By Tom LaMarra

The 2019 MATCH Series got off to an excellent start at Laurel Park April 20 with a mix of old and new in four divisional stakes won by horses based in the Mid-Atlantic region. And compared to last year’s launch, the weather was superb.

The connections of the winners expressed appreciation for the series, which returned to the calendar last year after a 16-year absence. One of the victorious horses–Secret Message, who captured the Dahlia Stakes–is trained by Graham Motion, who in 1998 won the same division.

“I’m a huge fan of the series,” said Motion, who is based at Fair Hill Training Center. “I remember when Bursting Forth, owned by Sam Huff, won her (turf) division. I think the series is a great idea, partially because it keeps races from being scheduled on top of each other. It’s also a great incentive for trainers.”

The conditions at Laurel, which managed to escape severe storms in the area the night before, were fast and firm. When MATCH kicked off last May at Pimlico Race Course on Preakness weekend, it rained heavily both days.

Field size for the four MATCH stakes April 20 averaged 9.75.

Frank J. Whiteley Stakes (3-Year-Olds and Up Sprint–Dirt Division)

Hillside Equestrian Meadows Laki, winner of the division last year after starting in all five stakes in his division, is the leader so far this year after a strong 3 1/2-length win over Linda Zang’s Lewisfield, who was second in the division in 2018.

Lewisfield, who defeated Laki in the March 16 Not For Love Stakes at Laurel in their previous meeting, opened a two-length lead in the stretch in the Whiteley but couldn’t contain Laki, who pulled away late under Horacio Karamanos to win the six-furlong test in 1:08.47. Super C Racing’s Rockinn On Bye closed well as usual for third.

Laki, a 6-year-old Maryland-bred gelding by Cuba, had a pair of third-place finishes in stakes this year before the Whiteley.

“He was a little flat earlier this year, but that’s over with,” trainer Damon Dilodovico said. “Today’s a much better day. Going into his last race he just didn’t seem into it. Horacio had a few ideas, which we tried, and he picked it up going into this race. Even though he’s a seasoned horse, somethings you change things up and it’s positive. He was dynamite today.”

“He went really fast today,” Karamanos said. “He was moving nicely at the eighth-pole. I had the opportunity to go outside (of Lewisfield) and he gave me a nice kick and he responded well.”

Laki won for the eighth time in 19 starts and pushed his earnings over the $400,000 mark. He appears to be headed to Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course for the second round of the MATCH Series June 1 rather than making a start in a Preakness week stakes.

“If he comes out of this race well we’re going to stick with the MATCH Series,” Dilodovico said. “His two starts at Pimlico just weren’t that good.”

Laki collected 10 points for his Whiteley score, followed by Lewisfield (7), and Rockinn On Bye (5) to round out the top three.

King T. Leatherbury Stakes (3-Year-Olds and Up Sprint–Turf Division)

Another Maryland-bred, the 4-year-old Maclean’s Music colt Dirty, made his 2019 debut a winning one for owner Tom Grady and New York-based trainer Jeremiah Englehart, who last year opened a division in Maryland.

Dirty, one-for-one going 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf at Laurel, is now two-for-two after a strong run from off the pace that saw him go from eighth in the opening quarter-mile to first by a neck over Robert Bone’s Completed Pass, who was on the pace throughout. DARRS Inc.’s Proforma rallied from far back for third.

Dirty, who gave jockey Jorge Vargas Jr. his first of two MATCH victories on the day, was based in New York last year with an occasional trip out of town.

“I worked him last week and he did well,” Vargas said. “They were going pretty quick up front and he just took off (in the stretch). If you’ve got the horse, (you can win).”

Dirty is now the course record-holder for the distance at Laurel. He stopped the timer in 1:00.65, faster than the previous standard of 1:01.25 established in 2013.

The top three in the division after the first round are Dirty (10 points), Completed Pass (7) and Proforma (5).

Primonetta Stakes (Filly and Mare Sprint–Dirt Division)

Cash is King and Jim Reichenberg’s Ms Locust Point ran her Laurel record to five-for-seven with a gritty front-running victory by a nose Heider Family Stable, Madaket Stables and Michael Kisber’s Cairenn, who closed from eighth in the first quarter-mile of the six-furlong event.

Lady Sheila Stable and Iris Smith Stable’s Startwithsilver rallied from last in the field of nine to finish third. The time for the distance was 1:10.11.

Based at Parx Racing and trained by John Servis, who was at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races to saddle Diamond King to a second-place finish in the $1 million Charles Town Classic, Ms Locust Point, a 5-year-old Dialed In mare, passed the $600,000 mark in earnings and is three-for-four so far this year.

“I thought there would be some pressure in the race because she was the filly to beat,” said Jorge Vargas Jr., who captured his second of two MATCH Series events on the afternoon. “I didn’t want to take her out of her game, and she just kept going. I was pretty confident.”

Reichenberg, who called Ms Locust Point “the queen of Laurel,” said he enjoys participating in Maryland racing because of all the progress that has been made in recent years.

“(Programs) like this create opportunities for owners like us, and we need those opportunities,” he said. “The MATCH Series is perfect for horses that are a little better than the claiming level, and you can tell by the horses that have shipped in for these races.

“I’m just glad to have this mare; it has been a dream the whole time. We also have a great trainer in John Servis. I just wish she was a Maryland-bred.”

Ms Locust Point now has 10 MATCH Series points. Cairenn (7) and Startwithsilver (5) round out the top three.

Dahlia Stakes (Filly and Mare Long–Turf Division)

Secret Message returned from a six-month layoff in style–and with some drama–when she rallied from seventh early to collar the leader, Patricia Moseley’s La Moneda, at the wire to win the photo by a nose. The time for the one mile was 1:35.25.

Owned by Madaket Stables, ERJ Racing, Elayne Stable 5 and Bouchey Thoroughbred Ventures, Secret Message in 2018 won the grade III Pucker Up Stakes at Arlington Park and finished second in the grade II Sands Point Stakes at Belmont Park. She entered the Dahlia off of a series of steady works on the Tapeta surface at Fair Hill Training Center for Graham Motion.

“I was more concerned about the finish than anything,” Motion said of the tight photo. “(Jockey) Trevor (McCarthy) and I talked before the race. We didn’t want to rush her.”

“I just wanted to get her comfortable,” McCarthy said. “I had to wait around the far turn, and then I pushed the button turning for home.”

Secret Message, a 4-year-old Hat Trick filly, appears headed for bigger things, though Motion didn’t rule out a return to the MATCH Series division. He did indicate that Cairenn, second to Ms Locust Point in the Primonetta, “will probably stick with the series. I think it’s a great program for her.”

The MATCH Series features 20 $100,000 stakes over four divisions at five racetracks. It next moves to Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course June 1, followed by Delaware Park July 13, Parx Racing Sept. 2 and Monmouth Park Sept. 28.

(Photo of Sweet Message by Jim McCue/MJC)