LAUREL -- It was the race, as someone said, "that everybody went in, one of the fullest stakes fields this year."
But when the 12-horse field in the Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Handicap reached the stretch yesterday, it was strictly a two-horse fight to the finish.
Pace-setter Flaming Emperor surprised almost everyone, even his trainer, Kenny Cox, and almost stole the $45,000 winning purse from favored Gala Spinaway.
But when jockey Gregg McCarron switched sticks near the three-sixteenths pole, Gala Spinaway dug in and caught the front-runner about 70 yards from the wire.
"I don't care if we went around again, he wasn't going to let that horse [Flaming Emperor] get by him," McCarron said.
Gala Spinaway won by a half length, running the nine furlongs in 1 minute 51 seconds, good enough to equal the stakes record set by Baldski's Choice in 1989 and Due North in 1991.
Flaming Emperor was second, 4-1/4 lengths in front of Valley Crossing, the second choice, that was outrun from the 12-post and never really got in the hunt.
Cox had indicated a couple of days ago he might scratch the horse from such a bulky field. Flaming Emperor had finished fourth in the General George Stakes less than two weeks ago.
McCarron, 43, said the opportunity to ride Gala Spinaway was what had inspired him to recover quickly from an injury he sustained in a spill Feb. 8.
"My leg was so swollen (after a horse stepped on his ankle), but I told the doctors that this was my goal, and they helped me make it," McCarron said.
Gala Spinaway is one of the most consistent local horses in training. He has now won nine of 24 starts and $434,242. He was recently named champion Maryland-bred 3 year-old of 1991.
"When he does turn in a bad race, he has a good excuse," said Graham Motion, assistant to the horse's trainer, Bernie Bond. "He is a handfull around the barn, but when he's in the paddock before a race, he's calm, an individual with a lot of class."
Motion said the horse will most likely make his next start in the Jennings or John B. Campbell handicaps.
NOTES: It was a banner day for Gala Spinaway's owner, Gertrude Leviton, who also won the Haddonfield Handicap at Garden State Park with Gala Goldilocks . . . Coin Collector, who was an impressive winner in his seasonal debut at Garden State Park last weekend, will run next Saturday in the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel. The race is shaping up to be a good one. Pie In Your Eye and America The Free are also in the lineup . . . Local jockey Wayne Barnett, 25, has been asked to ride Fifth Business in t he $250,000 Remington Park Derby March 15 at Remington Park in Oklahoma. Fifth Business is trained by D. Wayne Lukas and is owned by rap star Hammer's Oaktown Stable. . . . Ky Lord and Apparitiontofollow combined to produce a $6 exacta payoff in the fourth race yesterday, lowest of the meet.