Spirited Game, a 5-year-old daughter of Not for Love, broke in front and stayed in front over the seven-furlong course at Laurel Park yesterday to upset a field full of stakes winners in the $75,000 Conniver Stakes for fillies and mares, 3 years old and up.
Spirited Game left the post as a 15-1 long shot under the guidance of veteran jockey Jose Caraballo and never saw another horse until she trotted past her trailing competitors on her way back to the winner's circle.
"I didn't plan to go to the front," said Caraballo, who was so confident before the race he told jockey Erick Rodriguez, who was aboard the favorite Promenade Girl, "Not today," while they were in the jockey's room before the race.
"I really like my horse and everything worked out well," Caraballo said. "She was on top of her game and ready. I had something left in the stretch."
The 1 1/4 -length victory was Spirited Game's second stakes win, having won the 2004 Smart Halo Stakes at Pimlico Race Course under the direction of trainer Ron Cartwright, who retired in December.
"I'm stunned," said Spirited Game's current trainer Dove Houghton, who was winning her first stakes race. "I really don't know what to say."
Houghton, 39, tied Linda Albert and Anne Merryman for top honors among female trainers in 2005 with 14 winners. She stables her horses at Laurel Park and happened to be in the same barn with Cartwright last fall when he began thinking about retiring.
"Dove has a good record," said Cartwright, who joined Houghton for lunch before the race and then watched his former charge win. "I recommended her to the [owners] and they decided to go with her.
"She's a hands-on trainer and a very hard worker. She's at her barn at 4 a.m., there all day, and knows what she's doing."
The hard work paid off yesterday. Houghton said the last time Spirited Game, owned by the Wirth Brothers, ran, she finished second because she was "a bit edgy." So Houghton has spent many mornings with the filly just teaching her to relax.
"You just have to spend the time in the workouts, teaching her she doesn't need to go all-out all the time," Houghton said. "We've concentrated on getting her to save it for the end."
Spirited Game paid $35, $20 and $2.10 and covered the course in 1:23.76 to beat Plata ($9.20 and $2.10), who never challenged. Promenade Girl ($2.10), the favorite, was bothered by other horses in the turn and dropped to last at the top of the stretch before rallying for third.
"Speed was really good today and I tried to put my horse a little closer and she didn't like it," said Rodriguez, Promenade Girl's jockey. "But she closed very well."
The crowd's second favorite Silmaril, the most accomplished horse here, having beaten national champion Ashado in last year's Grade III Pimlico Breeders' Cup Distaff, finished fifth, tiring along the rail.
Malibu Moonbeam, the sentimental favorite having won three races during the winter meeting after a two-year layoff, was an early scratch with a sore right shoulder.