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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Edited Laurel Staff Release – Less than a length from being undefeated through five starts, Rising Sun Racing Stables, Inc.’s Play Harder chases a third straight victory and first in stakes company in Saturday’s $75,000 Star de Naskra at Laurel Park.

            The seven-furlong Star de Naskra for Maryland-bred/sired 3-year-olds, named for the 1979 champion sprinter bred in Maryland by owner Carlyle Lancaster, headlines a nine-race program that kicks off at 12:25 p.m.

            Bred by Maria Haire, Play Harder is a bay son of 2016 Wood Memorial (G1) winner Outwork and grandson of champions Uncle Mo and Smarty Jones. He made one start at 2, winning a six-furlong maiden claimer by two lengths last September at Laurel despite a poor start.

            “I really like the horse. He’s a great horse, very talented. We knew that last year. We were trying to get him a race and he had some sore shins,” Rising Sun’s Dan Eubanks said. “He won that first race so impressively. He didn’t break well, he got 10 lengths back [and] within a quarter mile he was in contention. He did everything right, raced in between horses, dropped to the rail, and just ran on by them. We said if he’s that talented, let’s get a handle on his shins so we gave him some time off.”

            Play Harder won his first try against winners March 22, also going six furlongs, then finished third behind 2023 Maryland champion 2-year-old male Catahoula Moon going 5 ½ furlongs April 7 after being fractious in the gate and hopping at the start. Second that day, just a head in front of Play Harder, was Anthony Farrior-trained Petingas Twin, who has won each of his last two starts by 15 ¾ combined lengths after finishing sixth in the Chick Lang (G3) at Pimlico.

            He’s breaking better now,” Eubanks said. “There were a couple nice horses in there in Catahoula Moon, who was a Maryland-bred champion last year, as well as that horse of Farrior’s. That was a good horse race. Catahoula Moon got the jump on us. We thought we had him. We dropped down to the rail because the other horse came on the outside and the rail was really dead that day and we couldn’t get by.”

            Play Harder won a restricted 5 ½-furlong allowance over older horses three weeks later, then was a determined neck winner of an open one-mile optional claiming allowance June 1, both at Laurel over The Band Runs On, who also returns in the Star de Naskra. The 8-5 program favorite is Quint’s Brew, making his stakes debut after winning each of his first two starts.

            “That gray horse, The Band Runs On, is a very talented horse, a very good-looking horse. He came at us the last couple races and we’ve been able to hold him off,” Eubanks said. “[Play Harder is] a tough cookie and he’s been training well. It’s not an easy race. There’s that Quint’s Brew in there that looks tough, but we’re definitely in the mix. I’m looking forward to Saturday.”

            Eubanks, whose mother Annette has been a Maryland-based trainer for decades, has campaigned one previous stakes winner, Colonel Sharp, who captured the Dave’s Friend at Laurel and Maryland Coalition at Timonium in 2018 and also ran third in Monmouth Park’s 2016 Jersey Shore (G3). Colonel Sharp now lives on the family farm.

            “Actually, he’s my riding horse right now,” Eubanks said. “He still drags me around the field like he’s ready to race tomorrow.”

            Play Harder is entered in Fasig-Tipton’s July 8 Selected Horses of Racing Age sale in Lexington, Ky. as Hip No. 460, consigned by Hunter Valley Farm, agent.

            “I did enter him in the sale … just to kind of see. They valued him at like $150,000 and that was after his last win. If he were to win this stakes race, that’s going to put some good value on him,” Eubanks said. “But I might have a hard time selling him because I’m a Marylander, I’m a second-generation horseman and I’d like to have a nice Maryland-bred capable of winning some Maryland stakes.”

            Regular rider J.G. Torrealba will be aboard Play Harder from Post 4 in a field of eight. Trained by six-time Maryland state champion Claudio Gonzalez, he is rated at 4-1 on the morning line.

            “Claudio’s got him sharp,” Eubanks said. “Claudio said he’s come back from everything good, he’s sound, there’s no issues with him. I thought he was beaten last race. That gray horse is probably four hands taller than him. He’s much bigger and when he came up on the outside I thought he had us, and he did. He got his nose in front, but this guy fought back and won the race.”

                        The Band Runs On Hoping to Continue Sire Bandbox’s Legacy

            Before he ever ran, The Band Runs On held special meaning for his connections as a homebred son of Grade 3 winner Bandbox, the earliest success story for Ellen Charles’ Hillwood Stable.

            Since 2005 Hillwood has bred or raced such horses as millionaire Grade 3 winner Cordmaker, Maryland champions Hello Beautiful and Phlash Phelps and its current stable star, multiple graded-stakes winner and Met Mile (G1) runner-up Post Time.

