Milton Higgins was headed back to the paddock after the General George Stakes yesterday, sure that his horse, Who Wouldn't, was a loser.
The gritty gelding swept to the outside of stylish front-runner Storm Tower in the long stretch at Laurel Park and caught him at the wire. His jockey, Joe Rocco, had his head down, pushing the old horse.
Powis Castle, the heavily favored California invader, was nowhere close to the top pair as they surged past the finish in the seven-furlong $200,000 stakes.
"It looked like we lost by a bob," Higgins said.
Meanwhile, Benny Perkins jumped up out of his seat in his Laurel box, thinking that at long last the horse that he trains, Storm Tower, had broken a six-race losing streak and would be back in the winner's circle.
However, as so often happens in horse racing, the unexpected occurred. When the result board lighted up, Who Wouldn't had won by a nose over Storm Tower, lengthening the horse's streak to five consecutive wins and giving Higgins, partner Tom Bowman and trainer Donald Barr their biggest payday at the track.
The nose that Who Wouldn't pushed in front was worth an extra $60,000 to his connections and the $120,000 winner's share pushed the gelding's career earnings to $444,608. The horse's time for the seven furlongs was 1 minute, 22 seconds, a fifth of a second off the stakes mark set by Senor Speedy two years ago and three-fifths of a second slower than Tappiano's track record. By comparison, Smart 'n Noble required an additional two seconds Saturday to win the Barbara Fritchie Handicap.
"We couldn't call the finish right away," said placing judge David Rollinson about the General George. With the naked eye, all three judges thought Storm Tower had won. "But when we got the photo, it was quite distinct."
Meanwhile, Rodney Rash, trainer of Powis Castle, cried foul. His colt finished third as the 4-5 favorite, 3 1/2 lengths behind the top pair. Several strides after Powis Castle came out of the gate, long shot Forest Wildcat slammed into him and caused Pat Valenzuela, the jockey on Powis Castle, to check his horse.
"[Forest Wildcat] nailed us and kept us from winning," Rash said. "What was the price on that horse, 60-1? You come all this way to get beat by a 60-1 shot and you can't claim foul against him? I guess that's another way to lose a race."
After the incident, Forest Wildcat rushed up to briefly wrest the early lead from Storm Tower, but it had relinquished it to the Perkins runner by the time the field entered the final turn. Forest Wildcat ended up last in the eight-horse field.
Higgins credited trainer Barr with making "a gutsy decision" with Who Wouldn't "that paid off today." When Who Wouldn't beat Storm Tower in a prep for the General George last month, he ripped a shoe off a front foot. "Instead of pushing him and running him in the Hoover Stakes [on Feb. 4], Donald waited five weeks to run him back," Higgins said. "This is the kind of horse that can't be squeezed too hard and needs the extra time."
To protect his "shelly" front feet, Barr outfitted Who Wouldn't yesterday with rubber horseshoes, rare equipment for an equine runner.
Who Wouldn't has been around the Maryland tracks a long time, always showing lots of talent but coping with numerous nagging injuries. Now those old infirmities appear to be behind him.
"He's like a professional running back," Higgins said. "He has a certain amount of ability, but a lot of heart. That pretty well sums up what got him here today."
CLERK'S ERROR NETS $22,238.40
A part-time mutuel clerk at Laurel Park won $22,238.40 yesterday after he made an error and punched out an incorrect Triple ticket.
The incident occurred at post time for the sixth race when a patron approached a mutuel window on the first floor of the grandstand. The patron asked for a $12 Triple Box involving horses 1-2-3.
"But the clerk's finger slipped and he punched out a $123 ticket," said pari-mutuel director Liz Quill. Boxing the combination would have cost the patron $738, but the person quickly disappeared from the window. The race started and it was too late for the clerk to change the ticket.
When such an episode occurs, the clerk is stuck with the ticket and is responsible for paying the full amount to the track.
However, when the No. 3 horse, 40-1 long shot Nun Bee Wiser, won the race, followed by Sea of Alden (No. 2) and I'm Her (No. 1), the incorrectly punched ticket became worth $22,238.40. Quill said that since the employee held the ticket, he won the money.
The clerk did not want to be identified.