12/13/2002 1:00AM

Benders nearly hit a double in Texas

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Maryland-breds met the challenge, and then some, at Sam Houston Race Park on Dec. 7.

Seven Maryland-breds made the trip to Texas for the inaugural Great State Challenge, and they came away with one victory and three third-place finishes. That was enough to earn Maryland third place in the overall competition with 29 points, behind Kentucky (36) and Florida (34), two states whose combined annual foal production is more than 10 times that of Maryland.

"We are extremely proud of the showing by Maryland horses, and Maryland people," said Cricket Goodall, the Maryland Horse Breeders Association's acting executive vice president, who organized the state's selection process.

"To have more than half of our horses finish in the money reflected very well on Maryland. And the fact that the state's leading breeders, Howard and Sondra Bender, did so well is also very gratifying. The Benders strongly supported Maryland's participation in the Great State Challenge, and their efforts were rewarded."

The Benders' homebred La Reine's Terms was the star of the Maryland contingent, winning the Great State Challenge Turf by a hard-charging half-length and leaving the overwhelming favorite, Breeders' Cup Mile fourth-place finisher Forbidden Apple, to settle for third. A powerful, long-striding 7-year-old horse, La Reine's Terms (by Private Terms out of La Reine Elaine, by King's Bishop) had won five stakes in a row until the streak ended in his race before the Great State Challenge. Bettors overlooked La Reine's Terms to their peril: He paid $16.80 to win at Sam Houston.

Larry Murray, the Benders' private trainer, based at Laurel Park, had expected good things from La Reine's Terms. But Murray was much less confident about the chances of the other Bender runner representing Maryland: Pickupspeed.

Pickupspeed nearly gave the Benders, and Maryland, their second victory in a row, in the Great State Challenge Classic. Pickupspeed surged up on the outside in the stretch and did battle with eventual winner Continental Red before finishing third. A bumping incident between the two led to a stewards' inquiry and foul claim, but the order of finish stood. Because the entry of Big Numbers and Easyfromthegitgo finished fourth and fifth, respectively, at odds of 4-5, show tickets on Pickupspeed were worth $22.60. California-bred Continental Red paid $6.20, $4, and $13.

All but one of the horses representing Maryland competed for their owners as homebreds. Foard Wilgis and David Picarello, co-owners and breeders of Maryland-bred Cherokee's Boy, were both on hand to watch their colt's third-place finish in the Great State Juvenile.

"We were happy. He paid for the trip, and he came back sound and healthy," said Wilgis of Cherokee's Boy, trained by Dale Capuano.

Deer Run, winner of this year's Maryland Million Sprint and runner-up to D'wildcat in the Grade 1 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash Nov. 16, was considered by many to be Maryland's strongest entry in the Great State Challenge. A 5-year-old campaigned by longtime Maryland breeder William R. Harris, Deer Run closed to finish third in the Sprint, behind runaway winner My Cousin Matt.

Also representing Maryland were: Perfect Blue, bred by Thornmar Farm, owned by Mason Dixon Racing, trained by Roger Werneth, sixth in the Juvenile Fillies; Purple Sand, bred and owned by Alice Dibben and trained by Kathleen Dibben, eighth in the Turf; and Bridge Out Again, bred, owned, and trained by Richard W. Small, 10th in the Juvenile. Bridge Out Again chipped a sesamoid bone in a rear leg during the race, and is expected to return to competition following surgery.