It was barely light yesterday morning when 72-year-old trainer Melvin (Sunshine) Calvert peered out at the horses being exercised on the dirt track of Laurel Race Course.
"Fifty years later," he said, "and I'm still at the same place."
Calvert, who says he's lost a half-inch off his peak height of 4-foot-11, was a jockey during the fall meeting at Laurel Race Course in 1932. After two serious spills, he quit being a jockey. In 1946 Calvert decided to go into the horse training business.
Close To Me, one of eight horses Calvert now handles, is among the 10 entered in today's 57th running of the Selima Stakes. The $234,580 purse is the richest ever offered for this test of 2-year-old fillies.
While preparing Close To Me for her first race at 1 1/16 miles -- a distance that only one horse, Inthethickofit, has attempted on dirt--Calvert has heard the same gripes he did a half-century ago.
"A lot of people have been picking on this track, just like they did when I was a jockey here," Calvert said. "It happens every year, and every year they end up resurfacing it. But it seems pretty uniform; it shouldn't affect the race any."
Since Laurel's fall meeting began Oct. 19, however, the track has consistently favored horses on the outside. And John Parisella, who trains the likely favorite, Singing Susan, knows it.
"I'm pleased with the outside post," Parisella said after Singing Susan drew the No. 10 spot. "There are three speed horses, and you can get sawed off from an inside post position."
Singing Susan, a homebred purchased last month by Theodore Sabarese for a reported $900,000, has won five stakes races and six of seven overall -- each on a different track.
She has earned more than $250,000 this year, more than double that of any other in the race, and has been assigned top weight of 122 pounds. Jockey Miguel Rivera will ride her for the second time in quest of the $136,410 first prize.
Singing Susan set a track record April 29 in her debut at Aqueduct, a 4-to-5 favorite covering four furlongs in 52 seconds.
She has been favored in every race since and has yet to go off at worse than even money. She managed a three-length victory in her last and longest outing, the seven-furlong Kindergarten Stakes Oct. 16 at Bowie.
A victory in the Selima for Singing Susan could set up a showdown for possible divisional honors with Landaluce in the $500,000 Hollywood Starlet Nov. 28.
The "speed horses" that concern Parisella are Close To Me, the No. 5 horse who was victorious in her last race, the six-furlong Mongo Queen Stakes Sept. 4 at Monmouth, and No. 3 Valerie's Best, a 10-length winner in Bowie's Marlboro Nursery. Jack Kaenel, who guided Snow Plow to an upset victory in last year's Selima, will ride Close To Me; James Terry will ride Valerie's Best.
Trainer Woody Stephens seeks an unprecedented fifth victory in the Selima with his entry of Bemissed, running from post position 8 under Frank Lovato, and No. 4 National Banner, under Eddie Maple. Bemissed, fresh from a turf victory in the 1 1/8-mile Miss Grillo Stakes, is the only other horse entered to have won more than $100,000. National Banner finished fourth in that race.
Completing the field in post position order are Icy Time, ridden by Constantino Hernandez; No Body Else's, third in the Kindergarten, Bill Passmore; Inthethickofit, Vince Bracciale; At This Moment, winner of Keystone's Schuylkill Stakes, Herb McCauley, and Escape Artist, third in the Debby's Turn at Timonium, Alberto Delgado.