LAUREL -- The Winter SprintFest at Laurel Race Course tomorrow begins a new chapter in Maryland racing history. You might say it gives the circuit a big race day for all seasons.
"That's pretty close," track president Joe De Francis said. "We have the Preakness and Pimlico Special in the spring, the De Francis Dash in the summer, and the Maryland Million and International in the fall. But even though the winter is one of our strongest times of the year, we didn't have a big event."
Tomorrow is the first time the Barbara Fritchie Handicap and General George Stakes -- both seven-furlong races worth $200,000 -- have been carded together; thus, the name SprintFest. The General George is for older males, the Fritchie for older females.
"This time of the year, business-wise, is second only to the spring meet that leads into the Preakness," De Francis said. "We felt that without much competition from other sports, we could get the attention of fans and the media. Football is over, and the [basketball] Final Four and baseball spring training haven't started.
"The George and Fritchie have become increasingly stronger races in recent years. By putting them together, we thought we'd turn it into an excellent day."
The races have markedly different pasts. Both were run at Bowie Race Course, with a few exceptions, until the track closed in 1985. The Fritchie, a Grade III race, enjoyed a longer history and more prestige.
The General George, which was granted graded status as a Grade II for the first time this year, was a minor race for 3-year-olds until 1989, when the race was opened to runners of all ages, shortened to seven furlongs, and the purse increased considerably. Although the favorites were out-of-town "name" horses, local runners Little Bold John (1989) and King's Nest (1990) won the "new" General Georges in upsets.
Entries were drawn yesterday, and, on paper, the Fritchie may have come up a slightly better race. The favorites and co-high weights in a field of 10, Devil's Orchid and Feel the Beat both have won Grade 1 races.
The General George, which drew 11, is more blue-collar, typified by likely favorite Fire Plug. The 8-year-old gelding has finished out of the money just four times in 49 lifetime starts. He has won a remarkable 27 times for a .551 percentage. In his past four starts, all at Laurel, he has won three.
The SprintFest will be contested as the ninth and 11th events on a 12-race program, with the Barbara Fritchie first. Approximate post times are 4:10 and 5:10, respectively.
NOTES: The list of out-of-town riders coming for the SprintFest is impressive. It includes Jose Santos, Angel Cordero, Julie Krone, Russell Baze and Richard Migliore. . . . Cordero had his pick of Groomstick and Sunny Sunrise in the General George. He'll ride Groomstick. . . . If the General George were a handicap, who would racing secretary Larry Abbundi make high weight? "It'd be close between Fire Plug and Profit Key," he said. "But Profit Key was well-beaten in his last three races, so probably Fire Plug." . . . Perhaps a fair gauge on the strength of the races is the ratio of out-of-town horses it attracted: 14 of 21. . . . Kenny Cox, at 23 the youngest of the SprintFest trainers, has Flaming Emperor in the General George. "I think speed will carry," he said. Flaming Emperor has been showing good early speed in recent starts. . . . To honor the troops in the Persian Gulf, jockey Gregg McCarron will sing the national anthem at Laurel tomorrow, a half-hour before the first-race post (noon). McCarron will be surrounded by colleagues dressed in red, white and blue silks.