Long shot wins Johnson Memorial

March 06, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

Local Problem might be called the Charles Barkley of racehorses.

He's a troublemaker, a bully, an in-your-face kind of animal that loves to be manhandled, his trainer Mary Eppler said yesterday.

But the equine bad boy unleashed a strong late bid in the stretch at Laurel Race Course yesterday and won the $75,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Handicap by five lengths over 7-5 favorite Gala Spinaway.

He was ridden by Allen Stacy, who won his second stakes in two weeks after recently moving back to the Maryland circuit from Kentucky. Stacy previously won the Horatius Stakes at Laurel aboard Run Alden.

Local Problem was considered the least likely runner in the seven-horse field to pull off such an upset. He was sent off at 17-1 odds, the longest shot in the field. The horse had not run in two months and his only prior stakes victory came against New York-breds.

But he is a big, strong horse, carrying a double cross of Native Dancer blood in his veins and Eppler had him ready.

Local Problem benefited from a fast early pace set by Ameri Valay and Philadelphia Park invader Slick Horn. When the speed gave away, Stacy circled the field with Local Problem and gained the lead around the final turn.

"I thought I had him till the top of the stretch," said Mario Pino, the jockey on Gala Spinaway. "He was right ahead of me and I didn't know much about him. His form is with New York-breds. But he went on ahead in the stretch and I couldn't gain any ground on him."

The victory capped a winning day on two fronts for his octogenarian owner, Alfred G. Vanderbilt, whose cerise and white silks are among the most famous in American racing. A couple of hours earlier, Vanderbilt's 3-year-old colt, Gash, broke his maiden by 12 1/2 lengths against New York breds at Aqueduct.

Vanderbilt keeps about a half-dozen runners with Eppler, who is stabled at Pimlico Race Course, which was once owned by Vanderbilt.

She has had Local Problem for his entire career, except for a brief 12-day interlude last fall when Vanderbilt sent him to David Whiteley in New York. "But he tore down the barn at Whiteley's and ran off in the mornings. When they couldn't control him, Mr. Vanderbilt said 'Send him back to Mary,' " Eppler recalled.

She said the horse is so tough in the mornings that in addition to his exercise rider, he must be accompanied by an outrider on a pony just to complete his daily gallops.

NOTES: A portion of the gate at Laurel yesterday was donated by management to Morgan State University. Track operator Joe De Francis said the college usually receives about $10,000. . . . Mike Luzzi is now the leading rider at Aqueduct. He won his sixth stakes of the winter at the Big A yesterday when he defeated Maryland-based Broad Gains by a half length in the $100,000 Next Move Handicap aboard Groovy Feeling. . . . The Next Move, incidentally, is named after a champion Vanderbilt mare. . . . Pino is six wins away from riding his 3,000th winner. . . . Trainer Donald Barr recently won the Tosmah Stakes at Garden State Park with Milton Higgins III's Green Eyes. Barr said yesterday that the mare has since been sold to Saudi Arabian interests and will leave in about 10 days to race in the Middle East. . . . Laurel/Pimlico management is holding two meetings this week to sell their proposed Virginia racing program to horsemen in that state. Tomorrow night's meeting is in Charlottesville, and Tuesday night's in Middleburg. . . . The Jack Mobberley family has retired its old stakes winner, Jet Stream, who returned sore after finishing third in the last race on Feb. 20. The horse won 11 of 51 starts and earned over $425,000.

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