The out-of-town domination of the $250,000 General George Handicap continued with a flourish yesterday at Laurel Park.
With former Maryland riding star Mike Luzzi in the saddle, the highly consistent Esteemed Friend surged past local favorite Purple Passion in mid-stretch and scored a length victory over the rallying Star of Valor before 6,450 fans at Laurel Park.
Purple Passion finished third by a head in the seven-furlong test for older males over a fast track. The winner's time was 1 minute, 22 2/5 seconds.
It was the second General George triumph for Luzzi, now based in New York. He scored with Star Touch eight years ago and went on to become the leading rider at Laurel in 1991 and 1992 before moving to one of the nation's major racing circuits.
"This was a special race for me, and this is certainly a special kind of horse," said Luzzi, who earned his journeyman status in Maryland. "The victory was extra important for me because I did it for Mr. [Joseph] Imperio. He's been very supportive of me since I first started riding in New York."
The crowd here and at simulcast outlets throughout the country made Purple Passion an even-money choice, with Esteemed Friend second at 9-to-2 odds.
Purple Passion, with leading jockey Edgar Prado up, gained the lead just before the eighth pole and was simply out-kicked to the wire.
"I didn't think the time off would be a factor," said his trainer, Donald Barr, who followed the same preparatory route for the George as in 1998, when his horse finished second to Royal Haven. "I had a chance to work him three times. Maybe not having raced since Dec. 26 was the difference when you get beat a length."
Esteemed Friend has been no worse than second in his last six starts and no worse than fourth in his last nine. A son of Gulch out of Charlotte Amalie, he pushed his career earnings beyond a half million dollars with the $150,000 winner's share of the purse.
Imperio is part owner of the dark bay-brown horse with Chi Ki Liu, who is in the garment industry.
"Mr. Liu picked out this horse back in May in a $45,000 claiming race at Belmont," the trainer said. "We saw him in the paddock and decided to take a shot. Up until recently, he's always been near or on the lead, but we've gotten him to relax and rate a little, and that has been the major difference in the way he runs."
He added that the General George was not really part of the game plan for Esteemed Friend, but the plan changed after the horse won the Paumonok and they decided to go because of the healthy purse here.
Esteemed Friend was originally purchased by D. Wayne Lukas for $300,000.
Jockey Herb Castillo Jr. rode the runner-up, though Star of Valor might want a little more distance, perhaps a mile.
"I was hoping the leaders would come back a little bit," Castillo said. "He's better going around two turns. He really started picking them up in the stretch. Another eighth and he would have won the whole thing."
Wire Me Collect, another familiar Maryland runner, was fourth after challenging in the stretch.
The Grade II race completed Laurel's Winter SprintFest.
The pace was speedy, with Dontletthebigonego setting fractions of 22 3/5, 45 1/5 and 1: 09 4/5, while Luzzi was content to settle his horse in mid-pack.
"I don't know how it looked down here, but I broke before everybody else," Luzzi said. "I got him to relax, and when I called on him, he finished really strong. It felt good to ride here today. I loved riding in Maryland."
Prado offered no excuses for Purple Passion, who has been tough to handle at Laurel.
"At the top of the stretch, I thought I was going to hang on," Prado said. "He ran a great race."
NOTES: Future wagering on the Kentucky Derby begins Thursday at Laurel and all Maryland off-track betting sites. Windows will open at 12: 20 p.m. and betting will continue through 4: 30 p.m. Sunday. The field will be limited to 23 selections plus a betting field. No refunds are allowed. Laurel is dark today and open for simulcasting tomorrow.
Pub Date: 2/16/99