LAUREL -- If lots of starts translated into lots of ability, many horses would be worldbeaters.
But horse racing doesn't work that way. Except in the case of Hooliganisim, the gelding with the humble beginnings and the misspelled name.
Once a perennial also-ran in Maryland's lowest maiden-claiming events, Hooliganisim blistered the Laurel Race Course main track with a gate-to-wire, 3 3/4 -length victory in yesterday's Northern Wolf Handicap.
"I never expected him to become this good," trainer Fred Groves said after the gelding completed six furlongs in a quick 1 minute, 9 1/5 seconds. Owner-breeder Penelope Keating turned the horse over to Groves in early 1990 after another trainer wanted rid of him.
Groves has been a stern taskmaster for Hooliganisim, but the 5-year-old obviously thrives on action. When racing 24 times in 1990, then 21 times last year -- inordinately high numbers for an upper-class performer -- Hooliganisim won nearly $190,000. After yesterday's win, Groves proclaimed, "he's better than he's ever been.
"Now that he's rolling, I'm sure not going to stop on him," he said. "He'll probably run once more between now and the General George [a $200,000 race at Laurel on Feb. 17]."
In winning the eight-horse Northern Wolf, Hooliganisim used the simplest and most dominant method: He broke fastest of all from his rail slot, then led throughout by a comfortable margin.
"I was thinking they would come to me," winning jockey Santos Chavez said of the horses behind him. "But they never did, so I just kept going."
Groves said the sensational turn of early speed had not been a characteristic of Hooliganisim's until lately, when the gelding was especially sharp in morning training hours. "He's unbelievable, really," Groves said. "He wasn't developed when I first had him, but now he has. I expect this year to be his best ever."
L And if it's his busiest, it is likely indeed to be his best.
NOTES: Hooliganisim's clocking was just one second off the track record, set by Northern Wolf himself in June 1990. . . . 11 different jockeys rode the winners of yesterday's live Laurel races. . . . The Herecomesthebride Stakes, simulcast from Gulfstream Park, concludes today's 12-race Laurel card. . . . Fighting Notion, fifth in the 1990 Preakness, returns to action in today's 10th race after a layoff of 17 months. . . . With tomorrow a holiday, a 12-race program will be held at Laurel. Post time is noon. . . . Maryland-based His Ginger, ridden by Joe Rocco and trained by Ron Benshoff, won yesterday's Busanda Stakes at Aqueduct in New York.