What could bring thoroughbreds from California and Florida to Maryland in the heart of winter?


Laurel Race Course today furnishes the first $200,000 sprints in North America this year with the General George Stakes and Barbara Fritchie Handicap. The seven-furlong races, on the same card for the first time, match Maryland's best sprinters against some well- credentialed strangers -- including California filly Devil's Orchid and well-traveled colt Profit Key, both graded stakes winners.

The Grade III Fritchie lost its 121-pound highweight when Stormy But Valid became ill, but the 10-horse field remains strong. Devil's Orchid beat her by 1 1/4 lengths in the Santa Monica Handicap at Santa Anita three weeks ago and from that Grade I win carries a race-high 118 pounds today with Feel The Beat.

Devil's Orchid faces her first cold-weather start after nine straight races in Southern California. Forgetting two turf races, she has six victories and a second in seven tries there since 1990 and has never been more than two lengths behind after a half-mile.

Feel The Beat and Fappaburst will move their rivalry out of New York, where they finished first and second in the Interborough Handicap last month. Although Feel The Beat leads the field with 14 career wins, Fappaburst will be well supported: She carries only 113 pounds in the shape of Angel Cordero Jr. and will race with Lasix, the bleeding suppressant, for the first time.

Although any of three Maryland-based horses could win the General George without creating great alarm, Hero's Hurrah appears the only local geared to win the Fritchie. The speedy mare finally is fulfilling trainer Ben Perkins's expectations at age 5, having won three straight races and six of her last seven. She drew the No. 2 post position with Rick Wilson.

Diva's Debut, She Can and My Treasure, each a New Yorker, also should attract significant play.

Feel The Beat, fifth in last year's Fritchie, will be the first of trainer Wayne Lukas's runners to take a cue today. Two races later in the General George, Profit Key will pursue his first victory since last summer.

He and co-favorite Fire Plug are products of vastly different regimens. Profit Key, a $235,000 yearling, won two important stakes races last year at age 3 and finished second to Housebuster in another, but he races infrequently. Since he beat Rhythm in the Dwyer last June, he has run three times without distinction against high-caliber opposition. Jose Santos was named to ride him and Feel The Beat.

Fire Plug was held in little esteem as a youth because of crooked feet, which seem to have had little effect on his career. The General George arises as his 50th start, and with 27 wins and 45 on-the-board finishes behind him, Fire Plug is difficult to discount, even though seven furlongs is a bit beyond his custom.

Fire Plug won a Feb. 2 Laurel allowance race fashioned as a General George prep, and today he'll face the two horses who finished within a length of him that day -- Star Touch and Flaming Emperor. Fire Plug has beaten Star Touch four straight times and Flaming Emperor three.

Groomstick has arrived from Florida -- where he was beaten by blossoming handicap star Jolie's Halo -- and Bet the Pot has come from Kentucky following a stakes victory at Turfway Park. Kechi is back after a fourth-place run in last year's General George, a Grade II (up from Grade III last year) non-handicap in which weight is assigned on the basis of age.

Laurel and off-track Pimlico will offer triple betting on both major races. The 12-race program, away at noon, will be preceded by jockey Gregg McCarron's singing of the national anthem at 11:30 in the Laurel infield.

Laurel Notes: Owner-breeder Jim Ryan, noted for his backstretch philanthropy, will be profiled on "CBS Sunday Morning," which airs 9-10:30. . . . Willie Clark, the nation's oldest active jockey at 69, is expected to ride in Laurel's third race today. . . .

Haymaker will not run in the Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct because of a change in plans, not because of injury, assistant trainer Patrick Manuel said yesterday. Maryland-based Dandy Danzig and Doctor Fish are entered in the1 1/16-mile affair.