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The Grade 2, $300,000 Barbara Fritchie Handicap kicks off holiday racing this weekend at Laurel Park. The 60th edition of the Fritchie has attracted 10 fillies and mares, who will race seven furlongs.
The $100,000 John B. Campbell Handicap is the co-feature on Saturday with the Grade 3, $250,000 General George Handicap and $100,000 Maryland Racing Media Stakes headlining Monday's President's Day card.
Maryland Jockey Club handicapper Keith Feustle has tabbed La Verdad as the 5-2 morning line favorite for the Fritchie. After finishing off the board in her debut, La Verdad has reeled off five straight front-running victories, four against optional claiming company at the New York tracks. Jose Ortiz has been aboard the Yes It's True filly in all her starts for trainer Linda Rice.
"We are ready to try stakes company and the timing is right," Rice said. "She is a big filly with a lot of natural speed. We were hoping to rate her off the pace last time but it didn't work out. We'll see how she does with the added distance."
An early resume in claiming races made Centrique eligible for the Claiming Crown Glass Slipper at Gulfsteam Park in December, a race she won as the odds-on favorite. The five-year-old daughter of Malibu Moon followed that effort with a second win at Gulfstream, this time over allowance company. The Marty Wolfson charge has finished in the money in 20-of-30 lifetime starts, and will have Edgard Zayas in the irons on Saturday.
Trainer Mike Hushion has captured two of the previous six Barbara Fritchie Handicaps, winning with Golden Dawn (2008) and Harissa (2011). The Belmont Park-based conditioner is sending last year's runner-up, My Wandy's Girl, in search of another Grade 2 credit.
The daughter of Flower Alley, a Puerto Rican import, won her North American debut at Aqueduct in the 2012 Pentelis before finishing in the money in three graded races -- the Grade 1 Gazelle, Barbara Fritchie and Grade 2 Ruffian. After a six-month absence, she returned in December to post a fifth-place finish in the Garland of Roses and will try to rebound off that contest in the Fritchie under jockey Rajiv Maragh.
Winning Image is two-for-two thus far at Laurel Park, and on Saturday will try to make it a perfect three in the Fritchie. The Southern Image mare captured the What a Summer at Laurel in her most recent try, adding it to a victory in the 2012 Willa on the Move. Winning Image has eight stakes wins on her resume for trainer Michael Oro with earnings of nearly $600,000.
Jockey Tony Black, who retains the mount after guiding Winning Image to victory in the What a Summer, said the seven-year-old mare is as quick as any horse he has ever been aboard.
"It was exciting to hear Tony say that. He actually was very impressed with her when he worked her one morning and said he had not been on anything as good as her since 1989," Aro said. "She is one of a kind to me and is appropriately named. She is determined and likes to win."
John Servis will ship Villette from Parx Racing, where she's won four of her last five starts. Her best effort was a victory in the Foxy J. G. last April. The Petionville mare returned from a nine-month absence to win against optional claiming company on January 14 with Stewart Elliott aboard.
"She has been a really nice mare since day one," Servis said. "She was ready to run but we got hit by the quarantine which set us back. When we finally got a chance to run her last month she was on go. She is going to be close to the pace but she does not have to be on the lead. She is a nice filly and she'll give it all she's got."
Larry Murray entered both More Than a Cruise and Access to Charlie but indicated he will likely be running only the latter in her final career start. The Indian Charlie mare has already earned a pair of stakes victories over the track, most recently taking Geisha last November. Julian Pimentel will ride. Many in the Campbell field will be gunning for Native Dancer winner Bold Curlin (Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club)
"She is going to the breeding shed after this start so I am hoping to go out with a bang," Murray said. "She has been a very productive runner. If she could be third in the Fritchie and get some graded black-type that would be perfect. She is a cut below the top horses but she has been very sound and tries every time. She has run some big races. Hopefully she can run by a few down the lane and hit the board."
Murray said More Than a Cruise would be pointed toward the $100,000 Conniver at Laurel on March 22.
Kiaran McLaughlin shipped Baragah to Laurel from Belmont Park for her past two starts, resulting in an allowance victory in December and a fourth-place finish behind Winning Image in the What a Summer despite a troubled trip. Alex Cintron retains the mount.
"We were just unlucky in that last race. The first two finishers are really nice. We were probably third best that day but ran fourth," said Artie Magnuson, McLaughlin's longtime assistant. "She's improved quite a bit but we are stepping up in company. We'll be sitting off the pace and hope to make a nice run."
Flattering Bea won the Ms. Shenandoah at Charles Town right out of the maiden ranks and has finished first or second in seven of her last 10 starts. Her most impressive effort was a surprising near-miss second in the Miss Preakness Stakes last spring at odds of 52-1. Crystal Pickett trains the four-year-old daughter of Flatter, who will have Sheldon Russell aboard for the first time.
"She has been the nicest filly to train," Pickett said. "Nothing seems to bother her. She has a great attitude. She runs her guts out every time so the key is giving her time off between races. Sheldon came to work her the last two times and she loves him. I was looking for a patient rider because she loves to have speed to run at and Sheldon fit the bill. This is certainly a step up in class but she belongs."
Sunlit City, ninth in her only stakes try to date in the Safely Kept last November, completes the field.
One race before the Fritchie, a field of seven older runners will line up in the John B. Campbell H. The 1 1/8-mile contest has turned into a rematch of the January 25 Native Dancer, featuring winner Bold Curlin, runner-up Indian Jones, third-place finisher Managed Account and fifth-place runner Concealed Identity.
Concealed Identity actually captured the Campbell in 2013 by three parts of a length but has been unplaced in all but two of his subsequent nine starts.