Of the four Grade I stakes on Maryland's annual racing calendar, two were run Sunday at Laurel Race Course. It should have been a banner day. But few casual fans paid much attention to the Laurel Futurity and the Selima Stakes, and even ardent racegoers had little reason to take an interest in them.
In past years the Futurity had lured horses such as Secretariat, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid to Laurel. In six of the past 12 years the Selima had been won by fillies who went on to become Eclipse Award champions. Sunday, however, the fields for the $250,000 stakes consisted of second-rate European horses and third-rate U.S. horses. The winners, Antiqua and Minstrel's Lassie, were European invaders whom U.S. racegoers would never have heard of before, and probably will never hear of again.
These stakes were turned into mediocre attractions because they were switched this year from the dirt to the turf. Laurel President Frank De Francis thought the change was a bold, visionary idea. But it didn't work this year, and it is unlikely to work in the future.
All of Laurel's big stakes -- the Futurity and Selima as well as the Washington, D.C. International -- had their significance threatened by the creation of the Breeders' Cup. Instead of being year-end championship events, they were wedged between big-money races in New York and the ever bigger money of the Breeders' Cup. In many cases, Laurel's stakes don't fit into the schedules of the country's best horses.
De Francis knew he had to take action of some kind to preserve his races' importance. In the case of the International, he raised the purse to $750,000, shortened the distance and changed the race from a purely invitational event. He switched his 2-year-old stakes to the grass, making them part of an "International Turf Festival," to give them a special distinction. They wouldn't have to compete with races like the $618,000 Champagne Stakes at Belmont or the $500,000 Young American at the Meadowlands. Instead, they would become the richest turf races for 2-year-olds on this continent and the only ones with Grade I status. "There was a tremendous void," De Francis said, "and we had a marvelous opportunity to fill it."
But even if the Futurity and Selima had a healthy purse and Grade I status, who would run in them on the turf? American trainers don't run their best 2-year-olds on the grass; there is no point shifting gears with a horse who could be winning millions in the spring classics the next year. The histories of this country's 2-year-old turf stakes show they almost always are won by undistinguished horses.
It is just as unlikely that the trainer of a truly outstanding European 2-year-old would subject him to a transoceanic trip when he is looking ahead to the European classics a few months later. "There was question of whether the good 2-year-olds would ship here," De Francis said. "I had many anxious moments. But the response exceeded my wildest imagination."
The Laurel races drew five 2-year-olds from abroad -- one had won a graded stakes against moderate competition in Germany, one had placed in a graded stakes against good competition in France. Of the 17 U.S. horses entered, none had finished in the money in a graded stakes.
Even if the Futurity and the Selima were going to be hurt by the Breeders' Cup, they still were going to draw recognizable, stakes-quality horses on the dirt. Bet Twice won at Laurel last year and went on to glory in the Triple Crown series. But even in the weakest years (such as 1984, when Mighty Appealing won) the Futurity gave local racing fans an interest in horses who could hope to be contenders in the next year's classics.
If the Futurity had remained on the dirt, trainer Woody Stephens would probably have sent Forty-Niner -- the country's leading 2-year-old and the future book favorite for the Kentucky Derby -- to race here. Instead he had to ship his colt a longer distance to compete for a smaller purse in the Keeneland Breeders' Futurity on the same weekend.
Instead of Forty-Niner, Maryland racing fans got Antiqua. Instead of following the Futurity winner's fortunes in the Triple Crown series, we can scour the fine print in international racing publications to learn if he wins some minor stakes at Evry or Baden-Baden next year.