LAUREL -- Less than a year ago, Rene Araya was bringing room service to hotel customers and Seven Lords was just another claimer.
But with a rallying victory in the $54,500 Northern Wolf Handicap at Laurel Race Course yesterday, horse and trainer added another chapter to an amazing underdog story.
Seven Lords was second in victories in North America last year with 15, but most of those were accomplished in claiming or starter-allowance races -- significantly easier events than yesterday's inaugural Northern Wolf.
Seven Lords defeated one of the East's top sprinters, Fire Plug, by a half-length. Less than 2 1/4 lengths separated the eight starters, a testament to racing secretary Larry Abbundi's weight assignments.
Araya, a longtime jockeys' agent and trainer, abandoned the game in 1988 and returned to Chile, his homeland. In 1989, he returned to the United States with his family; last year, while living in Florida, he worked days as a veterinary assistant and nights as a room-service waiter.
He began training again for a former client, Richard Koch of New York. Koch purchased Seven Lords privately for $19,000 last July, and the 6-year-old gelding has since won 11 races for Koch and Araya, including two of three this year. The Northern Wolf was the first stakes win for Seven Lords and Araya.
"This horse has done nothing but good for us," said Koch, who owns the only other horse Araya is currently training.
Seven Lords won with a clean trip -- a direct contrast to that of Fire Plug, the 120-pound top-weight. Fire Plug stumbled at the start, then had to negotiate through traffic in the stretch.
"The start may have cost me the race," said Fire Plug's rider, Santos Chavez. "I tried not to rush and to get him back in the race slowly. He really fired in the stretch, but it was too late."
Seven Lords, second-longest shot in the field, returned $22.60 to win. He ran the six-furlong distance in 1 minute, 10 seconds, nearly two seconds off the track record (1:08 1/5) set last summer by Northern Wolf himself.
Given the tight finish, the bulk of the Northern Wolf field could return for the $200,000 General George Stakes at Laurel Feb. 16.
The Northern Wolf was preceded on the 11-race program by the Goss L. Stryker Stakes for Maryland-bred 3-year-olds. Marco Castaneda was the winning rider in both races.
"Nice day, eh?" Castaneda said soon after dismounting from Seven Lords.
Castaneda guided Haymaker to a front-running romp in the $75,000 Stryker. Despite having been beaten by Forry Cow How in their last meeting, Haymaker was a solid 6-5 choice over seven others yesterday.
"I screwed up that last one," said Haymaker's trainer, Carlos Garcia. "I ran a short horse [one not trained to have enough stamina]."
"He relaxed better today," Castaneda said, "plus there was no outside pressure like in his last race." As the field turned into the stretch, Haymaker delivered the winning blow when drawing off to a big lead and an eventual 3 3/4 -length triumph.
The Stryker was the first stakes victory of the year for Garcia, who came to the United States from Argentina in 1964. The two stakes, in fact, were something of a South American celebration: Castaneda was born in Colombia. Last year, Garcia set an unofficial record for Maryland-based trainers with 19.
"We're hopeful he'll be good enough to make the Preakness," he said of Haymaker, who is expected to soon be named the state's 1990 champion 2-year-old colt.
Forry Cow How, ridden by Joe Rocco, rallied mildly to take second, a nose in front of A Call To Rise. "Second best today," Rocco said.