They finally ran the General George and Barbara Fritchie handicaps at Laurel Park yesterday, but nobody saw them except the jockeys.
A fog worthy of Moby Dick rolled in after the eighth race, one before the $200,000 General George, rendering the track all but invisible. Yet neither the shroud nor the sloppy track brought on by torrential rains could slow rising sprint star My Cousin Matt as he unleashed a dynamic move at the top of the stretch to win the Grade II seven-furlong race for 3-year-olds and up by three lengths.
One race later, the magnificent Xtra Heat rode into the paddock to a huge ovation after winning the Grade II $200,000 Barbara Fritchie. At age 5, the modestly bred daughter of Dixieland Heat won a record 25th stakes race, passing 1970s champion Susan's Girl.
The impenetrable fog capped a meteorological assault on Laurel's two major winter stakes races that began last weekend when the massive snowstorm postponed the events and continued yesterday with a driving rain deep into the afternoon.
Although her time of 1 minute 24.76 seconds for seven furlongs was more than two seconds slower than My Cousin Matt ran in the General George, and slower even than a claiming horse earlier on the card, the day clearly belonged to Xtra Heat.
Fans at the track received a free bobble-head likeness of the champion upon admission, and they crowded around her after the Fritchie to show their appreciation. In an age when fragile thoroughbred stars often retire before having made 20 starts, Xtra Heat has been an iron horse, winning 26 of the 35 times she has been sent to the post, earning $2,389,635.
"The record don't mean nothing to me; having the horse means a whole hell of a lot to me," trainer John Salzman said after the race.
Salzman bristled all week after New York-based trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. boasted to the media that if his filly Carson Hollow broke well, everyone else was running for second.
The blazing 4-year-old did break well, sailing to the lead past Xtra Heat after the eight-horse field came out of the chute. But under rider Rick Wilson, Xtra Heat unleashed a second quarter-mile in a stunning 22.70 seconds and never looked back.
After being passed by Zonk briefly in the stretch, Carson Hollow battled back to finish second, but Xtra Heat had made her point. After the race, Salzman walked over to Carson Hollow's stall to shake Dutrow's hand.
"Who said we were running for second money?" he said, looking him right in the eye.
"Okay, the pressure is off me," Salzman said later on. "How many times do you hear a son of a gun say in the paper Xtra Heat is running for second?"
"I couldn't see the race," a dejected Dutrow said. Jockey "Kent [Desormeaux] said she slipped real bad coming out of the gate, but after that she ran really good."
The final time of the Fritchie appeared exceedingly slow, with Xtra Heat's third quarter-mile clocked in a crawling 25.04 seconds and the final eighth in 14.15 seconds, but official timer Jack Harmon insisted it was accurate.
With 35 races behind her, Xtra Heat is not finished yet. Salzman said her flight leaves March 9 for Dubai, where she will compete again in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen, the world's richest sprint race. Xtra Heat finished third there last year.
In the General George, My Cousin Matt showed himself to be one of the best sprinters in the country, obliterating a talented field of 11 that boasted four graded stakes winners.
When the gate opened, favored D'wildcat, who won the Grade I Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash last fall at Laurel in similar slop, shot to the lead under Desormeaux. Second choice Disturbingthepeace, who like D'wildcat shipped in from California for the race, ranged up and battled for the lead as the field disappeared into the foggy turn.
A replay shot by cameras on the back side showed My Cousin Matt's jockey Ramon Dominguez tracking the leaders comfortably in fourth place, just off the pace. At the quarter pole, Dominguez set down his mount for the drive and blew away the field, running the seven furlongs in a torrid 1:22.12.
"He was full of himself," said Dominguez. "When I got him out around the turn, he went past those horses like they were standing still."
Peeping Tom, who won the General George in 2001, raced with the leaders throughout and finished second. Disturbingthepeace held for third.
Owner Richard Englander claimed My Cousin Matt for $85,000 out of a race at Belmont Park last September. The gelding showed marked improvement immediately in the hands of trainer Scott Lake and won the inaugural Great State Challenge Sprint in Texas by seven lengths in December.
After that performance, Lake ambitiously wheeled My Cousin Matt in a Grade I stakes race in California off just three weeks rest, and watched him finish a dull sixth. Lake insisted the performance was an aberration, and he came into the General George filled with confidence.
"He was just an exhausted horse," Lake said. "From New York to Texas to New York out to California. It was too much. We gave him plenty of time" for this race.