10/10/2008 12:00AM

Jersey-bred Cuba from Maryland-based sire


The Pons family of Country Life Farm waited 23 years to breed a winner of the Maryland Million Classic.

But when Cuba drew off to a commanding four-length victory in the $300,000 Classic before a crowd of 21,948 on the 23rd annual Maryland Million Day last Saturday at Laurel Park, few people were aware that it had finally happened.

That's because Cuba, a 7-year-old New Jersey-bred son of Not for Love, has no obvious ties with the long-successful Maryland breeding establishment.

In fact, the Classic was the first Maryland race for both the horse and his New Jersey-based trainer and co-owner, Bobby DiBona.

A handsome, ungelded veteran who has begun a new life since DiBona claimed him for $18,000 this past February at Gulfstream Park, Cuba has Maryland origins tracing back to the 2001 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic February mixed sale.

Mike Pons was scouting for mares to breed to Unbridled Jet, a Grade 2-placed son of Unbridled entering stud that season at Country Life. He paid $30,000 at that sale for the Deputy Minister mare Shaunlee, a half-sister to graded winner Mountain Affair out of multiple stakes winner and multiple graded-placed Nasty Affair (by Nasty and Bold).

Shaunlee was carrying Cuba at the time. And that explains why Country Life's first Maryland Million Classic winner is a son of Not for Love.

It's a twist of fate, because Country Life's Maryland Million prominence has been largely attributable to Allen's Prospect, the all-time leading Mid-Atlantic sire who stood 18 seasons at the Ponses' farm until his death in the fall of 2003.

Allen's Prospect continues to lead all Maryland Million sires with 21 wins. Second on the list is Not for Love, an 18-year-old son of Mr. Prospector standing at Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City. He added two this year for a total of 16.

The Ponses make their business in breeding and racing partnerships, as well as standing stallions. As the economics of Maryland racing have faltered over the past decade, they have broadened their scope, occasionally taking advantage of breeding programs in neighboring states.

With that idea in mind, Shaunlee was shipped to Christine Connelly's Bright View Farm in Chesterfield, N.J., to deliver her foal in 2001.

"Her former owner had raced some of her runners successfully at Monmouth," said Country Life's Josh Pons. "It looked like a good fit."

When registering Cuba, however, the Ponses committed a "clerical oversight," which they came to regret.

He was registered in the name of Shaunlee LLC, instead of the individual names of the three partners in that limited liability corporation. According to Pons, Shaunlee LLC consisted of Country Life Farm (50 percent); Jon and Tina Davis of Binghamton, N.Y. (25 percent); and photographer Mike Amoruso of New York City (25 percent).

The breeders sold Cuba as a weanling for $34,000 at the Keeneland November sale. He was resold at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $65,000, with the purchaser listed as Cam Allard.

Cuba raced for Allard with Michael DePaulo as his trainer until DiBona claimed him.

To the Ponses' disappointment, Cuba seldom raced in New Jersey, where he was eligible to earn breeder bonuses. But at 4, he rose to graded stakes company, finishing second in the Grade 3 Eclipse Handicap at Woodbine and third in three other stakes, two of them Gradeo3's.

"We wanted to have the foal papers amended, to show where he came from," said Josh Pons. "But that was complicated, especially because he did a lot of his racing in Canada."

Cuba raced his entire 2007 campaign at Woodbine in Canada, then was claimed by DiBona in his first start of this season.

He has finished out of the money only once in 10 starts for his present owners - Leo-Sag Stable (a partnership of DiBona and Darren Aikens, both of whom make their homes in Florida), and Massachusetts residents William Corrigan and Daniel Levesque.

DiBona sent out Cuba to win the statebred-restricted Charles Hesse III Handicap at Monmouh Park on the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational Stakes undercard, on Aug. 3.

In June, Cuba finished third against New Jersey-breds in the Bernie Dowd Handicap, and in his last start before the Maryland Million he was third in the $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap won by Commentator on Sept. 20.

His lone off-the-board finish came in Monmouth's Grade 3 Iselin on Aug. 16, when he lacked racing room and finished fifth, ending up only 3 3/4 lengths behind the winner, Honest Man.

In 39 career starts, Cuba has 12 wins and earnings of $658,594.