By Dick Jerardi
Saturday at Gulfstream Park, Tuesday at Parx Racing: it was quite a few days for a Parx Hall of Fame trainer and a Pennsylvania racing Hall of Fame family.
Scott Lake has no idea how many horses he has claimed in his career. Has to be in the thousands. He does know Sweet Willemina has to be right near the top of his list.
“When you run a horse eight times and win seven, she’s got to be on your favorite list,’’ Lake said.
When he reached in to claim the 4-year-old filly for $32,000 on June 17 at Churchill Downs, he said to himself: “we’re overpaying by about $7,000 and we’re coming to Parx and you’re going to win me a two life starter for ($16,000), three life starter for ($16,000), have a shot at the four life starter for ($25,000) and maybe an a other than at Penn, Delaware, maybe if you catch a soft spot at Parx.’’
Well, Sweet Willemina blew right through all those conditions and Lake perfectly recited what she has done since coming to Parx after the claim which “was way more than we ever dreamed.’’
She won three races at Parx and one at Delaware Park. She won the $100,000 Salvatore DeBunda PTHA President’s Cup at Parx and then “got beat on an overconfident ride’’ before winning the Dec. 4 Glass Slipper on Claiming Crown Day at Gulfstream Park with a perfect ride from Silvestre Gonzalez.
Sweet Willemina really looked like she was in trouble on the far turn at Gulfstream. Lake thought it was a good thing because of what he saw on replays before he claimed her.
“One thing I loved about her, she got into trouble in like five out of seven races and then she kept coming at them again like she thrived on it,’’ Lake said.
At the quarter pole in the Glass Slipper when Sweet Willemina was kind of stuck in traffic, Lake’s finance said “oh, no’’ and Lake said “oh yeah.’’
Sweet Willemina got away from the traffic, split horses late and got there just in time to win by a head. The filly has won slightly more than $200,000 since the claim for Lake’s Home Team Stable and Rich Ciavardone.
“(This win) ranks pretty high,’’ said Lake about win No. 6,225 in his amazing career. “I haven’t run in the Claiming Crown since it left Canterbury Park. The purses were so good everywhere else there was no reason to ship that far. To go back to the Claiming Crown with one horse that ended up jumping up and winning it, having all the people we had there…It was pretty special.’’
Lake gives Ciavardone major credit for the stakes win at Parx and the Claiming Crown. He said he: “would not have won the stakes because he would not have nominated her and I wouldn’t have taken her to the Claiming Crown because the $12,500 starter went here a couple of days before we were leaving. I would have ran her here.’’
The Claiming Crown is special for Lake because he is a claiming trainer.
“You’re honoring the horses that are the backbone of the sport, ’’ Lake said. “Seventy percent of the races that are run are claiming races. The Claiming Crown gives those owners an opportunity on a big day to see what it feels like.’’
Tuesday afternoon at Parx, the $200,000 Pa. Nursery, the race that Smarty Jones won in 2003, produced a dazzling winner named Witty for owner/breeder Lizzie Merryman, her son, trainer McLane Hendriks and jockey Carol Cedeno. It was the biggest purse Merryman has ever won and the first win for her son as a trainer.
Merryman laughed when she said she “bred them both,’’ horse and trainer.
The horse and trainer will be winning some more together, those Pa. Bred stakes in 2022 looking very appetizing for a soon-to-be 3-year-old.
“It’s so fun when you raise them from Day One and they just turn out like that,’’ said Merryman, whose farm has a Coatesville address. “It’s such a dream come true. It’s amazing.’’
That her son has taken over the training for her made it even more special.
“What a way to break your maiden,’’ Merryman said. “He’s doing such a great job. He so deserves this. He lives and breathes this horse every minute. I’m so proud of him and the horse.’’
Witty is a half brother to Caravel, the turf sprint specialist that Merryman trained and owned until she sold a piece to Bobby Flay this summer.
“It’s a very special win because obviously, my mom raised him as a foal,’’ Hendriks said. “Just a family connection and delighted to see how impressive a horse he was from the day we put tack on him. Everything he does just keeps impressing us.’’ Witty sat in mid-pack behind some very fast horses, but when Cedeno asked the horse to move up on the turn of the 7-furlong race, he got to the top quickly and ran away from the field in the stretch, winning by 5 1/2 lengths. It may not have been Smarty by 15 lengths, but it was quite impressive visually as if there is much more where that came from.