            Before them all was Bandbox, who had stood at Northview Stallion Station since 2015. He passed away in 2021 at the age of 13 but his legacy continues through progeny such as The Band Runs On, who will make his stakes debut in Saturday’s $75,000 Star de Naskra at Laurel Park.

            The seven-furlong Star de Naskra for Maryland-bred/sired 3-year-olds will be the fourth start, all this year at Laurel, for The Band Runs On who, like his sire, is based at Laurel with trainer Rodney Jenkins.

            “First of all he’s one of the last Bandboxes. His dam [Dearie Be Good] has been in the family for five or six generations,” Jenkins’ longtime assistant, Eveline Kjelstrup, said. “Just with his breeding alone, he’s kind of a sentimental favorite. And he just looks the part and acts the part.”

            Named the 2022 Maryland Horse Breeders Association Yearling Show Grand Champion, The Band Runs On debuted with a 5 ¾-length maiden special weight victory sprinting six furlongs April 12, then ran third by a less than a length facing older horses in a restricted 5 ½- furlong allowance 16 days later. Most recently, he was beaten a neck when second in an open one-mile optional claiming allowance June 1. Each of the last two losses came to Play Harder, among his seven rivals in the Star de Naskra.

            “We’re going to know a little bit more about him. There’s some legitimate horses in this race,” Kjelstrup said. “He broke his maiden very impressively and followed it right up with a very impressive first level [allowance].

            “Of course, [Play Harder] is a serious horse. He’s hard to get by. We found that out twice,” she added. “He just couldn’t get by that horse last time. He was also going through a major growth spurt at that moment, so we’ll see what happens this time.”

            His size was one of the reasons The Band Runs On didn’t race as a 2-year-old while the connections let him grow up and develop.

            “He’s enormous. He’s 1,400 pounds already, and still growing. He wasn’t going to be an early horse,” Kjelstrup said. “Bandbox was a good-sized horse, especially later on, and this horse’s dam was a good-sized filly, but neither one was anything like this.”

            The Band Runs On will have to overcome a rail draw in the Star de Naskra, but will have Tais Lyapustina aboard for the fourth straight race.

            “I’m not loving the one post, but if he wants to be any kind of horse he should be able to overcome that,” Kjelstrup said. “He breaks really well, but the first step out of the gate is not a quick one because he’s just enormous. He takes about two, three strides to get going, which [makes] the one hole not ideal. He literally hardly fits in the gate.

            “His jockey is also his exercise rider, so they’re a team. She takes her time with him every morning,” she added. “We haven’t quite figured out what we’ve got. We’re still playing with him. This race came up four weeks after his last race, he’s doing well, so we’re probably ready to see what we’ve got.”

                        Blue Kingdom Sporting New Equipment for Stakes Debut

            Strongline Thoroughbreds’ Blue Kingdom had been knocking on the door since late winter before breaking it down with a dominant maiden victory four weeks ago. Now the gray gelding will attempt to make the leap to stakes winner in Saturday’s $75,000 Star de Naskra.

            Blue Kingdom drifted out on the far turn of his 7 ¾-length graduation June 2 under regular rider Jean Alvelo, and he returns in the seven-furlong Star de Naskra for Maryland-bred/sired 3-year-olds with a couple of tweaks.

            “He kind of went out a little bit on the turn so we wanted to switch the equipment on him a little bit. We’re going to add blinkers and put a different bit on him,” trainer Ben Feliciano Jr. said. “We worked him out with it this past Saturday and he was fine. He went real nice. We put him on the outside of another horse and he breezed really well. The jock said it was perfect.”

            Blue Kingdom, by Grade 3-placed Maryland-bred First Mondays, went unraced at 2 and ran second or third in each of his first four starts this year ranging from 5 ½ furlongs to one mile. His most recent effort came at six furlongs where he continued to gain separation to the wire.

            “It was a real nice race for him. He’s a horse that I think is getting better and better each race,” Feliciano said. “He’s run at all distances. You can put him at a mile or three-quarters, so seven furlongs ought to hit him real nicely.

            “He’s a nice, big-sized horse and I think that he’s still kind of figuring it out a little bit,” he added. “If we can get that problem corrected going around the turn, I think he can get better and we’ll see a much better race out of him.”

            Alvelo returns to ride from Post 6 of eight in a field that includes Play Harder, a winner of two straight races and four of five, and Haileysfirstnotion and Quint’s Brew, each 2-0 to start their career.

            “I think [Quint’s Brew] is the tough horse in the race, and certainly the rest of them are nice horses, too,” Feliciano said. “I think we’re definitely going to have to step up a little bit to be able to win it, but I also think he’s definitely a horse that’s capable of doing that.”

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