Roo Art, a 3-year-old colt by the Buckpasser stallion Buckaroo, vaulted himself into the Triple Crown picture yesterday with an impressive two-length victory in the $85,200 General George Stakes at Laurel Race Course.
Ridden by Donald Miller, Roo Art stumbled leaving the starting gate, to trail the other seven horses in the 1 1/16-mile race. But Miller circled the field on the turn and caught I Am The Game, the tiring 1-to-2 favorite, in the stretch.
Joyfull John finished second, with I Am The Game, who never had raced more than seven furlongs in winning his first three starts, holding on for third, six lengths behind Roo Art ($10.80).
Roo Art is undefeated in four starts. The $55,380 first-prize money brought his earnings over the $97,000 mark on a day a crowd of 13,552 wagered $1,872,354, putting the track's average handle at an all-time high in its first meet under new owner Frank DeFrancis.
Roo Art, who raced the mile in 1:37 3/5, carried top weight of 122 pounds, conceding three pounds to I Am The Game, who is trained by part-owner King Leatherbury. I Am The Game had won Laurel's other two stakes for 3-year-olds, the W.P. Burch and the Francis Scott Key.
Yesterday, jockey Alberto Delgado got I Am The Game -- a $255,000 yearling purchase -- into the lead, before Trophy Hunter took over the pace-setting duties with Jay Bryan in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, Miller, Laurel's leading jockey, settled for steadying Roo Art, purchased for $15,000 last spring at the Timonium 2-year-old sales.
"I thought he stepped on himself coming out of the gate," Miller said. "I let him settle and I had a lot of horse. I hit him turning for home and he just drew away."
Barclay Tagg, who trains the horse for Barbara Holleran, said: "I thought something happened to him coming out of the gate. But . . . he is on the Triple Crown trail."
Of the winning move on the turn, Miller said simply, "I hit him turning for home and he just drew away."
I Am The Game appeared a bit rank in the post parade and Delgado said he sensed trouble down the backstretch.
"He broke real good," Delgado said. "But down the backstretch he seemed to be loafing . . . I think he would have run better with blinkers."
Yesterday's handle, helped by a promotion in which Sunday customers received a free admission, raised the daily average to $1,146,196, surpassing the old mark of $1,136,033 set in the fall of 1982.
Asked about his first throughbred meeting, De Francis, who also owns harness racing's Freestate Raceway, said, "It has just been tremendous. We are getting back a lot of defectors, people that were unhappy with racing, and we are getting new people."