California horses weathered an arctic chill yesterday at Laurel Race Course, but yielded to an eastern front.
Star Touch gave Maryland trainer Eddie Gaudet the richest victory of his 35-year career by edging Profit Key in the General George Stakes, and New York-based Fappaburst defeated Devil's Orchid in the Barbara Fritchie Handicap with the help of a touch of daring from jockey Angel Cordero Jr.
Profit Key and Devil's Orchid, graded stakes winners from Southern California who had never before raced in cold weather, were favored in the $200,000 races. But Star Touch and Fappaburst came away with their grandest victories to date.
The Grade II General George was evolving into a dramatic stretch run even before two horses went down with a furlong remaining. Frozen Dew, a gray gelding who had led early, fell from apparent exhaustion as he labored inside toward the rear of the compact field. His legs upended Bet the Pot, who had rallied within five lengths of the lead only to fall hard.
Robert Colton, the rider on Frozen Dew, and Russell Baze (Bet the Pot) walked off the track, and their mounts arose and galloped on with no visible complications.
Farther ahead, Fire Plug was on the verge of adding to his remarkable record. The 8-year-old, second choice at 3 to 1 off his 27-for-49 mark, had taken the lead into the stretch, and jockey Santos Chavez was doing all he could to protect it. He was more than a length ahead before Jose Santos steered Profit Key outside in the stretch and began to close in, while Star Touch gained on the far outside after circling into the lane.
Star Touch had an edge on Profit Key as they surged past Fire Plug 10 strides from the wire, and he held it by a long nose. His seven-furlong run in 1:22 4/5 marked the first graded stakes victory for Mike Luzzi, champion apprentice of 1989 and Laurel's leading rider.
It also marked a moral victory for Gaudet, who has battled at times to keep Star Touch in Maryland, where Florida-based owner Ted Sabarese keeps only some of his horses. A French-bred, Star Touch had lost to Fire Plug four straight times, but has won the last two meetings at seven furlongs.
He paid $13.80 with his fifth victory in 26 starts.
Star Touch's time was two-fifths of a second faster than Fappaburst, a 4-year-old filly who won the Grade III Fritchie in her first race with Cordero and the bleeder medication Lasix.
Trainer P.G. Johnson had contracted with Cordero to ride Fappaburst both in a New York prep and the Fritchie, but a spill two races before the Aqueduct sprint sidelined Cordero with a bruised shoulder. Shane Sellers rode her to victory that day, but Johnson retained Cordero for the Fritchie.
The decision was instrumental in a $120,000 payoff yesterday, if for nothing more than a sequence entering the far turn.
As the Maryland-based Hero's Hurrah and favored Californian Devil's Orchid raced side by side for the lead through the backstretch, Cordero advanced Fappaburst after she broke a step slowly. He angled her toward the inside nearing the turn because "I didn't want to go five-wide," and found congestion ahead.
Cordero gathered Fappaburst for a few strides without losing momentum, then pushed her through a narrow gap between Diva's Debut and Silver Spool. "I was in a little tight for a while," he said. "But once she got out into daylight, she went about her business."
Fappaburst rallied into third around the turn just as Devil's Orchid was about to take the lead from Hero's Hurrah. Fappaburst passed Devil's Orchid on the outside before the stretch, although the California horse was loath to submit.
Devil's Orchid stayed within a half-length of the leader as they ran well ahead of the eight others before Fappaburst extended her lead in the final sixteenth of a mile under Cordero's judicious left-handed whipping.
The 1 1/2-length victory was only Fappaburst's second in a stakes race and her sixth in 12 starts. Devil's Orchid, who had five lengths on third-place Diva's Debut, was not affected by the cold and wind, according to jockey Baze.
Fappaburst paid $7.80 and finished the seven furlongs in 1:23 1/5.