Luis Carvajal Jr. tightened the girth on Imperial Hint before Saturday’s General George Stakes at Laurel Park and headed toward the grandstand to watch. The trainer felt some nerves, but also believed his horse – coming in off back-to-back wins – belonged in the Grade 3. Then Carvajal heard some railbirds talking.
“Look at the favorite, he’s humungous. Look at the five horse, he’s so small. He’s got no shot at all.”
Carvajal smiled, kept walking and said to himself, “Yeah but you don’t know the heart he has.”
As if he heard his trainer, Imperial Hint broke running, set fractions of :22.61, :45.28 and 1:08.88 and answered the stretch challenge of the at-least-a-hand-taller Stallwalkin’ Dude to win by 2 1/4 lengths after 7 furlongs in 1:21.20. The runner-up came into the $250,000 race with 17 wins and $1.2 million in career earnings. Sent off as the even-money favorite, he left with his second loss in as many tries at Laurel. Longshot Never Gone South rallied for third in the last of six stakes, which highlighted the day’s 10-race card.
Carvajal, based at Parx Racing this winter and a regular at Monmouth Park most summers, survived the stress of his first graded stakes win.
“This was a nervous race for me because I had never won a graded stakes race before,” said the 44-year-old. “After this, the way he ran, I think next time I’ll be more relaxed because this is the one that’s tough to get. I know (Stallwalkin’ Dude) is coming. Usually I don’t scream that much but the last eighth-of-a-mile you could hear me. ‘Come on, come on, don’t stop now.’ ”
Imperial Hint, a son of Imperialism bred in Florida by Shade Tree Thoroughbreds, didn’t stop. He won for the sixth time in 10 starts and earned $150,000 for owner Raymond Mamone. Julien Pimentel rode the winner, who pushed his career earnings to $249,805. The payday helped solidify the opinions of Mamone, who turned down two lucrative offers last year, and Carvajal, who stayed patient despite some flashy workouts as a 2-year-old.
“When he came to my barn, I worked him a few times,” the trainer said. “The second time I worked him I told the jockey, ‘Can you go three-eighths in :35?’ He went :35, :47 (for a half-mile), galloped out in a minute (for 5 furlongs). I never had a 2-year-old that fast. But after I worked him again and he started getting maybe stressed out, maybe we put a little pressure on him. So we decided we were going to hold back a little bit and let him mature a little more. So that’s why we started when he was 3. He was too head-strong.”
Imperial Hint won his debut Feb. 19, 2016 at Tampa Bay Downs (365 days before the General George thanks to a leap year), then added a Florida-bred stakes also at Tampa, April 9. Placing 12th in graded company – twice – derailed the rising star, who got back on track with a second in allowance company at Monmouth and a season-ending win at Parx Dec. 17. The dark bay made light work of the 6-furlong Fire Plug at Laurel Jan. 14 and met eight others in the General George. New York shippers Stallwalkin’ Dude, Classy Class, Voluntario, Heaven’s Runway and Ocean Knight got the most attention though Imperial Hint was bet down to the 5-2 second choice late.
He ran as if he was 2-5.
“I always thought he was a graded stakes horse,” said Carvajal, a former assistant to trainer Bob Durso and exercise rider for Angel Penna Jr. “I was hoping he didn’t go too fast but once your horse breaks that way I was hoping he didn’t fight him too much. Julien did a really good job on the horse. He looked like he was holding him back a little bit (early in the race) but actually he was just going for a ride right there.”
Repeat finish in the Fritchie
High Ridge Road and By The Moon might want to stop meeting this way. The New York-based mares hooked up in a Laurel Park stakes for the second time in seven weeks and produced the same result – with High Ridge Road prevailing by a neck in the Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie one race before the General George.
It wasn’t easy, as High Ridge Road needed almost every step of the 7-furlong race to get past her rival after scoring by a half-length in the 1-mile Thirty Eight Go Go at Laurel Dec. 31.
Jockey Horacio Karamanos, now 4-for-4 on the winner, said the shorter distance nearly did him in as favorite By The Moon and second choice Wonder Gal were up front early.
“Today, the horses to beat were in front of me so I couldn’t take any rest,” Karamanos said. “I had to keep her busy. She started to give me a kick, just a little kick, a little kick, she doesn’t want to switch the leads right in the stretch so I had to work on her. After the eighth pole, I moved my filly to switch leads and she did it and she gave me another extra kick. Three jumps before (the wire) it didn’t look like I could win it, but I knew my filly was coming. I beat her on the wire, so I was lucky.”
Trained by Linda Rice for Martin Schwartz, High Ridge Road won for the fifth time in 11 career starts and collected her first graded stakes win. The daughter of Quality Road and the Devil’s Bag mare Detect hasn’t lost at Laurel and has only lost twice (in stakes company) since moving to Rice’s barn from Chad Brown’s last winter.
Rice watched from the paddock at Aqueduct and leaned through the photo finish.
“I thought when she got there that she got it by a head,” she said. “I had to watch the replay again to make sure. We’re just thrilled to get a Grade 2 win for this filly. The Barbara Fritchie has been a race that I’ve wanted to win. I ran La Verdad in the Barbara Fritchie and she finished second; it was a little too far for her. It’s a thrill to win the race. It’s a prestigious race and it’s been around a long time. I’m also really excited to get a Grade 2 win for this filly for her broodmare value and for Mr. Schwartz. He’s a great owner and he’s great for the game. He invests his money and I’m glad we could get such a great result.”
NOTES: Born Feb. 19, 2013, Imperial Hint won on his birthday . . . Laurel handled more than $4.9 million on the day, billed as the annual Winter Carnival in the face of 65-degree temperatures. Split into two days (Saturday for the Fritchie and Monday for the General George) in past years, the single day handle nearly eclipsed last year’s total from the two days combined . . . Other stakes on the day went to late-running Bodhisattva (Jose Corrales owner/trainer) over Page McKenney in the John B. Campbell, classy Maryland-bred 3-year-old O Dionysus (Marathon Farm, Gary Capuano) in the 1-mile Miracle Wood, Kentucky shipper China Grove (Katherine Ball, Ben Colebrook) over Crabcakes in the Wide Country for 3-year-old fillies, Winter (Matt Schera, Cal Lynch) in the Maryland Racing Media for older fillies/mares . . . Also at Laurel Saturday, the Maryland Racing Media Association named multiple Grade 1 winner and Eclipse finalist A.P. Indian as the top Thoroughbred based in the state of 2016.