Champion Witty Opens Season in King T. Leatherbury

April 18, 2024

Witty handily scoring an allowance at Laurel Park. (Jim McCue/MJC)

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David Joseph/Maryland Jockey Club

LAUREL, Md.— Witty, Maryland’s champion male turf horse of 2023 bred, owned and trained by Elizabeth Merryman, will go after his third grass stakes victory and sixth overall when he launches his 5-year-old campaign in Saturday’s $100,000 King T. Leatherbury at Laurel Park.

The fifth running of the 5 ½-furlong Leatherbury for 3-year-olds and up is among five stakes worth $550,000 in purses on the second of consecutive Spring Stakes Spectacular Saturdays at Laurel, and one of the first three scheduled for its world-class turf course, along with the $100,000 Henry S. Clark and $100,000 Dahlia, each at one mile.

Co-headlining the program are the $125,000 Federico Tesio, a ‘Win and In’ for Triple Crown-nominated 3-year-olds to the 149th Preakness (G1) May 18 at historic Pimlico Race Course, and the $125,000 Weber City Miss, which earns the winner an automatic berth to the 100th Black-Eyed Susan (G2) May 17 at Pimlico.

Post time for the first of 11 races is 12:25 p.m.

A Great Notion gelding, Witty has not run since capping his championship season with a 4 ½-length optional claiming allowance triumph in mid-December on Laurel’s main track. Out of the Congrats mare Zeezee Zoomzoom he is a younger half-brother to two-time Grade 1-winning millionaire Caravel, also bred and originally campaigned by Merryman.

“It’s been an amazing family of horses, really,” Merryman said. “He seems to be like he’d run the same kind of races as he did last year, come from off of it and come with a big run. He’s training really well and doing everything right going into it, so we’ll have to see how he is at 5. But he is a great big strong horse that looks great, so we’ll see on Saturday.”

Witty began his career and made 12 of his first 13 starts on the dirt, winning three stakes including Laurel’s seven-furlong Spectacular Bid in 2022 when trained by Merryman’s son, McLane Hendriks. Merryman took over the training again last fall and Witty has two wins and three seconds in six tries since being put back on the grass, both wins coming in Laurel stakes – the five-furlong Ben’s Cat and 5 ½-furlong Maryland Million Turf Sprint.

“He seems to love Laurel where there’s such a long stretch and you run to the second wire. He likes that, so I’m kind of counting on that,” Merryman said. “He’s an amazing horse [in that] very few horses will dirt as well as they turf. He seems to be kind of the same on both. It’s a pretty nice tool to have.”

Rather than take Witty back to her farm in Pennsylvania, Merryman kept him at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. for the winter. She initially considered having him make his season debut in the March 6 Not For Love for Maryland-bred/sired horses sprinting six furlongs on the main track but opted to give him more time.

“I just wanted to give him a break with his shoes off and still pamper him a little bit, so that’s kind of what we went with,” Merryman said. “I was going to try to make the Not For Love but we lost a lot of training days with weather and what not and I decided not to force the issue and just wait.

“I think he’s doing really well. He’s ready for the comeback,” she added. “He’s obviously [proven] on turf or dirt, but I think the turf is a little easier to come back on off a layoff. It’s a very tough race. It’s a very solid group. There’s a lot of speed, so hopefully he can work out a trip.”

Jevian Toledo, aboard for both his turf stakes wins as well as last season’s finale, will ride from Post 5 in a wide-open field of 12.

Three other turf stakes winners are entered to face Witty – Grooms All Bizness, Outlaw Kid and Fore Harp. LC Racing, James Bonner and Robert E. ‘Butch’ Reid Jr.’s Fore Harp upset Witty by two lengths in the six-furlong Laurel Dash last summer.

Colts Neck Stables homebred Grooms All Bizness won the five-furlong Get Serious last summer at Monmouth Park and will be racing for the first time as a gelding in his first start since he was third by a half-length in the 5 ½-furlong Select in mid-August. R.A. Hill Stable and SGV Thoroughbreds’ Outlaw Kid won the five-furlong Vice Regent on the Woodbine turf last August and will also be making his first start in seven months.

The narrow 7-2 program favorite is R. Larry Johnson’s Maryland homebred Future Is Now, a 4-year-old Great Notion filly entered to face males for the second time and first since her debut triumph on the Colonial Downs turf last August. Three of her wins have come in six tries on the grass including an open allowance victory over her elders last fall at Pimlico, and she exits a half-length loss as runner-up in the five-furlong Captiva Island March 10 at Gulfstream Park.

Fluid Situation, stakes-placed on turf and Grade 3-placed on dirt; Yes and Yes, five times stakes-placed on grass including the 2022 Belmont Turf Sprint (G3); Coffeewithchris, a multiple dirt stakes winner yet to race on grass; Brother Conway, Charging, Bump N Run and John Hall complete the field.

The King T. Leatherbury honors the Maryland native and legendary Hall of Fame horseman who turned 90 March 26. Leatherbury has compiled 6,508 career wins, ranking fifth all-time; owns or shares 26 training titles at both Laurel and Pimlico; and had four consecutive 300-win seasons in the mid-1970s, leading the country in 1977 and 1978. He is perhaps best known as the breeder, owner and trainer of late Mid-Atlantic legend Ben’s Cat, who won 26 stakes over eight seasons before he was retired and later died due to complications from colic in 2017.

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