LAUREL -- Before racing in Maryland became a year-round grind in the mid-1970s, Delaware Park was considered on a par with Pimlico and Laurel race courses. Summer meetings at Delaware were a pleasant diversion for horsemen from around ** the country, but especially those from Maryland.
The Delaware Handicap, the track's highlight, was also a top-class race, a Grade I event. But as racing proliferated in the East, the track fell on hard times, and the Delaware Handicap, now a Grade II, also lost some of its luster.
A Maryland connection is so evident for today's $116,700 renewal -- four of the eight fillies and mares are Maryland-based -- that the race is a reminder of when things were better for Delaware, when the circuits were virtually interchangeable.
"Good old Delaware Park," said trainer King Leatherbury, who has Wait For the Lady in today's race. "That's where I really got going as a trainer. It seems like I'd always take seven or eight horses up there for the summer, and I'd be third- or fourth-leading trainer.
"It was hard to let Delaware Park go [as a regular stop], but finally Maryland took over with year-round racing."
Leatherbury said he will not travel to saddle Wait For the Lady, who looms as the dominant early speed in the 1 1/4 -mile race. "If we can get away with a slow enough pace, we might have a good chance," said Leatherbury.
Wait For the Lady, winner of three straight stakes in Maryland earlier this year, will make the 80-or-so-mile trip north on I-95 -- as will Crowned, Tia Juanita and Sweet Alex.
Sweet Alex, trained by Vinnie Blengs, won her last two starts at Pimlico Race Course impressively.
"She's not just training good," said Blengs. "She's training brilliant."
Buy The Firm, a New York invader who has earned over $700,000, is the 122-pound top-weight and likely favorite. The remaining three horses: Lady D'Accord, shipping from New York for the trainer-jockey team of Nick Zito and Chris Antley; and Oriental Faith and Lady Maskra, in from Kentucky.
The race will be simulcast to Laurel Race Course and the Pimlico intertrack outlet as the 11th event on a 12-race card.
* Seven horses have been pre-entered for the $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel next Saturday.
Made eligible by a $2,750 pre-entry payment were Housebuster, Safely Kept, Clever Trevor, Robyn Dancer, Sunny Blossom, Brave And Bold and Zig n' Zag.
To start, each owner will have paid a total of $6,000 in nominating, pre-entry and starting fees.