It is only 36 hours before post time for the Budweiser International and there is a possibility the favorite, Solar Splendor, will scratch.
Pat Kelly, the horse's trainer, said last night that it was a 50-50 proposition he would scratch Solar Splendor after 2.2 inches of rain was recorded at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, only a few miles from the track at Laurel.
Today, however, Kelly upgraded the horse's chances of running to 75-25. He said he would ship the horse to Laurel today, walk the course tomorrow morning and then make a final decision before the 5.35 p.m. post time.
"Once he's there, the course is going to have to be really bad to scratch him," Kelly said. "It's going to be a tough call."
Solar Splendor is untested on soft turf. Kelly said he talked this morning to Laurel racing secretary Larry Abbundi. "Abbundi said the plans right now are to run all three turf festival races tomorrow on the grass course, but the footing is just going to be really soft," Kelly said.
Kelly is afraid his horse could injure himself if the footing is too deep and hurt his chances for a run in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf race at Churchill Downs in two weeks.
"If the course is so soft, it's dangerous, we'll sit tight and opt for the Breeders' Cup," Kelly said. "But how soft is soft? That's what I'll have to decide."
The horse's owners, Dr. and Mrs. John C. Weber, have already paid a $7,000 non-refundable starting fee at Laurel.
If the rain dampened Kelly's prospects and perhaps those of other American entries such as Golden Pheasant, Jolie's Halo and Fourstars Allstar, it enhanced the chances of five French horses, who run and train regularly on all sorts of going in Europe and appear to relish it.
Fourteen horses were entered yesterday for the 40th running of the $750,000 race. The Grade I stakes is the featured attraction of Laurel's two-day International Turf Festival. The Laurel Futurity and Selima Stakes, for 2-year-old colts and fillies, respectively, will be supporting events on tomorrow's card. The All Along Stakes, headed by championship-caliber filly, Miss Josh, and the Laurel Dash, featuring Double Booked and Forest Glow, are run Sunday.
Solar Splendor, winner of two Grade I races in his last two starts and the "star" of the International field, has never raced or even worked out on a soft or yielding grass course.
"Up to now, I've been lucky," Kelly said. "It was a hot, dry summer and he's only run on firm or good courses."
Kelly said it's unknown how the horse would handle soft footing. "It's a little like running a horse in the Kentucky Derby," he said. "You never know, running at 1 1/4 miles for the first time, if your horse can get that extra eighth of a mile. The same with running a horse on a soft turf course. You don't know how he'll run until you try it."
Kelly said he is not afraid of Solar Splendor getting beat. "He's genuine and will give it his all on any surface. He's a gelding, and he has no value as a breeding prospect," he said. "The fear is that he could injure himself."
Kelly is the son of Baltimore-born trainer Thomas J. Kelly, who won the International in 1972 with Droll Role.
Kelly said he is known in the Belmont stable area as "the backstretch weatherman."
"That's because I have a barn full of turf runners, and where and when they run depends a lot on the weather."
Kelly is not the only trainer faced with a tricky decision. Charlie Whittingham has stated Golden Pheasant, winless in a comeback campaign, prefers firm going. So does Irish 2,000 Guineas winner, Fourstars Allstar.
Bob Camac, the new trainer of Jolie's Halo, also said he is uncertain how his horse will handle deep footing.
"I worked a filly over the course last Sunday and it was soft then. And that was before all of this rain," Camac said. "But there is nothing anybody can do about it."
"That's the problem with turf races in October and November," Kelly added. "It rains. You don't get that much sun, and the grass doesn't dry out."
Even though all horses race over the same surface, the going is all important because certain horses feel more comfortable on different kinds of footing.
Regardless of the footing, the race presents horses with a variety of running styles and backgrounds. Expected pace-setters are Jolie's Halo; Super May, who is owned by Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke; Fourstars Allstar and Solar Splendor. Long shots Thakib and Karmani also stay close to the pace.
Then there are horses that might prefer to lay just off the lead. They are South American champion Algenib, French fillies Leariva and Miss Alleged and the French 3-year-old Sillery.
The real closers appear to be Goofalik, Golden Pheasant, Fortune's Wheel and Rebuff.
The ultimate winner, Kelly predicts, will "be the horse that best handles the footing, whatever condition it's in, at race time."