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This 'Page' is Racing's Latest Rags to Riches Story

Page McKenneyEvery once in a while, Hollywood likes to crank out a good old-fashioned horse racing picture. Rags-to-riches or the rise-from-obscurity stories are favorites, likeNational Velvet and Seabiscuit.

Adam Staple's Page McKenney, a 6-year-old gelding in the Pimlico Race Coursebarn of trainer Mary Eppler, might not make for a classic—but he has got plenty of the elements for a good yarn.

Claimed for a measly $16,000 on the suggestion of a chart caller out of a race at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, he has gone on to win $1,405,978. He also has become a stakes machine around the Mid-Atlantic tracks, having run in 19 straight with nine wins, seven seconds and three third-place finishes. 

From his humble origins, Page McKenney has gotten so good that just the suggestion of his presence has begun to demoralize the opposition to the point that at times they just forfeit. This past March, the 30th running of the Harrison Johnson Memorial Handicap at Laurel Parkwas canceled because no one wanted to face him. 

"If you came into the barn and looked at him, he'd look like an ordinary horse," Eppler said. 

Yet the ordinary horse has a grinding tenacity that wears out lesser animals and gives faster, better-bred horses fits. 

Page McKenney, a chestnut son of Eavesdropper out of a Yarrow Brae mare that won $1,600 on the track and gave birth to just two foals, will run as one of the favorites May 21 in the 46th running of the $300,000 Pimlico Special (gr. III), one of the most storied horse races in the country. The Special, looking to regain its stature after several years of suspension because of money troubles at the Maryland Jockey Club, is one of the main supporting features to the 141st running of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) the next day. 

It's not quite Lava Man getting claimed for $50,000 and going on to win a slew of grade I races, $5.2 million, and induction into the Racing Hall of Fame, but Page McKenny's story has taken on a life of its own. In some ways, he is like another star on the Mid-Atlantic circuit—the relentless and timeless 10-year-old gelding Ben's Cat, who has amassed $2,530,937 in earnings by winning 25 stakes races from 46 tries.

Ben's Cat, trained by Hall of Famer King Leatherbury and also competing this weekend, began his career running twice for $25,000 claiming tags before asserting his excellence. He will chase his fifth victory in the Jim McKay Turf Sprint on the May 20 Black-Eyed Susan (gr. II) card.

Page McKenney, after Eppler claimed him, ran in a string of starter and allowance races before ascending to the stakes ranks. 

First testing the waters and running in five small stakes, Eppler next ran Page McKenney in the $200,000 Jewel Stakes as part of the 2014 Claiming Crown at Gulfstream Park. After finishing second, Eppler said, jockey Jose Lezcano hopped off the horse and told her, "You can go on to the next level here."

He won his next two starts—both stakes—and then finished third in his first try at the Charles Town Classic (gr. II) and second in the Pimlico Special. 

Page McKenney's versatility was on full display in his most recent two starts; in February, Eppler took a gamble and ran him in a sprint, the seven-furlong General George Stakes (gr. III) at Laurel Park. He rallied from fourth place to win by a head. In his very next start, after the Harrison Johnson—his steppingstone race back to routes—was canceled, Page McKenney ran again in the $1.25 million Charles Town Classic, a 1 1/8-mile race around three turns at the West Virginia bull ring track. 

Breaking from the No. 9 post, he was forced to uncharacteristically hound leader Stanford around the course when favorite Donworthbegan too slowly. Instead of fading from the effort, Page McKenney held on tenaciously and held second, earning a colossal payday—$234,000. 

Stanford and Page McKenney were to reconnect in the Special, with the latter getting an eight-pound shift in weights and other speed horses to do some of the hard work, but trainer Todd Pletcher pulled the plug May 19 and said Stanford will wait to run until the June 11 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I).

Eppler's runner has now finished in the money in 24 straight races dating back to April 25, 2014, and only two of those were third-place finishes. In an era in which many stakes horses don't even make 24 career starts, his consistency is remarkable. 

"No, you don't see horses consistently hold their form like this," Eppler said. "He goes out there and puts on his game face and says, 'I'm going to run.'

"With Page, we didn't ever expect to be running in stakes, for sure. There were so many conditions for Pennsylvania-breds and he had those ($16,000 starter races), and he ran in those and they really helped build his confidence."

Despite the success, like Leatherbury with Ben's Cat, Eppler has largely resisted gallivanting around the country chasing big grade I jackpots. Both have been content with piling up the earnings in abundant regional stakes and only making occasional forays into rich company. 

Eppler believes the strategy has helped Page McKenney and Ben's Cat maintain their form for so long.

"That's why I think that Ben Cat is so good, because he hasn't put him in grade I's and overmatched him," Eppler said. "Not just overmatched him, but keeping him local and in your local stakes has kept him sound and competitive." 

Page's training is not complex, though Eppler says that he recently has become a more aggressive animal, more like a race horse, less like a pet.

"He loves his routine," she said. "He gallops one mile every day, and that's it. He works in between races. Usually we'll put him in races five or six weeks apart. 

"I don't think he's overly fast; he's grinding. Some horses show speed and they carry it so far and he keeps grinding and goes on and beats them. He always finishes his last quarter quick. He's had a lot of slow works, but the last quarter is fast. That's how I ask the rider to do it. That's how I work all my horses. I start easy and then keep picking it up every eighth." 

Asked the morning of May 18 about Page McKenney and Lava Man, Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I)-winning trainer Doug O'Neill said even when things start going good, doubts persist that a claiming horse can match up in a stakes. After a while, though, a mental break with the past is made and the claiming part is all but forgotten. 

"You've got horses that are coming from behind the gates, if you will, and you're bringing a horse from the inner city," O'Neill said, comparing bluebloods to claimers. "These horses are just kind of, in your mind, treated differently and they're better educated than maybe your claiming horse. But when you show up and your horse is handling himself like a top horse in the paddock, to me that sets the tone.

"I really think these horses have a pecking order. When they meet in the paddock, they know that they belong or they're nervous and shaky and thinking, 'What am I doing here?' So, when you get a horse like Lava Man, in the paddock he acts like he belongs there."

To spice the Hollywood story, Eppler would love to win the Pimlico Special for sentimental reasons, even though she isn't much of a sentimental woman. The race was created in 1937 by Alfred G. Vanderbilt, owner of Sagamore Farm and president of Pimlico. A year later, it was the stage for the famed match race showdown between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. 

Eppler trained for Vanderbilt, who died in 1999 at age 87, the last 10 years of his life. He was ushered into the Hall of Fame last year in the same class as Lava Man as a Pillar of the Turf.

"He was the one who started that," Eppler said of the Special, "and it's our home track. Vanderbilt was the one who put that race together."

Vanderbilt's Sagamore is now owned by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, and his new Sagamore Spirit brand of rye is the sponsor for the Special. 

Vanderbilt, throughout his life in racing, built a reputation as someone who didn't like the elitist nature of the sport and worked hard to make it accessible and exciting for the fans. Seabiscuit was a Vanderbilt kind of horse.

He likely would have felt the same about Page McKenney. 

- by John Scheinman/www.bloodhorse.com

 

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