LAUREL -- Tepid favorite Solar Splendor drew post No. 12 for tomorrow's Budweiser International, but the talk at Laurel Race Course yesterday focused more on the weather.
Forecasts called for yesterday's steady rain to end before this morning, and track president Joe De Francis said he is optimistic the Laurel Futurity and Selima Stakes, which precede the International, will not have to be transferred to the main track.
"We'll have to reassess the situation if our forecast services are -- wrong," he said.
Two years ago, several days of rain before the series forced the shift of the Futurity and Selima, both for 2-year-olds, to the dirt.
A soft or yielding turf course, which the 1 1/4 -mile International has been on 19 of the 40 times it has been run, would seem to favor the foreign horses, said David Henderson, assistant to English trainer John Hammond.
"European horses, especially the French, are more used to running over soft ground," said Henderson. "But it's the same ground for all of them."
Henderson has been at Laurel for the past several days overseeing the training of Goofalik, a 4-year-old colt. As one of five French representatives in this International, Goofalik will attempt to reverse the pattern of American horses winning five of the past six runnings.
"We hope there's a bit of pace," said Henderson, "but it's unusual in the U.S. to not have a race without pace."
Solar Splendor, a 4-year-old gelding based in New York, is one of the likely pacesetters. From his past six starts, Solar Splendor has won four, showing speed in all of them.
Goofalik, by the top turf sire Lyphard, has raced in four countries in his past seven starts. He finished a close second in his last start in the Prix du Rond-Point at Longchamps, in Paris, on Oct. 6.
A European aspect is evident in the Futurity, Selima and the All Along Stakes, but the Laurel Dash is the Festival's "black cloud, if you'll excuse the expression," said De Francis.
"It was a sadly ironic twist," he said. "We had two of the top European sprinters in Keen Hunter and Sheikh Albadou pre-entered, and that seemed to scare away some other people. Then when their owners decided not to come, we didn't have nearly as good a field."
The six-furlong Laurel Dash -- which, with the All Along, ends the Festival on Sunday -- has only six horses, all from the United States.
Maryland star Miss Josh heads a strong contingent of Americans in the 13-horse All Along, with Once In My Life the top European. A lucrative U.S. vs. Ireland match looms for the Selima: Sand Lady, based at Laurel, will face invader Misaka Togo and seven )) others. Europe has another strong candidate in the Futurity in Prime Glade, trained by Robert Collet, the top French trainer who won last year's Selima with Tycoon's Drama.
But the likely favorite in the Laurel Futurity is Free At Last, a winner of his past three starts in Canada. The colt was turned over to trainer D. Wayne Lukas after being purchased after his last race by Clover Racing Stable, the large U.S. syndicate that invests in promising young horses. Free At Last will represent the United States in the eight-horse Futurity.
"If we win easily, and I don't want to sound cocky," said Barry Irwin, Clover president, "we'd like to go to the Breeders' Cup [Juvenile]. We think he's going to be better on the dirt than the turf."
The Breeders' Cup championships, being run Nov. 2 at Churchill Downs, is a primary reason the International has drawn its most competitive field in years, De Francis said, because a good effort in the International could lead to a Breeders' Cup berth.
In recent years, the International has been inopportunely spotted with regard to the Breeders' Cup. Last year, the International was six days before the Breeders' Cup; in 1985 it was after the Breeders' Cup.
Said Laurel vice president Tim Capps, who has an extensive background in international racing, "I hate to use hyperbole, but I honestly think this is the deepest International field in years."