Celebrity jockey Kent Desormeaux flew into Pimlico Race Course from California yesterday to ride Western Echo for former Eclipse Award-winning trainer Bud Delp in the Federico Tesio Stakes.
But the three-time Eclipse winning Desormeaux, 25, who left the Maryland circuit as "the Kid" five years ago, was beaten by a neck by Oliver's Twist, a horse owned by his former airplane pilot, and a colt Desormeaux is likely to encounter again in a month's time in the Preakness.
"Yes, that's where we're headed," said winning trainer Billy Boniface, who said the Preakness "is our target." But he added that consideration might also be given the May 6 Kentucky Derby if leading contenders in the bulky field should drop out.
Charles Oliver, an Aberdeen insurance broker, skilled amateur airplane pilot and neophyte owner of Oliver's Twist, recalled how several years ago he'd help out Desormeaux and would fly him in his personal plane on nightly runs to The Meadowlands.
"That's when Kent was trying to beat Chris McCarron's record number of wins [in a year]. He'd ride in Maryland during the day and New Jersey at night," Oliver said.
Oliver never imagined that one day the first racehorse he'd own, which he bought privately from Boniface two years ago, would beat Desormeaux in a graded stakes at Pimlico. But yesterday the pilot's horse grounded his famous former passenger.
Oliver watched as his one-horse stable and equine namesake, Oliver's Twist, buried Western Echo after a stretch-long duel in which the two horses outclassed the rest of the 10-horse field. They exchanged the lead a couple of times with Oliver's Twist first in front, then Western Echo, then Oliver's Twist again in a tenacious, all-out drive that left local veteran rider Albert Delgado a neck in front at the wire.
"Once my horse looked the other one in the eye, I knew I had it won," said Boniface, who compares Oliver's Twist favorably with his 1983 Preakness and Tesio winner, Deputed Testamony.
"Both horses have modest pedigrees, but have that desire to win," Boniface said. "This horse bears little physical resemblance to Deputed Testamony. But he has the same heart and drive."
Oliver's Twist is a son of so-called Maryland "blue-collar" stallion Horatius, who also sired Eclipse-winning sprinter Safely Kept.
Boniface thought so much of his horse that he had taken him to Florida over the winter to prepare for the Kentucky Derby.
Both Oliver's Twist and Western Echo were expected to meet in March in the Grade I Florida Derby. But both had disappointing campaigns. Oliver's Twist was outclassed by Thunder Gulch and Suave Prospect in the Florida Derby, finishing fifth. Western Echo came down with bronchitis and missed the race. Their match had to wait until yesterday at Pimlico.
It was a hard-fought race with a lot of initial bumping at the gate. Third choice He's Got Gall collided with expected pacesetter Mighty Magee, and rattled that horse so much, said jockey Donnie Miller Jr., that he never got untracked.
One rider, Rick Wilson on long shot Broad Act, was actually hit in the knee so hard that he was lucky to stay on board and rode the race in extreme pain, barely able to walk when he dismounted. Broad Act, owned by Jack Kent Cooke, managed to finish fourth.
One other horse, Bet Your Bucks, broke his right hind pastern in the backstretch and was pulled up by jockey Mario Pino. The owner and trainer were trying to decide last night whether to euthanize the horse.
Although Boniface was ecstatic about his horse's win, the time for the 1 1/8 -mile race was a slow 1 minute, 52 seconds, nearly five seconds off the track mark and the slowest Tesio in four runnings since it has been carded at the 9-furlong distance.
Even though Desormeaux lost the Tesio, Gerald Delp, assistant to his father, said he was pleased with Western Echo's race.
"He ran his eyeballs out," Gerald Delp said. "He had a right to get a little tired since he had only one 5-furlong prep prior to the race."
Desormeaux won three other races on yesterday's card, including an 8 1/2 -length win aboard Delp-trained Calipha in the Geisha Handicap.
Desormeaux rode a total of seven races and earned purse money in six of them. He was 6 pounds overweight in the Jennings Handicap and was not allowed to ride Military Look since Maryland rules stipulate that jockeys are allowed only 5 pounds of overweight.
Steve Hamilton substituted for Desormeaux, but finished last in the 10-horse field.
MD. SPRING BREEDERS' CHALLENGE
Race ....... ...... ...... ...... Winner
$60,000 Star De Naskra Stakes ... Gala Knockout
$100,000 Geisha Handicap ........ Calipha
$100,000 Jennings Handicap ...... Tidal Surge
$75,000 Caesar's Wish Stakes .... Blue Sky Princess
$185,500 Federico Tesio Stakes .. Oliver's Twist