03/14/2013 12:44PM

Laurel Park: Eighttofasttocatch faces formidable pair in Johnson Memorial

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Eighttofasttocatch will try to win the Harrison Johnson Memorial for the third straight year Saturday.

Two extremely sharp challengers pose a threat to Eighttofasttocatch in his bid for a three-peat Saturday in the $75,000 Harrison Johnson Memorial Stakes at Laurel Park.

Koh I Noor, a winner of four straight races by a combined 22 lengths, steps up to face stakes company and attempts two turns for the first time. Javerre, winner of last month’s Grade 3 General George Handicap, makes just his second start around two turns while stretching out from seven furlongs to 1 1/8 miles.

Both 4-year-olds will need their “A” game to topple the 7-year-old Eighttofasttocatch, who won last year’s Johnson by a length as the 1-5 favorite and scored by a half-length with a 103 Beyer Speed Figure in the 2011 running.

After finishing third in his career debut on turf, Koh I Noor has reeled off four dominant victories for trainer Dove Houghton, all at either seven furlongs or a mile. Making his first start of 2013 in a third-level, $32,000 optional claimer Feb. 28, Koh I Noor cruised to an 8 1/4-length win while matching his career-best Beyer of 99.

From a small sampling, Houghton is a head shy of being 3 for 3 with last-out winners making their second start following a layoff.

“We have to test the waters against stakes horses and we have to get around two turns even though this race is a little sooner back then we would like, doing it here at home would be the best for him,” said Houghton, who has been the top female trainer in Maryland six times since 2006 but has just one stakes win. “We are looking to see how he does against better company. This is definitely the best field we have faced but he did beat a horse who ran in the Kentucky Derby last out in convincing fashion.”

Houghton was referring to Done Talking, the 2012 Illinois Derb winner who then finished 14th in the Kentucky Derby. Done Talkiing was the distant runner-up to Koh I Noor last time out.

As a Maryland-bred, Koh I Noor is eligible for a $50,000 bonus, making the total purse of the Johnson $125,000.

The New Jersey-bred Javerre is 5 for 9 lifetime, including a win in a sprint stakes restricted to statebreds at Monmouth Park last summer. In his only previous try going two turns in January, Javerre surrendered a 2 1/2-length lead in deep stretch to finish second in the 1 1/16-mile Native Dancer.

He followed up that performance with a 1 1/4-length score in the seven-furlong General George. His Parx Racing-based trainer, Cathal Lynch, shows a 3-for-20 record (15 percent) with last-out winners switching from sprints to routes.

Based on his record, which includes a 10-for-22 mark at Laurel, it’s difficult to knock Eighttofasttocatch. He was given a brief freshening by trainer Tim Keefe after throwing in a rare clunker, finishing a distant seventh, beaten 11 1/2 lengths by Javerre, in the Native Dancer.

But when he has more than a month between races, Eighttofasttocatch is difficult to beat. He is 5 for 8 (62 percent) in routes following a break of 31 to 60 days. Eighttofasttocatch prefers to race on the lead, but may have to stalk in second behind the stretch-out sprinter Javerre on Saturday.