In recent years, the General George Handicap's post-time favorite has arrived on a van or plane from Kentucky or New York or Florida, primed to cart away the majority portion of the $250,000 purse and return to home base.
Royal Haven stormed in from the north last year for a two-length victory and returned to New York -- soon to reach retirement.
But in honor of the first president of the United States, it would not be telling a lie to believe that, yes, a locally stabled runner will be the bettors' choice in today's Grade II, seven-furlong test for older horses at Laurel Park.
And it could be Maryland-bred Purple Passion, who is at his home away from home when he competes at Laurel.
"He and Wire Me Collect [another area runner] both run well on this track," said Purple Passion's trainer, Donald Barr. "They like Laurel and I think they're both among the top 10 sprinters in the country."
Purple Passion was second in the George last year; Wire Me Collect was third. But in their most recent meeting on Dec. 12, that order was reversed.
A regular at Laurel although his connections are based in the Delaware-Pennsylvania area, Wire Me Collect comes in with a two-race winning streak, including a half-length score in the Hoover Stakes on Jan. 30, when he survived some bumping with runner-up Le Grand Pos, another possible George factor.
"Purple Passion is probably the horse to beat. He always runs good races and he runs well fresh," said Wire Me Collect's trainer, Robert Camac. "He's got speed and I don't see a whole lot of other speed in there."
Camac acknowledges that the chief out-of-town threat, Esteemed Friend, "has a big number [speed rating] off his last race" but that there isn't an invader the caliber of Royal Haven.
"This race can come up pretty tough sometimes, but Esteemed Friend seems to like that inner track in New York and it's hard to tell how he'll adjust to this one," he said. "Last year, Royal Haven got lucky too. The whole rail opened up for him."
Wire Me Collect, a dark brown horse by Clever Trick, is a stalker who lays just off the pace, then fires.
"Sometimes he tries to drag Rick [Wilson, his jockey] to the front. And when he runs too early, he has a tendency to lose," Camac said.
Barr has guided Purple Passion to this event through the same path as 1998, using a victory in the Challedon Stakes as a springboard.
Based in New Hampshire with trainer Art Maniatis, Barr received the son of Northern Raja through some mutual acquaintances, took an admiring look at him and immediately entered the $100,000 Northern Dancer Stakes as a supplement.
"The first time I saw him, I thought he was a big, strong horse and I knew he had beaten older sprinters at Suffolk Downs," Barr said. "Horses in New England are not generally high quality, but once in a while you find a special one. Some can surprise you."
Purple Passion won the Northern Dancer and has been a major player since.
He won his last start over today's distance, seven furlongs, in 1 minute, 21 4/5 seconds. That probably will be good enough again because the field is well balanced without a pronounced favorite.
"I'll take 21 and 4," Barr said. "If he does that, I'll take my chances."
NOTES: Post-time favorite Potomac Bend easily won yesterday's feature race, the $50,000 Marshua Stakes, by three lengths over Mysterious Jak. Under jockey Mark Johnston, the chestnut daughter of Polish Numbers earned her third win in three career starts, covering six furlongs in 1: 11 2/5, tying the Marshua Stakes record and paying $4.20, $3.20 and $2.80. Mysterious Jak paid $4.80 and $4.40 and Silent Valay was $3.80 to show. The first 4,000 fans in attendance today will receive a cotton twill sports cap embroidered with the Laurel Park and NTRA logos and the "Go Baby Go" slogan. The giveaway begins after the fifth race.
Pub Date: 2/15/99