Three days after being honored as the Maryland-bred Horse of the Year for 2001, Include returned to the racetrack yesterday and signaled that he just might be everybody's Horse of the Year for 2002.
On a muggy afternoon at Pimlico before a crowd of 7,818, Include waltzed home a nine-length winner of the $100,000 Jennings Handicap. It was the first start of 2002 for the Laurel-based 5-year-old, the launch of a campaign designed to culminate in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
In the winner's circle after the Jennings, Include's trainer, Grover G. "Bud" Delp, talked confidently about his horse. Delp seemed to challenge every other horse in the country to an old-fashioned race: Horse against horse; may the best horse win.
FOR THE RECORD - In Sunday's editions, a headline and photo caption incorrectly identified Include, the Maryland Horse of the Year, as a gelding. Include has not been gelded.
The Sun regrets the error.
Delp said he and Robert E. Meyerhoff, Include's breeder and owner, would map out a campaign that suited their horse, and then ...
"We don't care who shows up," Delp said, "because we're not ducking anybody."
The Maryland Horse Breeders Association honored Include as state-bred of the year Wednesday at its annual awards dinner. Include ran away with the award after winning five of nine races last year and earning $1.4 million.
His biggest win came here in the Pimlico Special. Include out-dueled Albert the Great in the Grade I race for a neck victory.
As Delp prepared Include for his 2002 debut in the Jennings, the trainer sensed that the son of Broad Brush and Illeria was eager for a return to competition. After the Jennings, Delp was sure of it.
"He showed me everything I wanted to see and then some," Delp said. "He's improved leaps and bounds since last year's campaign. He might be a step or two away from being great."
Include had an ally in the Jennings. Delp entered another Meyerhoff homebred, Concerned Minister, as a "rabbit." Concerned Minister's job was to ensure a speedy pace so that Include, a closer, had only tired horses to contend with in the stretch.
If Include won the Oscar for best actor, Concerned Minister collected the trophy for best supporting actor.
Jockey Mark Johnston used Concerned Minister's natural speed to challenge Twilight Prince through quick early fractions. Include and his jockey, Mario Pino, bided their time near the back of the seven-horse pack.
Entering the final turn, Include began accelerating, and then, around the bend, he cruised to the lead. He drew off down the stretch as the 2-5 favorite, completing the 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute, 49.97 seconds. Lightning Paces claimed second, First Amendment third.
The front-runner, Twilight Prince, faded to last. Concerned Minister, his mission accomplished, finished next-to-last.
"I want to congratulate Concerned Minister, too," Delp said. "I shook Mark Johnston's hand before I shook Mario Pino's."
Delp said Concerned Minister would travel with Include throughout the year and run in every race, if need be, to ensure a lively pace. Their next assignment will be the Hawthorne Gold Cup on May 18 at Hawthorne Race Course near Chicago or the Massachusetts Handicap on June 1 at Suffolk Downs, near Boston, Delp said.
Include's next race would have been the Pimlico Special. The Maryland Jockey Club and Maryland horsemen suspended the race this year because of lack of purse money.