International evokes turf war

October 12, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

Lenny Hale was 14 when he skipped class at Golden Ring Junior High School to go watch the champion racehorse Bald Eagle win his first Washington D.C. International.

"I remember getting dressed up as best I could to stand in a crowd of people who had no idea who I was and thinking this was one of the highlights of my young life," he recalled.

His feeling then? The International would last forever.

What are his sentiments now in his position as vice president of racing at Laurel Race Course, where the 1 1/4 -mile turf classic will be renewed Saturday for the 43rd time?

"It should last forever," Hale said.

Hale is one of the people at the center of the debate over whether the International and its three accompanying Turf Festival races, run on Saturday and Sunday and offering purses totaling $1.2 million, should be continued.

On one side, many Maryland horsemen would agree with the trainer who called the coming four stakes "a terrible weekend that no one wants."

They see the International as an outdated white elephant that is too expensive to produce, whose status as a world-class race was killed by the advent 11 years ago of the Breeders' Cup. They say it should be dropped, especially in the age of simulcasting, which lets fans see big races from tracks around the country almost daily.

Many turf races in New York and California already draw international fields as more and more Europeans either sell their older grass runners to American buyers or send them to the United States to compete year round.

It almost makes a race with "international" in its name seem redundant.

The timing of this year's Turf Festival, with its rich purses, is particularly bitter to horsemen who have recently taken about an 8 to 10 percent purse cut.

"We've had to take the reduction to make up for about $1 million in overpayments, and then along comes these races that the public doesn't support and at the same time are charged to our purse account to the tune of $1.2 million," said trainer Donald Barr, who sits on a 12-member horsemen's committee that is reviewing the state's racing program.

Even attracting leading U.S. grass runner and Horse of the Year candidate Paradise Creek to Laurel on Saturday to run in the International doesn't appease Barr. "He'll be 2-5 [odds], and we might as well give him $360,000 of our money right now," he said.

On the other side of the argument are trainers like Ron Cartwright, who will start two horses, Redcall in the International on Saturday and Mz. Zill Bear in the All Along Stakes on Sunday, for longtime Maryland owners Oliver Goldsmith and Phyllis and Bill Dixon, respectively.

To Cartwright the races are a showcase for Maryland racing. The International is to Laurel what the Preakness is to Pimlico.

"We need good races in this state, and to get the horses to go in them you've got to put up the purse money," Cartwright said. "People want to come out and see good horses run.

"Mr. Goldsmith, Redcall's owner, has bred horses in this state for many years and he loves the International. He's thrilled that he's finally got a horse to run in it.

"But if it hurts local purses, it's a double-edged sword. It depends on which side of the fence you're sitting on. If I win one of these races this weekend, I'll think it's the greatest racing weekend in America. But if I never had a horse that ran in them, I might have a different feeling."

One option is to maintain the International itself but drop the other three stakes, then try to reposition the International somewhere else on the calendar so it's not competing with such Breeders' Cup preps as the New York Turf Classic and Canada's Rothmans Ltd. International on Sunday.

Track operator Joe De Francis already has told horsemen that he is going to take a hard look at this year's Festival -- its fields, international interest and betting -- and evaluate its long-term viability.

Last year's attendance of 18,779 on International Day was the lowest since 1984, although no attendance count is taken at the state's four OTB sites. Betting amounted to $2.6 million, higher than in 1992 but the second-lowest total since 1986.

By contrast, the Maryland Million two weeks ago attracted more than 21,000 fans who bet more than $5 million.

Hale moved to downscale the Turf Festival this year when he switched two former Festival races, the Selima and Laurel Futurity, to dirt. Both races' winners are now headed to the Breeders' Cup, something unheard of in recent years.

To Laurel's new chief financial officer, Jim Peterson, events like the International are just what the Maryland tracks need to jump-start interest in live racing and bring out new or casual fans.

"I'd like to have one of these big races every month," he said. "Can we afford them? I don't see how we can not afford them unless we want to see our sport here go the way of a Philadelphia, Delaware or Garden State Park. We need to offer something special."

TURF FESTIVAL

What: International Turf Festival

Where: Laurel Race Course

When: Saturday and Sunday

Races: Saturday, Laurel Dash, Washington D.C. International. Sunday, All Along Stakes, Governor's Cup.

TV: The International (post time 5:25 p.m.) will be televised on ESPN's "Racing Across America."

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