Updated on 05/18/2013 4:38PM

Maryland Sprint Handicap: Sage Valley sharp despite six-month layoff

Barbara D. Livingston
Sage Valley and John Velazquez pull away from Hardened Wildcat in the Maryland Sprint Handicap.

BALTIMORE – Sage Valley came back Saturday at Pimlico just as good as he left last fall, scoring an emphatic, 2 1/4-length victory in the Grade 3, $150,000 Maryland Sprint Handicap for his fourth straight win.

Although he had been off for more than six months, Sage Valley ($6.60), the favorite, was ready for a sharp effort, and he benefited from a perfect, stalking trip under jockey John Velazquez in the six-furlong race.

Sage Valley broke from the outside post in a field of eight, was in striking range of pacesetting Manito while third on the turn, then surged to the lead in the stretch and safely held off runner-up Hardened Wildcat. Laurie’s Rocket was third, another 3 1/2 lengths back.

“We had a perfect post position and a perfect trip,” Velazquez said. “I thought there was plenty of speed in the race, and if I could sit just off the lead and make a run down the lane that would be perfect. He responded just the way a horse should.”

Sage Valley, 4, completed six furlongs on the fast main track in 1:10.51.

[PREAKNESS STAKES: Race replays and reactions from Pimlico]

“He’s a nice horse, a young horse. He’s lightly raced, and he does best when we give him time,” said his trainer, Rudy Rodriguez, who said Sage Valley needed time off from ages 3 to 4 because of “shin problems.”

Rodriguez said he told owner Michael Dubb that if they gave Sage Valley a long break over the winter, they would have “a very nice horse.”

Sage Valley was claimed by Dubb and Rodriguez for $50,000 out of an optional-claiming race in his second lifetime start at Aqueduct in February 2012. He lost his first two starts for his new connections, but had a strong late summer and early fall campaign, rattling off three straight wins, including the overnight Mr. Nasty Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 9.

Sage Valley already had more than earned back his claiming price with his performances last year, and he added another $90,000 to the bankroll with Saturday’s win.

Hardened Wildcat was “in a little tight early,” said his jockey, Javier Castellano, who said his mount was simply second best on the day.

Chad Brown, trainer of Hardened Wildcat, agreed.

“The winner was the best horse today,” Brown said.