were spread over the Pimlico finish line last winter, another familiar face was also missing yesterday in the winner's circle at Old Hilltop. Gala Spinaway's former jockey, Gregg McCarron, is now retired and was replaced, at least yesterday, by Pino.
The Polynesian had been the scene of frequent jock-hopping all last week for Richie Blue, owner of favored Root Boy, and his trainer Louis Bernier.
Tommy Turner, the horse's regular jockey, opted to ride Jacody yesterday in the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, but finished fifth.
"Then we offered the mount to Mike Luzzi, but he wanted to ride Green Darlin at Monmouth," Blue said. That filly finished third in the Monmouth Park Budweiser Breeders' Cup Handicap.
Blue and Bernier finally settled on Joe Rocco, who finished a disappointing fourth.
"As it turned out," Blue said, "everybody ended up with nothin'."