(Trainer Mike Maker / Coady Photography)

From the Gulfstream Park Media Team:

The day after trainer Mike Maker won last year’s $1 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Turf (G1) with Zulu Alpha, the groundwork was laid for one of his 2021 runners – United Nations (G1) winner Aquaphobia.

Zulu Alpha and Aquaphobia are among six former claiming horses that have gone on to win Grade 1 races for Maker. The trainer also is running the stakes-winning, Grade 1-placed Cross Border in Saturday’s 1 3/16-mile Pegasus Turf at Gulfstream Park. That 7-year-old horse was purchased by Three Diamonds Farm at auction in 2018 but before then was running in $40,000 claiming races.

Maker didn’t spend much time basking in the glory of Zulu Alpha’s Pegasus Turf victory. He was on a plane the next morning to Houston, where he was running Paradise Farms Corp.’s Bemma’s Boy in the John B. Connally (G3).

Bemma’s Boy finished second, but Paradise Farms owner Peter Proscia and Maker still scored big that day. As they were at Sam Houston Race Park handicapping races at various tracks, Proscia saw a horse he liked in an allowance race with a $62,500 claiming option at Gulfstream Park that afternoon. Maker was well familiar with the horse, the then 7-year-old Aquaphobia. He’d tried to claim the horse for Zulu Alpha’s owner Michael Hui for $25,000 in 2017. They lost the shake that day, but the trainer kept up with the horse.

“We were at Sam Houston, sitting around a table, and he decided to claim him,” Maker said of Proscia.  “He was an old class horse that we’d actually had our eyes on for a long time.”

“Basically I’m a speed handicapper and I also watch the replays,” Proscia said. “We have a good group of guys we bounce it off, but the ultimate decision is Mike’s…. He knew the horse. I liked the horse, even though he was on the older side, (but) Mike has been doing very well with older, longer turf horses and getting the best out of them.”

Maker’s Gulfstream team executed the claim. Aquaphobia finished fourth at odds of 32-1, but none of that bothered Proscia. Aquaphobia now is owned by four of Maker’s stalwart owners: Proscia, David Staudacher, Hooties Racing and Skychai Racing.

“There’s no one gamer,” Maker said with an appreciative laugh of Proscia’s willingness to go in for high-priced claiming horses. “He keeps money in the account. He’s ready to pull the trigger before the entries come out.”

Proscia, who is in the marine fuel business, met Maker a few years ago after he claimed one of the trainer’s horses twice, with Maker claiming it back in between. When Proscia wasn’t having much luck with the horse the second time around, a friend who knew Maker suggested sending the horse back to the trainer.

“I called him up and asked if it would be OK,” Proscia said. “It didn’t work out that well; the horse got hurt. But those things happen. It wasn’t his fault. I ended up buying a 2-year-old with him at a sale, and we started to claim a couple. Next thing you know, here we are today. It’s been a good run, and I hope it continues.”

They won Gulfstream Park’s Old Man Eloquent Stakes in their first start with Aquaphobia, then had a pair of fourths in Grade 2 races in their subsequent three races before taking Monmouth Park’s United Nations. Aquaphobia is Proscia’s first Grade 1 winner and one of three graded-stakes winners. He joins $30,000 claim Bemma’s Boy, who in his next start after the Connally won Gulfstream’ Kitten’s Joy Pan American (G3), and Keeneland’s Valley View (G3) winner Stunning Sky, who was claimed out of a $50,000 maiden-claiming race.

“He sees something in the past performances and the replays, and together with the speed figures, you put it all together and say, ‘This horse has potential,’” Proscia said of Maker. “Then he has a training methodology that he does, and I give a lot of credit to his help and his staff. And Mike’s got the patience.”

Zulu Alpha, an $80,000 claim, came into his Pegasus off a victory in Kentucky Downs’ $1 million Kentucky Turf Cup (G3) and a good fourth in the $4 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). In his three races since the United Nations, Aquaphobia was a distant third over soft turf in Saratoga’s Sword Dancer (G1), seventh in Keeneland’s Sycamore (G3) and sixth by a total of only two lengths in Aqueduct’s Red Smith (G3).

“His last race was good,” Maker said. “He got beat a couple of a lengths with a wide trip, so it wasn’t bad. At Keeneland, I think he was a little closer (early in the race) than we would have liked for him to be. Having said that, I think he’ll appreciate a firmer course like Gulfstream has. And I really think he’ll like the distance.

“Zulu had a better resume,” he added. “Though he wasn’t yet a Grade 1 winner, he’d won more races than Aquaphobia.  Aquaphobia has the Grade 1 United Nations to his credit. It’s a big difference.”

Aquaphobia, who drew post 7 in the field of 12 for the Pegasus Turf, is 20-1 in the morning line. He’s being reunited with Joe Bravo, whose 2-for-3 record on the horse includes the United Nations and Aquaphobia’s first stakes victory as a 3-year-old.

After his purchase by Three Diamonds at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky’s July Selected Horses of Racing Age sale, the New York-bred Cross Border did not race for almost a year. His 16 subsequent races for Three Diamonds and Maker include four wins, five seconds and a third, including victory in a New York-bred stakes, a second in the Sword Dancer (G1) and most recently a second by a head in the Fair Grounds’ Buddy Diliberto Memorial.

Cross Border is 15-1 in the morning line and will be ridden by Tyler Gaffalione.

“He’s won from 6 1/2 (furlongs) to a mile and a half for us,” Maker said. “Just a very versatile horse. You can place him wherever you need him. He’s just a real quality horse.”

As for Zulu Alpha, he has been sidelined with a leg injury but is expected to resume racing later this year, Hui said.