A week ago, trainer Tim Keefe and owners Arnold and Sylvia Heft celebrated in style as their six year-old star Eighttofasttocatch was named Maryland-based horse of the year. They looked with anticipation to this week’s races, as both Eight and Red’s Round Table, their four year-old filly, figured to have legitimate shots in Laurel’s mid-winter Grade 2 siblings, the Fritchie for the girls and the General George for the boys.
By the end of yesterday’s card, however, they had to be shaking their heads: top of the mountain to depths of the valley in just one week. On Saturday in the Barbara Fritchie, the speedy Red was sent off as the 3-1 second choice in the field of seven. Her race, however, for all intents and purposes ended before it even began. The daughter of Cuvee stumbled badly — as in, nose-to-the-ground badly — leaving the gate. By the time she’d righted herself, the field was pretty much gone; she ran evenly around the track and was never involved.
Things were looking up for Eighttofasttocatch in the General George, though — that is, they were looking up until the last furlong. Breaking from rail, Eight had been close up, though last, for most of the trip. As Toby’s Corner moved up along the outside, Eight had the chance to follow him, but Sheldon Russell elected to try to split horses and save ground. It’s the jockey’s classic conundrum: get through the hole, and you’re the hero. Get stopped — as he and Eight did — and by the time you find running room again, the race is over. Stopped inside the eighth pole, Russell had to take back and swing out widest of all for room; Eight ran into fourth, beaten less than three lengths for the win. Plenty of horse, but no place to go.
* The two big Laurel races were won, oddly enough, by the chalk and a bomber. Favored Yawanna Twist, a refugee from the 2010 Triple Crown trail, rallied up the fence to win the General George, while Magical Feeling, at 27-1 the second longest shot in the field, ran down favored Nicole H in the last jumps to win the Fritchie; she was the second longest shot in the field and the weekend’s only double-digit winner at the central Maryland track.
* The Fritchie is named for the heroine of a John Greenleaf Whittier poem. Barbara Fritchie, who actually lived in Frederick, MD, and was a key figure in the founding and early years of that small city, lives in modern memory because of Whittier’s work. He tells the story of the Confederate march into Frederick during the Civil War. Fritchie, by then 95 years old, confronted Stonewall Jackson — later to be shot by his own men and subsequently dropped off his stretcher as they tried to carry him to safety — by waving the Union flag from her house. Jackson called for his troops to destroy the flag. In Whittier’s poem, Fritchie responds: “Shoot if you must, this old gray head/ But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.” Properly chastened, Jackson changes directions: “‘Who touches a hair of yon gray head/ dies like a dog! March on!’ he said.”
* Past winners of the Fritchie, contested since 1952, include Xtra Heat and Twixt, both of which won the races in back-t0-back runnings, and Skipat, who won it twice non-consecutively, in 1979 and 1981. The 1999 winner, Passeggiata, was trained by That’s Amore trainer Ferris Allen.
* Contested since 1973, the General George has never had a repeat winner. The roster of victors does include some of the great names of Maryland racing, particularly in the 1980s: Broad Brush, Private Terms, and Little Bold John are all among the winners.