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Rosecroft Raceway hosted a special homecoming last Friday night. Sanabelle Island was back on the track.

Sanabelle Island, for the unfamiliar, is a standardbred horse stabled in Galena, Md. Over the last year, the 3-year-old filly caught the fancy of harness racing fans in a major way while winning every one of her first 21 starts, almost all of them at Rosecroft. If that sounds special, it should. Only once before, when an animal named Handle With Care came out of the gate with 24 wins in row way back in 1973, had harness racing seen such a streak.

But don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of Sanabelle Island’s deeds, great and local as they are.

Horse racing, even at its highest levels, gets very little attention. Take Cigar: A lot of people now know about that great thoroughbred, not for his once having won 15 in a row during his remarkable racing career but because he came up barren back in the barn after retirement. And since harness racing is to thoroughbred racing what the demolition derby is to NASCAR, it only follows that the average sports fan could sooner recite the periodic table than name a single harness horse, or come up with a sulky driver other than Ben-Hur.

So away from Rosecroft, Sanabelle Island’s streak went all but unnoticed.

But don’t bother telling Rosecroftians that Sanabelle Island’s (just plain Sanabelle to track regulars) winning ways aren’t as significant as Joe Dimaggio’s hitting streak in 1941 or the 1971 Lakers’ 33-game run. They’ll have none of that.

“Sanabelle is a phenomenon here,” gushed Gregg Boehmer, director of simulcasting for Rosecroft, an hour before post time of the night’s feature race. “People come out just to see her run, which really doesn’t happen in this sport. I’ve never seen a horse that could put people in the stands. Horse racing is usually just about [gambling], but everybody wants to see if she can keep on winning.”

Sanabelle Island’s owner, Lloyd Arnold, flew all the way from California just to see if his very special horse could keep it up. Arnold, 69, has owned more than 1,500 harness horses in his career, none of which ever mounted a streak approaching the length of Sanabelle’s.

Arnold said his presence at the small Maryland track was one way to thank the animal for the very good year she’s given him.

“This has been a great, great thing to be a part of. A special thing,” said Arnold, as Sanabelle waltzed nearby during her pre-race warmup. “I’ve been in this business for 60 years, and I’ve had some good horses, but I’ve never seen anything like it. But I’ve also been in this long enough to know that everybody gets beat. She’s going to lose. I know it. It’s just a matter of when.”

For the first time since very early in the streak, around the Rosecroft paddock Friday night there were some doubts about Sanabelle’s ability to win. After winning her 21st straight race race in June, Sanabelle fell ill. So ill that trainer Daniel Warrington pulled her out of a big stakes race in Ohio, an event that could have served as Sanabelle’s coming-out party on the national harness scene.

Eventually, she was diagnosed with a bad virus and given lots of antibiotics and rest at Warrington’s farm in Galena. Pacers are raced about every week when they’re healthy, but as of Friday Sanabelle hadn’t been at Rosecroft for over a month. That’s an extremely long layoff for a harness horse, and Warrington told people around the track before the race that his horse was “only about 80 percent” back to normal. Track insiders took that to mean the streak was in jeopardy.

Most bettors, however, weren’t privy to the reasons behind Sanabelle’s layoff. Going on the horse’s perfect racing résumé, they made her a heavy favorite. Right up until post time, the tote board showed Sanabelle’s odds at an incredible 1-9. D.C. bonds would produce a more profitable yield than a bet on Sanabelle.

The bettors weren’t the only ones wanting Sanabelle. Track officials are usually quite loathe to confess interest in any particular horse, mainly because the racing game gets accused far too often of being rigged. But on Friday, with Sanabelle’s streak and comeback from illness the only story lines that mattered, nobody in a Rosecroft work shirt bothered hiding their feelings.

“I want Sanabelle to win,” Rosecroft’s Boehmer said. “I think that would be great for her, and great for Rosecroft. She’s already done so much for us.”

Even Presley Moore Jr., the Rosecroft starter, admitted he didn’t feel the same about all the entries in the feature race.

“I’m fearful—fearful she’ll lose, but I’ll be rooting for Sanabelle,” he said, adding: “There’s nothing I can do to help her win. It’s up to her.”

And so it was. As Moore took in the starting gate, Sanabelle held form and went right to the lead from the fifth post, and the crowd rushed toward the track and roared as she continued setting the pace through the first half-mile of the milelong race.

But then One If By Pan, a well-regarded New York-based filly shipped to Rosecroft in hopes of catching Sanabelle on a bad night, stormed by her from the outside and took the lead by a length with just one turn to go. The charge stunned the crowd to silence, though a panicky cry of, “She’s not right tonight!” was audible down along the rail.

For the first time in an amazing eight races, Sanabelle wasn’t in the lead, a statistic that’s almost as impressive as the winning streak. Horseplaying wisdom (an oxymoron, for sure) holds that horses that don’t like to run off the lead will not rally after giving up first place.

But as all Rosecroft regulars will tell you, there’s nothing conventional about Sanabelle. Down the stretch, the hometown hero took on One If By Pan and showed the game challenger and everybody else in attendance the same spirit and speed that had brought her to the winner’s circle so many times before. At the wire, it was Sanabelle Island by a length and pulling away.

After the race, Arnold patted down his horse, talked about bringing her to New York in the near future to race for bigger dollars, and amended his quote from earlier in the evening: “She’s going to lose. I know it. But not tonight.”—Dave McKenna