LAUREL -- Neither side is admitting bad blood, but there is more at stake in today's rubber match between Haymaker and Colonel Hill than just the $60,000 purse.
The newly turned 3-year-olds square off in the Star de Naskra Stakes at Laurel Race Course. In two prior clashes restricted to Maryland-breds, each colt romped to equally impressive victories.
"This is what racing is all about," said Haymaker's trainer, Carlos Garcia.
For Garcia, the Star de Naskra is something of a grudge match. Colonel Hill, owned by Victor DiVivo, is a half-brother to Pretty Flame, who drew considerable attention when winning her only career start; she won that race last March by 18 lengths. Garcia trained Pretty Flame, also owned by DiVivo, for that race.
After that race, a series of events unfolded whereby DiVivo gave Pretty Flame and his other horses to Howard Wolfendale to train. DiVivo had refused to accept a deal in which Garcia could have had the filly sold for $750,000. DiVivo said he was going to turn Pretty Flame over to Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham, but a knee chip was discovered, and Pretty Flame was eventually retired. She will be bred this spring to Local Talent, a son of Northern Dancer.
Meanwhile, Colonel Hill blossomed for Wolfendale. The Temperence Hill colt won the Devil's Bag Stakes Nov. 18 in his career debut, an exceptional feat for a first-time starter.
Haymaker finished second by three lengths in the seven-furlong Devil's Bag, but he quickly turned the tables, trouncing Colonel Hill by nearly eight lengths in the 1 1/16-mile Maryland Juvenile Championship.
Although Garcia said he and DiVivo parted amicably, there are few things he would rather see than for Haymaker to beat Colonel Hill again today.
"I'm putting my horse eyeball-to-eyeball with Colonel Hill," Garcia said. "We'll see who's best."
Garcia said Haymaker's victory in the longer race should make his colt the Maryland-bred 2-year-old champion of 1990. Wolfendale said the two races are inconclusive, and racing writers who vote on the honors should lengthen 1990 by one day and allow the Star de Naskra to decide the title. DiVivo said today's race "definitely" should be considered in the voting.
Regardless of what transpires today, both sides believe they have excellent 3-year-old prospects. DiVivo, a hands-on owner who fired jockey Mike Luzzi in favor of Edgar Prado after Colonel Hill lost, is carefully mulling his options for a Triple Crown campaign. Garcia, who led all Maryland trainers in 1990 stakes victories, said he considers Haymaker to be his best candidate for the classics.
"We're both trying to get that far," Garcia said. "Right now, I think I have the better horse."
"My colt has only run twice before," said DiVivo, smiling. "He'll be very tough in this race."
* Fire Plug rallied to win a three-horse photo in the $35,000 Resolution Handicap at Laurel yesterday.
The victory was the 26th in 47 starts for the gelding, who is an 8-year-old today. All thoroughbreds become one year older on Jan. 1.
Star Touch finished second by a nose. Flaming Emperor, who took over in early stretch and led to the final yards, was another head behind.
"He has a lot of class," jockey Santos Chavez said of Fire Plug, who has won $621,015 in a brilliant career.
* Laurel begins a new meeting today, but jockey and trainer races will continue without interruption. The new meet mandated payout of yesterday's Double Triple, which was won by one ticket-holder for $22,176.90.
For 263 racing days in 1990, attendance at Laurel and Pimlico was up 1.4 percent over 1989 figures, while handle was up 2.7 percent.
For the 76-day meet that began Sept. 20, attendance was virtually the same (down 0.3 percent) as corresponding 1989 dates, and handle was up slightly (2.4 percent).
Average daily handle for the year was $1,657,315. The meet which ended yesterday averaged $1,585,009.
NOTES: Trainer Bud Delp has been suspended for 15 days because one of his horses tested positive for a metabolite of the tranquilizer drug promazine. Delp did not appeal the suspension, and his son, Gerald, will train his horses. . . . Jockey Andrea Seefeldt said Sunday that she will be out "another week or two" because of a bruised kidney suffered Dec. 14.