Laurel Race Course was widely second-guessed two years ago when it switched its big races for 2-year-olds, the Selima Stakes and the Laurel Futurity, from the dirt to the turf. Why tamper with events that had long, rich histories just to make them into supporting races for something called the International Turf Festival?

But when the Festival is run for the third time this weekend, the wisdom of the track's decision will be verified. The main event, Sunday's $750,000 Budweiser International, suffers badly from its position on the calendar, just six days before the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park. None of this country's top grass specialists will come to Laurel as a result.

But the International Turf Festival has been rescued from mediocrity by its supporting events, notably today's stakes for 2-year-olds. They are America's richest races on the turf for juveniles, and the Futurity, in particular, has drawn a strong, contentious field that could easily produce a grass champion of the future.

The most intriguing horse in the Futurity -- indeed, one of the most intriguing horses in the world -- is Timeless Times, whose trainer, William O'Gorman, said, "I think the perception that {modern} horses have gotten less tough is untrue."

To refute the thesis, O'Gorman has asked his colt to pursue the British record for victories in a year by a 2-year-old, and Timeless Times has equaled it, winning 16 of 20 starts in a period of less than six months.

However, Timeless Times has not demonstrated that he is good enough to win a race such as the Futurity, which has drawn a strong group of U.S. horses. In the past, U.S. trainers rarely bothered trying good 2-year-olds on the turf, because there were no lucrative grass races. But the Futurity's $300,000 pot has changed that. Two New York-based colts, Share the Glory and Fourstars Allstar, and one from New Jersey, Kings Casino, all have delivered solid performances in preps for the Futurity.

The 2-year-old fillies who will contest the Selima this afternoon do not appear to be as strong a group as the males in the Futurity. The morning-line favorite, Fashion Miss, is a Maryland-based runner who started her career in high-priced claiming company. The edge here may go to one of the two French fillies, perhaps Tycoon's Drama, who raced creditably in top stakes company overseas. She will be ridden by Cash Asmussen, the former New York jockey who has established himself as one of the best in Europe.

While the Selima and the Futurity felt little impact from the Breeders' Cup, the main event of the Turf Festival was badly weakened by its proximity to the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf. But the track had no good alternatives for scheduling the International.

If it had been run in early October it would have conflicted with too many important races in Europe (as well as major turf stakes in New York and Canada). But Laurel President Joe De Francis concluded that a November date wouldn't work well either.

"Major Grade I racing tends to stop with the Breeders' Cup," he said. "And the weather can get a little iffy in November too." By running this weekend, he said, "I think things turned out pretty much the way we expected. The other four races turned out very well but the International was affected."

The $750,000 event has lured a field of nine, and figures to be dominated by European entries. The best of them are Batshoof, who has been running well against the best horses in England, and Creator, a French colt who has captured five Grade I and Grade II events and most recently finished within two lengths of Saumarez, the winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

Other contenders include Ten Keys, the Maryland-based veteran who has earned more than $1.2 million in his career; Ode, the third-place finisher in the recent Man o' War Stakes at Belmont; and Fly Till Dawn, a speedster from California.

The $300,000 All Along Stakes for fillies and mares also was affected by the Breeders' Cup. Lady Winner, who ran away with the event by seven lengths last year, is bypassing it to run at Belmont next weekend. Her absence makes the race a wide-open affair headed by Fieldy, the indefatigable 7-year-old, and Houseproud, a top-class stakes winner from France.

The $250,000 Laurel Dash could not attract Europe's best sprinter, Dayjur, who instead will try to run on the dirt in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. In the absence of this champion, Ron's Victory, who ran second to Dayjur in a stakes at Royal Ascot this summer, should be the favorite. His rivals include the consistent Maryland-based sprinter My Frenchman and the swift New York-based Fourstardave.