Witty Chasing Seventh Stakes Victory in $100,000 Jim McKay

Witty Chasing Seventh Stakes Victory in $100,000 Jim McKay

Five-Furlong Turf Sprint Automatic Qualifier for Newmarket G1
Motion Making Title Defense with Naptown in $100,000 James Murphy

LAUREL, MD – Witty, a multiple stakes winner on turf and dirt bred, owned and trained by Elizabeth Merryman, will stay on the grass for his second start of 2023 in the listed $100,000 Jim McKay Turf Sprint Saturday at historic Pimlico Race Course.

The five-furlong McKay for 3-year-olds and up and $100,000 James W. Murphy for 3-year-olds going one mile on the grass are among nine stakes, five graded, worth $3.3 million in purses on a blockbuster 14-race program anchored by the 149th Preakness Stakes (G1), Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown.

First race post time is 10:30 a.m. EST.

For the first time this year, the McKay offers the winner automatic entry and travel incentive to the My Pension Export July Cup (G1) at England’s Newmarket Racecourse July 13.

Witty’s half-brother, two-time Grade 1-winning millionaire Caravel, was also bred and formerly owned and trained by Merryman. Now 5, Witty opened his fourth season of racing with a popular late-running neck triumph in the 5 ½-furlong King T. Leatherbury April 20 at Laurel Park.

Merryman also nominated Witty to the $100,000 Maryland Sprint (G3) for 3-year-olds and up going six furlongs on the main track but decided to stick with the grass, where he has three wins and three seconds – all in stakes – from eight tries.

“I’m fine with running him on the dirt,” Merryman said, “but I just think the turf is a little bit easier on him. It’s nice to have a horse that’s the same on both.”

Witty has raced twice previously at Pimlico, running second in a six-furlong optional claiming allowance last May on the main track and winning the five-furlong Ben’s Cat on the grass by a head four months later, followed by a 1 ¼-length triumph in the Maryland Million Turf Sprint.

Merryman continues to marvel at the determination of Witty, a gelded son of Great Notion that has been first or second in 15 of 21 starts with three dirt stakes wins including the 2022 Spectacular Bid at Laurel Park. His comeback race was no exception.

“I was a little tense at the head of the lane when he’s got so much to do, but he got there,” she said. “He’s pretty special in that way. He’s definitely got a ton of heart because it looks like he’s got no chance and he just keeps grinding. He’s such a big horse, he just starts mowing them down.”

A quarantine in place at Laurel through meant after his win Witty had to go to Merryman’s farm in Pennsylvania for a two-week waiting period rather than her stable at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. It was a break that Merryman feels did him some good.

“He got lots of turnout in a 35-acre field with a buddy, [though] the buddy gave him a couple bite marks but otherwise was fine. We rode him there up the hills and through the trails and went on the buffalo farm. We have buffalo, and he loved it” Merryman said. “He had a nice couple weeks. He thought everything was fun and games and cool. He came back to Fair Hill and had a nice breeze and seems like he’s in really good form.

“He loved his couple week change of pace,” she added. “I was kind of nervous because sometimes I’ve taken him home and he’s been quite a handful, but he was just great. He just had the nicest time and loved it. I think it really helped him. He’s a little refreshed.”

Witty drew Post 11 in a field of 12 for the McKay and will be without the services of injured regular rider Jevian Toledo, replaced by Tyler Gaffalione. Among his rivals is defending champion Beer Can Man, who went on to run third in the Green Flash Handicap (G3) and Woodford (G2) last fall and wound up beaten just 2 ¼ lengths when seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1).

The field also includes veterans Boat’s a Rockin (11), Carotari (10), Mid Day Image (14) and Smooth B (10), who have combined for 45 wins from 160 starts. Six of Carotari’s wins have come in stakes, while Smooth B has won two stakes against fellow Pennsylvania-breds.

