Ever since Miss Golden Circle won last year's Barbara Fritchie Handicap, her trainer, John Kimmel, has kept this year's version in the back of his mind. A quarter of a million dollars will stick with you like that.
That's what 10 fillies and mares will sprint for today at Laurel Park. The $250,000 Barbara Fritchie for fillies and mares and its companion race, the $250,000 General George Handicap on Monday, make up Winter SprintFest, a highlight of Maryland racing.
In the state, only three races offer greater purses: the $1 million Preakness, $750,000 Pimlico Special and $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash. Across the nation, these are the richest sprints so far this year.
They are both Grade II. They're both seven furlongs. And they're so evenly matched that track oddsmaker Clem Florio designated two lukewarm favorites (lukewarm to the point of being cool): Miss Golden Circle at 4-1, and in the General George, Royal Haven at 3-1.
"You put up that much money, and you'll get a lot of good horses in there," said Bobby Barnett, trainer of J J'sdream in the Barbara Fritchie and Littlebitlively in the General George.
Barnett is coming from the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Kimmel is coming from Belmont Park in New York. Howard Tesher is shipping down Evil's Pic from Belmont for the final race of her career. And W. Elliott Walden is sending up Stormy Temper from South Florida with her famous jockey, Julie Krone.
Paul McGee brought Graceful Minister from Kentucky, but turned around and went home yesterday when the 6-year-old mare developed muscle cramps and was scratched.
Kimmel is fresh from a trip to California, where his Hidden Lake collected an Eclipse award for outstanding older female. Miss Golden Circle is older, too, and Kimmel isn't sure what to make of it.
Since May, the 6-year-old mare has raced only twice -- in November and January. During the summer and fall, Kimmel said, he sent her on vacation to his training center at Fair Hill because, in his words, "she wasn't a happy camper."
After that "freshening," Kimmel said, Miss Golden Circle has run adequately, but not powerfully. She has, however, been training superbly, he said.
"She needs to show me in the afternoon what she's been hinting at in the morning," Kimmel said. "But I expect her to run well. Migliore [Richard, her jockey] said he hasn't seen her as good since he's been getting on her."
Evil's Pic is back in Tesher's barn, where she started as a 2-year-old, after a disappointing stint in California. Back in New York, the 6-year-old mare is 2-for-3. After today's race, she will be retired and bred to Tabasco Cat, winner of the 1994 Preakness, Tesher said.
J J'sdream returns to Laurel after her humbling experience in July against Smoke Glacken and the males in the De Francis Dash. She finished sixth.
"Against the fillies, at seven-eighths mile, that's pretty much her strength," Barnett said. "But I hope there are some scratches. She'll be 10, 12 lengths back down the backstretch. The fewer horses she has to catch, the better."
Also, he said, she runs "extremely well fresh." She hasn't raced since December.
Greeting the five out-of-staters will be five Maryland-based horses headed by Weather Vane and Secret Prospect.
For Weather Vane, the seven-eighths of a mile is perhaps a stretch. She excels at three-quarters of a mile.
For Secret Prospect, seven-eighths is ideal. She is 6-for-7 at the distance. However, since winning the 7-furlong Maryland Million Distaff in October, the daughter of Allen's Prospect, the state's leading sire, has lost three straight.
"She's getting a little older; maybe she's getting a little moody," said John J. Tammaro III, trainer of the 5-year-old. "But she's training excellent. I couldn't ask for her to be any better."
Like her Maryland counterparts, Weather Vane will be facing the toughest competition of her career. After winning more stakes last year -- eight -- than any horse in Maryland, she began 1998 with her ninth stakes victory in a 6-furlong, $50,000 race at Laurel.
"We usually just let her do her thing," said Richard Delp, her trainer. "The rider doesn't have to send her. She just does it on her own."
In other words, Weather Vane will streak for the lead, J J'sdream will linger at the rear, and in between eight other fillies and mares will match strides in potentially one of the year's best races.
Winter SprintFest at a glance
Where: Laurel Park Post time: 4: 32 p.m. each day
Today: Barbara Fritchie Handicap Distance: 7 furlongs each race
I= Monday: General George Handicap Purse: $250,000 each race
Barbara Fritchie field
PP Horse ............. Trainer .. Jockey .... Wgt Odds*
1 Secret Prospect .... Tammaro .. Cullum .... 117 8-1
2 Miss Golden Circle.. Kimmel ... Migliore .. 120 4-1
3 Stylish Encore ..... Barr ..... Wilson .... 109 8-1
4 Palette Knife ...... Allen .... Prado ..... 111 8-1
5 Darlene's Friend ... Beall .... Goodwin ... 109 10-1
6 J J'sdream ......... Barnett .. Reynolds .. 115 8-1
7 Snit ............... Tagg ..... Colton .... 114 12-1
8 Weather Vane ....... Delp ..... Pino ...... 117 5-1
9 Evil's Pic ......... Tesher ... Gryder .... 117 6-1
10 Stormy Temper ..... Walden ... Krone ..... 113 12-1
General George field
PP Horse .......... Trainer ... Jockey .... Wgt Odds*
1 Royal Haven ..... Moschera .. Migliore .. 122 3-1
2 Purple Passion .. Barr ...... Prado ..... 116 6-1
3 Original Gray ... Tammaro ... Cullum .... 113 8-1
4 King Roller ..... Friedman .. Velasquez.. 116 8-1
5 Stalwart Member.. Tesher .... Gryder .... 118 7-2
6 Clash by Night .. Small ..... Johnston .. 110 15-1
7 Irish Conquest .. Moubarak .. Coa ....... 114 4-1
8 Littlebitlively.. Barnett ... Reynolds .. 110 20-1
Wire Me Collect.. Camac ..... Wilson .... 117 8-1
Pub Date: 2/14/98