This time last year, as racing's future stars prepared for the Triple Crown series, no star shined brighter than Badge of Silver.
He had devoured the opposition in his first three races and appeared a sure bet to become one of the most exciting runners in the Kentucky Derby. But then injury struck, knocking Badge of Silver to the sideline for nearly a year.
Today, the speedy colt from Louisiana will continue his comeback in the $200,000 General George Handicap at Laurel Park. Badge of Silver is the 4-5 favorite in the seven-furlong sprint with a Grade II rank. Even though he is 4, he has raced only five times. It's not clear yet how good he is.
"He's just an impressive horse," said Ronny Werner, his trainer. "Nothing he does really surprises me. He's got a world of talent, and he's just exciting to have."
Badge of Silver has never had it easy. During his 2-year-old debut in March 2002 at Keeneland, which he won by nine lengths, he cracked a cannon bone in his leg and underwent surgery. A screw was inserted into the bone.
In January 2003, Badge of Silver returned to win an allowance race at the Fair Grounds by seven lengths. The next month, again at the Fair Grounds, he cruised by 10 lengths in the Risen Star Stakes. In March, he suffered his only defeat, a sixth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby.
Werner suspected that Badge of Silver had been hampered by a breathing problem, so the colt underwent surgery to correct that. Then, while training spectacularly for the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, he suffered another crack in the cannon bone and underwent surgery for insertion of another screw.
Last month, after a 10-month absence, Badge of Silver won a six-furlong race at the Fair Grounds by 2 3/4 lengths in a blazing 1 minute, 8.88 seconds. Last Monday, in final preparation for the General George, he breezed five furlongs at the Fair Grounds in 59.60 seconds, the fastest of 54 works at that distance.
"Knock on wood, he's 100 percent right now," Werner said. "Hopefully we can keep him that way."
He plans on doing that by eventually placing the Silver Deputy colt in longer races. Sprints are especially hard on good horses because they run so fast and hammer their hooves into the ground.
"We just kind of opted to go with the General George as a way of walking him up the ladder, you might say," Werner said. "You can pretty well turn him on and off. I mean, he'll do what you want. And I really don't think the distance is going to be a problem for him."
The main local threat to Badge of Silver is Gators N Bears, trained by Leo Nechamkin II at Laurel. But the greatest threats appear to be two other horses from out of state: Well Fancied from Florida and Peeping Tom from New York.
Edgar Prado will ride Well Fancied for trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. The 6-year-old gelding has won 10 of 27 races, including five stakes at Belmont Park, all for New York-breds.
Based at Belmont, Peeping Tom won the General George in 2001 and finished second last year. In 2001 he captured the Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct.
NOTE: After reviewing film of the incident Saturday involving Rogue Agent and Evening Attire in the John B. Campbell Handicap, Laurel stewards suspended Norberto Arroyo Jr., rider of Rogue Agent, for 15 days.
Phil Grove, a steward, said the suspension was three times the normal penalty for riding infractions. The New York-based Arroyo, who has a reputation for aggressive riding, pulled his mount to the inside as Evening Attire tried to slip through a narrow hole. Evening Attire slammed into the rail and nearly fell.