“He’s the old-timer of the barn at 9 years old but he still loves being part of it,” Smooth B’s trainer Robert E. ‘Butch’ Reid Jr. said. “He hollers for his lunch every day like a 2-year-old. He’s become kind of the outfit mascot and we keep him around. As long as he doesn’t run too hard, he stays good. He’s a solid little turf horse. Five-eighths should be right up his alley.”

Also entered are 2022 Turf Monster (G3) winner That’s Right; Charging, third by a neck in the Leatherbury; 2023 Get Serious winner Grooms All Bizness; Surprise Boss, third in the 2022 Quick Call (G3); Hunter Joe and Where’s Ray, a winner of two straight races.

The Jim McKay Turf Sprint pays homage to the late Hall of Fame broadcaster and Philadelphia native who considered Baltimore his home. McKay first gained notoriety as host of ABC’s ‘Wide World of Sports’ in 1961 and then wide acclaim as voice of the Olympics, winning 13 Emmy Awards and the Eclipse Award of Merit. He was instrumental in conceiving and launching the groundbreaking Maryland Million in 1986, and passed away in 2008 at 86.

Motion Making Title Defense with Naptown in $100,000 James Murphy

After watching Nagirroc set a course record to win the race last year, trainer Graham Motion will make a title defense with Robert LaPenta and Madaket Stables’ Naptown in Saturday’s $100,000 James W. Murphy.

Nagirroc captured the one-mile grass event in 1:33.01 over a firm course, besting the previous mark of 1:33.42 set by North East Bound in 2000. It was the fourth Murphy victory for Maryland-based Motion, following Two Smart (1997), Blaze and Blues (2000) and subsequent Grade 3 winner English Bee (2019).

Naptown, by Munnings, has yet to race on grass. He debuted on the dirt at Laurel Park last fall, running third, then graduated by 5 ½-lengths in an off-the-turf maiden special weight 24 days later at Woodbine. The Ontario-bred bay stayed in Canada for two starts on its all-weather surface, finishing fourth in the 1 1/8-mile Coronation Futurity in November and third in the six-furlong Woodstock April 28 in his season opener.

“He has had a little bit of an odd progression. Being a Canadian-bred, we pointed him to those races up there. I was a little surprised he didn’t run better the last time going three-quarters but I think it might have been a little too quick for him,” Motion said. “I think grass is what he wants to do. Most of these horses that breeze well on synthetic tend to handle the grass.”

Also entered to try grass for the first time is Morris Kernan and Jagger Inc.’s Speedyness, winner of the one-mile Miracle Wood on the Laurel Park turf that subsequently ran third by a neck in the 1 1/16-mile Private Terms and second by less than a length in the 1 1/8-mile Federico Tesio, the latter April 20. The Great Notion gelding is 3-0 at the distance.

Ken Ramsey’s Abrumar won the one-mile Colonel Liam on the Gulfstream Park turf March 2, but faded to 10th after pressing the pace in the 1 1/16-mile American Turf (G2) May 4 at Churchill Downs. Live Oak Plantation’s Crystal Quest is also a Florida stakes winner, having taken the 1 1/16-mile Sophomore Turf March 24 at Tampa Bay Downs, as is Lugamo Racing Stable’s Tocayo, who found success in the one-mile Dania Beach Jan. 6 before running third by two lengths in the 1 1/16-mile Kitten’s Joy (G3) Feb. 3, both at Gulfstream.

Starlight Racing and Mark Grier’s Fulmineo owns one win from eight starts but has placed twice in stakes, finishing second in the 1 1/16-mile Pilgrim (G2) last fall at Aqueduct and the one-mile Columbia March 9 at Tampa.

Buckin’ Dreamer, Echo Lane, Lucky Jeremy, Massif and Twirling Point complete the field. Multiple stakes winner Copper Tax, once under consideration for the Preakness, is entered for main track only.

The James W. Murphy pays homage to the late trainer that won nearly 1,400 races and more than 50 stakes and $24 million in purses starting in 1965. He was named the MTHA’s Trainer of the Year in 2006, three years before he died at age 82.