Mr. Amore Stable's Grade 1-winning millionaire homebred Firenze Fire, unraced since back-to-back stakes victories to cap last year, is set to make both his seasonal and Maryland debuts in Saturday's $250,000 General George (G3) at Laurel Park.
The 44th running of the General George for 4-year-olds and up and the 68th renewal of the $250,000 Runhappy Barbara Fritchie (G3) for fillies and mares 4 and older, both at seven furlongs, co-headline a nine-race Winter Carnival program that features five stakes worth $800,000 in purses.
Firenze Fire owns nine wins, three in each of his three seasons of racing, with eight stakes wins, four of them in graded company, topped by the 2017 Champagne (G1) in his third career start. He ran in five straight Grade 1 races last summer and fall, twice finishing second, before victories in the Fabulous Strike and Gravesend to end his 4-year-old campaign.
“He's a tough horse, seasoned,” trainer Jason Servis said. “He's a homebred and I think you've definitely got to single him out from the rest of the crowd. I remember the first time I ran him we didn't expect him to win, and he won. Then we went to Saratoga and I wasn't expecting him to win and he won again. I said, 'Oh, what do we have here?'”
Firenze Fire has raced exclusively in stakes company since his debut triumph at Monmouth Park in June 2017, winning the Sanford (G3) in his second start. After stepping off the Triple Crown trail following an 11th-place finish in the 2018 Kentucky Derby (G1), he posted graded wins later that year in the Dwyer (G3) and Gallant Bob (G3). While proven at six furlongs, he is winless with one second and one third in three lifetime tries going seven-eighths.
“I don't think the seven furlongs is a big deal. He won the Dwyer, which is a mile, with a big speed figure so I don't think the distance will be an issue,” Servis said. “He's run and won at a lot of different racetracks, so we're going to give it a whirl.”
Two-time defending Eclipse Award winner Irad Ortiz Jr. has the mount on Firenze Fire from Post 6 in a field of nine at topweight of 122 pounds, two more than each of his rivals. Since the Dec. 22 Gravesend, the son of Poseidon's Warrior shows three timed works at Belmont Park for his return.
“He didn't really have any break,” Servis said. “He ran a couple times close together and we were leaning on him pretty good, so we just wanted to space his next race out.”
Gary Barber, Wachtel Stable and Terp Racing's Grade 2 winner Still Having Fun will be making his third start off the layoff in the General George, a race trainer Tim Keefe has pointed for since the 5-year-old Old Fashioned gelding returned to his barn last fall off a five-month break.
“This has always been kind of our short-term goal with him. I know it's going to be a tough field, but the reality is every race we run him in is tough. We want to see how he can compete against these guys,” Keefe said. “We do have the benefit this time of walking out of our stall and being here at our home track which certainly is going to benefit us, I believe. Hopefully we get a good trip.”
Still Having Fun ran second against fellow Maryland-breds in the six-furlong Howard and Sondra Bender Memorial Dec. 7, beaten a neck in his first race in seven months. Last out, he set the pace for a half-mile before tiring to fifth behind Grade 1 winner Mind Control in the seven-furlong Toboggan (G3) Jan. 18 at Aqueduct.
“The way the race set up wasn't really the way we hoped it would up in New York, but he came out of the race super,” Keefe said. “Nobody else really wanted [the lead]. This horse will do whatever you ask him to do. I was a little bit surprised he was up there, but not completely. We're pleased. I think he's coming into it well.”
Last year, Still Having Fun was seventh as the favorite in the General George, which came on the heels of a 2018 campaign that saw him race 11 times starting with stakes wins at Laurel in January and February and included a triumph in the Woody Stephens (G2) before ending with a third in the Malibu (G1) in December at Santa Anita.
“He only got beat a few lengths. He'd had a hard campaign with no time off and had been all over the place. We were kind of at the point when I ran him last year he was a well-run, well-traveled horse,” Keefe said. “He had done a lot up to that point. The difference now is this is just his third race back off a long layoff, which I think is a big positive.”
Feargal Lynch rides from Post 4.
Lady Sheila Stable and Iris Smith Stable's Tiz He the One owns a sparkling record at Laurel with five wins and two thirds from nine starts, earning his lone career stakes win in the seven-furlong Challedon Sept. 28 in what would be his seasonal finale. He returned to be third, beaten a length, in his 6-year-old debut behind Honor the Fleet in the Fire Plug Jan. 18.
Tiz He the One's Linda Rice-trained stablemate Wicked Trick is also entered. The 5-year-old gelding is riding a five-race win streak, the last four since being claimed by Rice for $16,000 last summer at Saratoga. They will break side-by-side from Post 8 and 9, respectively.
Frank Demarco's Honor the Fleet takes a two-race win streak, both over Laurel's main track, into the General George, which will be only his second graded attempt. He was third to Timeline in the 2017 Pegasus (G3) at Monmouth Park.
“He came out of the last race in fine form and we're looking forward to running in the General George,” trainer Louis Albertrani said. I think he deserves a chance in there.”
Beset by foot problems that cost him much of 2018 and nearly half of the 2019 season, Honor the Fleet captured a third-level optional claiming allowance going 7 ½ furlongs Nov. 23 to end last year. He opened his 6-year-old campaign with a gutsy neck triumph in the 6 ½-furlong Fire Plug – his first career stakes win.
“We've just been unlucky with him. He had a bad abscess in a hind foot and trying to get it right just took a long time. We just ran into some bad luck with him, that was it, but now we've got it right and he's been on the right track,” Albertrani said. “He's faced some pretty stiff competition, so hopefully he'll have another big effort this weekend.”
All five of Honor the Fleet's wins have come at Laurel, with two seconds in 10 tries. Alex Cintron, up in the Fire Plug, gets the return call from Post 5.
“He loves Laurel. It's unbelievable, he just loves that track. I don't know what it is. The track surface I guess agrees with him,” Albertrani said. “I always knew he had so much ability, if I could just get him right. I was sure he could run in some of these better races. If I didn't think he was at his best, I wouldn't enter a race like this. This is going to be a very competitive race.”
Completing the field are Factor It In, a winner of two straight at Laurel 20 days apart last month, the most recent Jan. 30; Lone Rock, winner of an Aqueduct allowance last out Jan. 5 for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott; Threes Over Deuces, beaten a neck when second in the Fire Plug; and Wonderful Light, seeking his first career stakes win.
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2020 Paulick Report.