'Blue Collar Millionaire' Little Bold John A Maryland Legend - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

‘Blue Collar Millionaire’ Little Bold John A Maryland Legend

Little Bold John after winning the Maryland Million Classic in 1987

With seven of his nearly 1,900 career wins in the Maryland Million, trainer John “Jerry” Robb ranks among the all-time leaders in the groundbreaking event celebrating the state's storied breeding and racing industry, which turns 32 Oct. 21 at Laurel Park.

While this year marks the 30th anniversary of his first Million win – and as he tries to add an eighth Million victory Saturday with Onemoregreattime in the Nursery – time hasn't diminished the memory of the horse that got it all started.

And almost didn't.

Little Bold John was already a 13-time stakes winner with victories over two reigning Eclipse Award champions in South Florida earlier that spring when he made his Million debut as a 5-year-old in the fall of 1987. Robb pointed him to the richest race on the program, the Classic, just a week after the hardy gelding finished seventh in the Polynesian Handicap at historic Pimlico Race Course, where the second edition of the Million was being hosted for the first time.

Robb, then 35, was optimistic leading up to the Classic. But that changed when he arrived the morning of the race at his barn at Bowie Race Track.

“That morning coming to the barn, he had a cut that got a little bit infected and the leg blew up on him,” Robb said. “I had him on the track for two or three hours that morning, jogging him, trying to get it to come down. He sounded up on it and it came almost all the day down.”

Little Bold John went on to win the race, then known as the Budweiser Maryland Classic Stakes, at odds of 4-5 by four lengths over Bagetelle in 2:03 4/5 for 1 ¼ miles, before it was moved to the current 1 1/8 miles in 1992.

“It was a pleasant surprise, to say the least,” Robb said. “It was like a dream come true at the time. That was Maryland's Kentucky Derby. It was one of those things where you didn't think he was going to be able to run, much less have any idea how he'd run.”

Robb didn't bring Little Bold John back to the races for another six months, opening his 6-year-old campaign with four straight wins including a second straight Riggs Handicap (G3) at Pimlico and becoming the first Maryland-bred to reach seven figures in career purses, earning him the nickname, the “blue collar millionaire.”

“What stood out about Little Bold John the most was his heart. I mean I've had horses with more talent but never one with more heart,” Robb said. “He knew what he was doing and he wanted to win. He wanted to win as much as we wanted him to win.”

The most dominant Maryland-bred handicap horse in the late 1980s, named the state's champion older male in 1988 and 1989, Little Bold John's racing career ended in October 1992 after 105 starts, 38 wins, 16 seconds, 14 thirds and $1,956,406 in purse earnings. His 25 flat stakes wins stood as the most among state-breds until Ben's Cat won the 2016 Jim McKay Turf Sprint.

According to Equibase statistics, Little Bold John is tied with Xtra Heat for fourth all-time in career stakes wins since 1976 behind John Henry (30), Ben's Cat and Who Doctor Who (26). Native Diver, like John Henry and Xtra Heat in racing's Hall of Fame, won 34 stakes from 1961-67.

Hal Clagett bred Little Bold John, a son of John Alden out of the Bold Ambition mare Little Bold Sphinx, and was his original owner until selling him for $30,000 to Jack Owens III near the end of his 2-year-old season. Owens sold Little Bold John to Robb in June 1991 and he raced the rest of his career under Robb's Hidden Hill Farm banner.

Robb trained Little Bold John throughout his career, winning their first stakes together in the Edward L. Blake Memorial Handicap in May 1985. His best year came in 1987 when he won eight stakes and nearly $600,000 from 18 starts, beating 1986 Horse of the Year Lady's Secret in the Donn Handicap (G2) at Gulfstream Park at odds of 55-1. The $113.80 win mutuel remains the largest in race history.

Just a week before the Donn, Little Bold John ran third in the Gulfstream Park Budweiser Breeders' Cup Handicap, a half-length ahead of 1986 sprint champion Smile in fourth. That same year he won the first of three straight editions of Pimlico's Jennings Handicap.

“When I took him to Florida and ran him the first time he ran against the horse that was sprinter of the year and he beat him, and he came back against Lady's Secret who was horse of the year and he beat her,” Robb said. “When he wanted to run he was tough, and he wanted to run most of the time.”

Little Bold John went through a stretch where he won just one of eight starts from the fall of 1988 into the winter of 1989, prompting questions about whether his best days were behind him. Robb cut him back to seven furlongs for the then-ungraded General George Stakes at Laurel, his first sprint in nearly a year, and he responded by rallying from last for a half-length victory to kick off a three-race win streak that ended in the John B. Campbell Handicap (G3).

Trainer John 'Jerry' Robb

“Everyone was kind of writing him off,” Robb said. “Back then they had the mile chute at Laurel and there was a dip coming off the chute onto the racetrack, and when he hit that he wouldn't run. It took a while to figure that out, but if you look at any of his mile races at Laurel he ran horrible.

“He didn't like that transition from the chute to the track for some reason. I guess he was smarter than we were, because he would protect himself and he wouldn't run,” he added. “Everybody would say, 'Oh, he's done,' and then the next time he'd go anywhere ahead of that chute or around two turns it was a different story.”

In 2015 Little Bold John was part of the third class inducted to the Maryland Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, whose 20 current members include eight enshrined in the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame – Challedon, Cigar, Elkridge, Gallorette, Good Night Shirt, Jay Trump, Safely Kept and Tuscalee.

“When that came I was honored, that's for sure,” Robb said. “Maryland has produced some of racing's best horses and I would put Little Bold John right up there with them.”

Little Bold John tried the Maryland Million Classic again in 1992, pressing the early pace before fading to sixth. Robb sent him out a winner the following month, taking a $50,000 claimer by a nose that Halloween at Laurel.

“He just refused to lose. If you look at his last race ever, I just didn't have the heart to run him anymore,” Robb said. “He turned for home and three or four horses went by him and he fought back and won the race. He pulled up pretty sore and he came back to the winner's circle with a [sore] hind leg. Two days later he was sound, but there was no way I could ever run him again after that.”

Initially retired to Hidden Hill Farm, Little Bold John spent his final days at Clagett's Weston Farm in Upper Marlboro, Md. until his death from colic on Jan. 21, 2003. He was 21.

“He was a cool horse,” Robb said. “Being around him there was nothing special about him as far as his workouts or any indication that he was that kind of horse, but when it came time to run he just hated to lose. I saw him bite horses and kick horses that challenged him in a race. He just hated to lose.”

Robb's other Maryland Million wins have come in the Lassie in 1990 (Ameri Allen), 1992 (Carniarainbow) and 2013 (Jonesin for Jerry); the Nursery in 1993 (Run Alden) and 2011 (Glib) and Starter Handicap (Varborough) in 2012. Dale Capuano leads all trainers with 11 Maryland Million victories.

This year Robb has another promising 2-year-old for the Nursery in Clover Hill Farm and Clover Hill Racing's Onemoregreattime, a bay Great Notion colt that has raced four times, breaking his maiden by five lengths in the slop July 28 at Laurel.

“I look forward to it every year. Every year I go into it hoping to win a couple,” he said. “Most of mine have been baby races. I hope to win another one this year. My horse in the colt race has got a pretty good shot.”

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