LAUREL -- When the $750,000 International is run today at Laurel Race Course, it will present a marked contrast to earlier renewals.
Since 1952, when former Laurel owner John Schapiro created it, the race has gotten a new distance and name. Its contestants use more sophisticated travel schedules and training patterns. And it has been placed in a new spot in racing's unofficial pecking order.
In 1986, the turf race was shortened from 1 1/2 miles to 1 1/4 miles. Two years later, the Washington D.C. International became the Budweiser International.
"Horses used to fly here early to train," said Laurel vice president Tim Capps. "They'd get here a month early, even six weeks. Some of the horses you'll see [today] literally got off the plane just a couple days ago. It's a very different world."
But, in perhaps the most significant change, the International -- like virtually all rich autumn races -- has been overshadowed by the Breeders' Cup, which will be run two weeks from today.
The International once drew the biggest names in turf racing, but only fringe contenders for the Breeders' Cup will start today. When heavy rains hit the Laurel area Thursday, trainer Pat Kelly considered keeping Solar Splendor, today's early-line favorite, out of the race. Kelly said wet conditions might have led to a poor effort or injury for Solar Splendor, unraveling long-range hopes for the Breeders' Cup. Although Kelly's fears were allayed yesterday, when wind and sun began to dry out the Laurel turf, his attitude is typical of many horsemen.
Still, the race retains tradition and prestige.
Juan Bauer, 21, flew to Maryland earlier this week from Argentina to watch Algenib, an International runner he owns in partnership. When asked if he was aware of the race's stature, he nodded and said, "Very much so."
Algenib is one of only two starters not nominated to the Breeders' Cup, but an International victory would represent a career zenith for any of them. "There's too much money, too good a race for it not to be," said Diego Lowther, stable manager for Bauer.
Algenib, last year's Argentine Horse of the Year, is one of perhaps a half-dozen accorded an excellent chance at winning today. Golden Pheasant, trained by legendary Charlie Whittingham, is another; the 5-year-old won the 1990 Arlington Million, was sidelined with a leg fracture, and has run twice since convalescing.
"He's got the two races in him," said Tim Watkeen, Whittingham's assistant. "The last race [a second-place finish in an Oct. 4 allowance race at Santa Anita, Calif.] really helped him. We think the race sets up for him, and competition-wise, we have no concerns about the race."
Golden Pheasant is a confirmed stretch runner who could be aided by a fast pace. French invaders Goofalik and Fortune's Wheel also could be coming on.
Fortune's Wheel has had one start in the United States since coming from France, finishing fourth, beaten nine lengths in the Turf Classic at Belmont. "[He] was stopped so badly, he never would have beaten so far," trainer Robert Collet said through an interpreter. Fortune's Wheel, he added, has "a similar turf record prior to the International as Le Glorieux."
Collet saddled Le Glorieux to win the 1987 International. Le Glorieux, at 2-1, was one of just two favorites to win in the last seven runnings.
Meanwhile, John Passero, track superintendent, said the turf course was very soft yesterday morning, but it "drains well and by [today] there could be a tremendous difference. It will probably surprise everybody and come up pretty good."
Preceding today's International are the Laurel Futurity and Selima Stakes, Laurel's premier 2-year-old events. Older But Smarter, based at the Bowie Training Center, faces the most daunting task of his career in the Futurity.
"He's been ready for a week," said the colt's trainer, Paul Seefeldt.
Sand Lady, the slight early favorite for the Selima, is another local hope. The filly is to be ridden by Chris McCarron. "I got McCarron to ride her because I wanted the best," said her Laurel-based trainer, Vinnie Blengs. "She's real versatile and can win from anywhere. I think Point Spread is the one to beat, but I can't figure anything out about these European horses."
Point Spread, trained by Marylander Bill Boniface, has been in the money in all six career outings. Saratoga Source (England), Ken de Saron (France) and Misako Togo (Ireland) are the European fillies in the Selima.
Tomorrow, the Laurel Dash and All Along Stakes round out the five-race Turf Festival.