Updated on 03/26/2011 7:19PM

Laurel: Blinkers off turns Eighttofasttocatch into a terror

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Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Eighttofasttocatch, under the meet's leading rider, Sheldon Russell, gets up by a half-length in the Harrison E. Johnson Memorial.

Since trainer Tim Keefe took the blinkers off Eighttofasttocatch, the 5-year-old gelding has become a much better horse.

Racing without blinkers for the second time since mid-February, Eighttofasttocatch ($13) and jockey Sheldon Russell prevailed in a stretch-long duel with Marilyn’s Guy, ridden by Ricardo Chiappe, to win the first stakes of his career in Saturday’s $50,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial, the closing-day feature at Laurel Park.

The experiment to take the blinkers off came after Eighttofasttocatch finished last, beaten nearly 25 lengths, in the Native Dancer on Jan. 17. A month later, Eighttofasttocatch romped by almost 10 lengths in a third-level optional $32,000 claimer, earning a career-best 98 Beyer Speed Figure.

“He was always a little overzealous in the afternoon and he would use himself up,” Keefe explained. "He just got too worked up and did too much too early and couldn’t finish. We took our time with him and changed things up in the morning, which also really helped. I wasn’t sure he was going to get the mile and an eighth distance today but Sheldon did a marvelous job.”\

Russell said the equipment change worked wonders.

“The last time he ran we took the blinkers off and the idea was to try and get him to relax,” Russell said. “He relaxed nicely last time. Tim told me try and get him to relax again and use some of that early speed later in the race. He is a completely different horse He is able to relax and kick in when he needs to.”

 

Keefe finished second in the trainer standings during the winter meet, three wins behind Dean Kobiskie, with 16 victories from 57 starters. Russell rode 14 of the 16 winners.

 

“No question this is the best meet we’ve ever had,” said Keefe. “I have the best owners. They are realistic about their horse’s abilities and let me run them when I want to run and where they need to run. The help in the barn has been fantastic. They pay attention to small details and are a big factor in our success.”

 

“This is phenomenal for Tim,” added Russell. “He is one of my main clients. Fourteen of my wins came for him, which is nearly a third of our total. Without him I don’t win the riding title.”

In the Johnson, Eighttofasttocatch at patiently in third behind a battle up front between Marilyn’s Guy and Alma d’Oro, the 6-5 favorite in a field reduced to five by the scratch of Hermosillo. Alma d’Oro, winner of last month’s John Campbell Handicap, was the first to fold and faded to last. Marilyn’s Guy hung tough, however, and it wasn’t until inside the sixteenth pole that Eighttofasttocatch edged clear by a half-length.

No Advantage, winner of last month’s Grade 2 General George Handicap, rallied to finish third as the 2-1 second choice, some 15 3/4 lengths behind the runner-up.

The winning time for 1 1/8 miles was 1:50.64.

It was the third stakes win of the meet for the team of Keefe, Russell, and owners Arnold and Sylvia Heft. The Hefts also own the 3-year-old filly Red’s Round Table, winner of the Marshua and Wide Country stakes.

Leading trainer Kobiskie’s owner, PTK LLC, won the owner title at the winter meet with 19 wins, 10 more than Robert Cole.

Live racing in Maryland shifts to Pimlico on Friday for the eight-week spring meeting, headlined by the 136th running of the $1 million Preaknes Stakes, the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, on May 21.