LAUREL -- Opposing hitters once went to the plate with fear in their eyes. Now, it's horse trainers who show respect when they have to face John Hartsell.
Hartsell is mowing them down at Maryland racetracks, as he once did as a baseball pitcher. He has won at a remarkable 30 percent-plus clip this year and is second only to perennial leader King Leatherbury in the Laurel Race Course standings.
Yesterday, Hartsell won three races -- most in his brief career -- giving him a 10-for-17 record at the meeting. He'll saddle his first Maryland stakes horse -- Silver Vein -- in the Northern Dancer Stakes tomorrow.
Hartsell, 35, was co-Most Valuable Player for the University of Maryland baseball team in 1977. In two years, he won 45 of 50 decisions for Maryland and in the Washington Industrial League. During his prep career at Springbrook High in Silver Spring and in summer leagues, he struck out 19 batters in seven-inning games at least six times, he said.
Baseball coincided with orientations at Bowie Race Course, where his interest in racing began as a $2 show bettor. He eventually stepped up his interest, and, in the late 1980s, got into racing seriously, as an owner. In December 1987, Hartsell claimed Fluctuating for $5,000, then saw her win a $35,000 stakes at Pimlico Race Course the next spring. He took out his trainer's license last year and has increased his stable size steadily while maintaining a high win rate.
Hartsell, 6 feet 3, is as confident as he is imposing. Before he saddled the first of his four runners yesterday, he said, "I love them all."
Chester Peekin, making his first start for Hartsell, won the first race easily. Then came L'Enjobeau in the sixth, and he posted his third straight victory. In the eighth, In the Navy won, making him 7-for-9 since Hartsell claimed him for $5,000. A sixth-place finish by Grand Colony in the ninth did little to ruin Hartsell's day.
"Baseball's way behind me," Hartsell said. "Training is it. I used to fantasize about doing this, saddling winner after winner. Now it's all coming true."
* Trainer Hank Allen said Northern Wolf is a likely starter in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Sprint at Belmont Park on Oct. 27, even though the 4-year-old colt will not be treated with the diuretic Lasix, which he normally receives. Lasix is banned in New York.
Northern Wolf is the second probable Maryland-based Breeders' Cup competitor. Valay Maid is scheduled for the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
* A selection committee has released lists of preferred starters for International Turf Festival races Oct. 20-21.
From a list of 24 pre-entered in the Budweiser International, these are the 14 that will receive starting preference: Batshoof, Classic Fame, Creator, Fly Till Dawn, Lady Winner, Laugh And Be Merry, Lights Out, My Big Boy, Ode, Phantom Breeze, Pirate Army, Priolo, Septieme Ciel and Ten Keys.