It's a fact of life in the 1990s: Racetracks are hurting for horses, even in the glamorous Grade I events.
Nowhere was it more evident than at Laurel Race Course yesterday when the scheduled 11 a.m. draw for the seventh International Turf Festival, one of the track's big annual happenings, was held up for more than 1 1/2 hours. Vice president of racing Lenny Hale was on the phone trying to coax more entries out of trainers so he could flesh out the small fields.
Laurel/Pimlico operator Joe De Francis made no excuses about the delay.
"Sorry, folks" he told the gathering, "but Lenny is doing his job. He's trying to hustle more horses."
For a while it looked like tomorrow's $250,000 All Along Stakes might only attract a four-horse field.
Logan's Mist, one of the expected entrants, cut her leg in a freak accident during morning training hours at Pimlico Race Course, and appeared suspect. Her owner-trainer, Frannie Campitelli, entered her anyway, but only plans to run if she shows no ill effects today or tomorrow.
Hall of Fame trainer Scotty Schulhofer, based at Belmont Park, only entered Aquilegia after he was cajoled into doing so by Hale. "The filly hates soft turf, but he put her in on the condition that it doesn't rain any more from now until post time," Hale said. It is undetermined if rain showers yesterday afternoon will deter Schulhofer from sending the horse to Laurel.
At the close of entries, a total of 26 horses, 23 from the United States and one each from England, France and Ireland, had been placed in the lineups. Trainer Leo O'Brien lived up to an unusual proposal: He entered his horse, Fourstars Allstar, in two events and said it's possible the animal could run in both the International Mile and Laurel Dash on consecutive days. Most observers, however, think it's improbable O'Brien will carry out the plan.
The Festival attracted the smallest showing of foreign participation in its seven-year history, due to a number of reasons.
An air cargo strike in Paris deterred at least four or five French thoroughbreds from being shipped to Laurel. The purses of the races were cut $350,000 this year at the request of local horsemen who want more money put into domestic stakes programs. And management is grappling with how to fit its Turf Festival into a fall schedule dominated by the Breeders' Cup, held in two weeks in California.
The distance of the International was shortened from 10 furlongs VTC to a mile this year in order to serve as a prep for the $1 million Breeders' Cup Mile. Few, if any, International starters appear Breeders' Cup bound, but it's unclear if the change in distance affected the field for the race. The International drew eight starters, the same as last year.
The Turf Festival breakdown shows an average of 6.5 horses entered in four races with purses totaling $1,250,000.
To local trainer Jerry Robb, a director of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and long a critic of the Festival, "It's a waste of money." His alternatives: put the Laurel Futurity 2-year-old race, run last weekend, back on the main track and build an event around that stakes or "just put the money back into everyday racing and try to improve it," he said.
Richard Hoffberger, MTHA president, said the Festival, which showed about a 20 percent betting decrease in 1992, was helped this year by carding the 2-year-old races-- the Futurity and the Selima -- a week ago. "There were gross betting increases each of those days, so it helped to spread things out," he said.
There were also small fields at Belmont Park last weekend during its special Breeders' Cup Preview Day. A total of six stakes, worth $2,150,000, drew an average field size of 7.6 horses. Business there showed a shocking decline -- attendance dropped by more than 10,000 fans and betting was off about $1.2 million.
De Francis said the Turf Festival will be evaluated "after we see what kind of numbers it generates this weekend. Compared to Belmont last weekend, where there were some small fields dominated by stars like Dehere at 2-5 odds and Lure at 2-5, our races are more competitive and better balanced. I don't think there is a short-priced favorite in any of them. So they are good betting propositions."
The International race has a history of attracting controversy. At first, the Europeans were reluctant to ship here because air travel for horses was so new. Then the race almost became a lovefest for the French, who began to dominate the winner's circle.
Then there were problems with the course, a couple of unnerving spills one year, and in one instance, 1976, there were no U.S. representatives. It was almost the reverse of this year's race which is comprised almost totally of American runners with only one foreign entry, Inchinor of Great Britain, in the lineup.
But the event has proved it can overcome adversity.
After 42 years, it's still around.
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