Some might have considered the Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Handicap the closest thing to a sure bet that there is in horse racing. But trainer Michael Trombetta said he was worried from the time he got up yesterday morning until Sweetnorthernsaint crossed the finish line.
The Saint, runner-up in the 2006 Preakness Stakes, was taking on a field of five capable horses in the 1 1/8 -mile race on a muddy track. But while Capac, who finished second, closed coming out of the final turn to get his head alongside Sweetnorthernsaint's hip, the favorite never gave anyone any real hope for an upset and pulled away for an easy four-lengths victory in 1:53.37 at Laurel Park.
The Saint paid $2.20, $2.10 and $2.10 and earned $35,000 for the victory. Capac's backers cashed tickets for $4 and $2.40. Future Fantasy finished third and paid $2.40.
"I rode The Saint at age 3 and I knew he was a special horse," said jockey Mario Pino, who missed riding The Saint in the Triple Crown series because of a hernia operation. "Today, he never really got into overdrive. He didn't need the extra gear."
The race was only made interesting by Sweetnorthernsaint's own penchant for company, said Pino, who will ride Kentucky Derby prospect Hard Spun Saturday in the Lane's End Stakes.
"He tends to loaf a little bit because he likes horses around him," Pino said. "That's OK, because he has natural speed to get to the front and in most cases pull away. This was a nice spot for him. A real confidence builder."
Trombetta had taken Sweetnorthernsaint, who has won six of his 12 starts, to Florida shortly after the new year running him in the Grade III, Hal's Hope Handicap and the Sunshine Millions Classic within three weeks of each other in January.
"We had some bad luck there," Trombetta said, referring to a record-setting pace and a bad trip in the Hope, and the far outside post in the 12-horse Classic. After those two hard races, in which he finished one and 3 1/2 lengths behind the winners, respectively, owners Ted Theos and Joseph J. Balsamo, and Trombetta decided to wait until their horse was thoroughly rested before running him again. Yesterday was their reward.
"He'll run next on April 21 in the Grade III, $250,000 Jockey Club Handicap in Chicago," said Theos, who is looking forward to The Saint's return to Hawthorn, where he won the Illinois Derby last year. "From there, we'll go on to better things. We have not lost any faith in him. The faith is still there."