LAUREL -- Two Maryland favorites added a surprising twist to an old rivalry in the sixth $75,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Handicap yesterday. In the end, seniority prevailed.
Due North, a 9-year-old gelding making his 102nd career start, beat 7-year-old Baldski's Choice by a neck.
"I really didn't think he could win today," said winning trainer Katy Voss, agreeing with the Laurel Race Course and Pimlico inter-track crowd that made Due North a 16-1 shot, "but I did think he'd run good."
Due North won the Johnson Memorial last year, but Voss was concerned that a nine-week layoff leading to yesterday's race was too much to overcome. "It was a lot to ask of him, but he didn't miss any training," she said.
Baldski's Choice also was a previous winner, having won the Johnson Memorial in 1989, but his recent form was so discouraging that he was the second-longest shot, at 37-1, in a field of nine. He took his customary early lead into the first turn, but with a quarter-mile remaining in the 1 1/8 -mile event, he appeared ready to retire when Lance surged past from the outside.
But, as rallies from Midas and Jet Stream flattened, and Due North angled out for the drive, Baldski's Choice dug in, producing a thrilling three-horse finish. Baldski's Choice held second by a nose over Lance, producing a $528.20 exacta.
Due North had saved ground in the last turn, just behind Jet Stream. "I kept waiting, waiting, waiting," said Rick Wilson, who rode him for the first time. "Finally, I said it's about time to go."
The $45,000 winner's share boosted Due North's career earnings to $836,878. It was his 18th victory, but just his second since last year's Johnson Memorial.
When Baldski's Choice beat Due North by a nose in the Johnson Memorial two years ago, "I thought Duey had won," Voss said. In yet one other prior attempt, Due North had also finished second -- giving him two wins, two seconds and a possible future spot in the Johnson Memorial Hall of Fame, if one is ever founded.
His record in the race may not yet be complete. "He's as good as he's ever been," Voss said.
* James Eich, a camera operator at Baltimore Colts games and Maryland, died yesterday in Baltimore after a long illness. Eich, who was 64, worked at the tracks for 22 years before retiring in 1989.