When the Laurel Turf Festival was created two years ago, it figured to hurt the U.S. balance of payments.
Horse from France and England were regularly crossing the Atlantic to defeat America's established grass runners in major stakes. Foreigners seemed even more likely to dominate races for 2-year-olds on the turf, since this country's 2-year-old rarely see a grass course. They figured to dominate a sprint race on the grass, since top American sprinters have virtually no opportunities on the turf.
In 1987, when three races comprised the Turf Festival, horses from France won all three. Last year, however, U.S. horses were much more competitive. And this year the local forces may have an edge, for reasons that should be evident to any handicapper who picks up the Daily Racing Form.
Trainers have clearly responded to the lucrative opportunities available at the Turf Festival, and have pointed their horses for these events. Two-year-olds have spent the fall competing on the grass to prepare specifically for today's Selima Stakes and Laurel Futurity.
Top sprinters have come across the country for today's $250,000 Laurel Dash. Moreover, the foreign contingent at Laurel this weekend is sparser than usual -- perhaps because European trainers recognize that these stakes don't offer such easy pickings as they used to.
For bettors, there are certainly no easy pickings. It used to be possible to dope out a race by throwing out the American horses and boxing the Europeans in the exacta. No more. Every one of the five races presents a tough handicapping challenge.
-- Selima Stakes: Of all the 2-year-olds who ran in prep races for today's turf stakes, none was so impressive as Slew of Pearls. The filly was pushed seven horses wide on the first turn at Pimlico and knocked out of contention, but she still made a powerful rally on the final turn to win the Queen Empress Stakes impressively. Her competition should come not from the lone European filly in the race, but from Wavering Girl, who beat Slew of Pearls narrowly in Canada last month. The two of them should make up the exacta.
Slew of Pearls is entered in the Budweiser International Sale at Laurel today. A venturesome bettor might want to wager a couple hundred thousand to win on her today and use the proceeds to buy her the next day.
-- Laurel Futurity: Robyn Dancer won the two turf stakes at Pimlico that serve as preps for the $300,000 Futurity, but the fields he beat were of uncertain quality. A colt who had been competing without much success at minor-league tracks in England raced in one of these stakes and finished within two lengths of Robyn Dancer.
That piece of evidence suggests that the European invaders may have an edge in the Futurity today. There are three of them-all of whom have been racing in Ireland and who seem very close to each other in ability. If the Laurel turf course resembles a bog, they should feel right at home. Bet an exacta box of Simply Terrific, Go and Go and Pictorial.
-- All Along Stakes: Ravinella won this 1 1/8-mile for fillies last year with an electrifying rally, and would appear to have a slim edge over Capades this year, but for one thing. Ravinella has never run well on soft turf. Capades isn't at her best over it, either. Uncertainty about the effect of track conditions makes this race inscrutable, and it could produce a major upset.
-- Laurel Dash: Some of Europe's best sprinters came here for the rich Laurel Dash last year, and their defeat suggests that raw speed is an American game. The U.S. contingent in this year's race is even stronger, with top horses from every corner of the country.
However, the best U.S. turf sprinters are based in California, where they have more opportunities than anywhere else; three of these westerners -- Oraibi, Down Again and Star Cutter -- have shipped here for the Dash. Oraibi is the best of them -- if he can handle the soft turf, which he has never seen before. If not, Star Cutter might have the edge.
-- Budweiser International: Two American horses, Sunshine Forever and Yankee Affair, have been the main objects of attention before the 38th International; the former was the champion turf horse of 1988 and the latter is being touted as a leading candidate for the honor in 1989. But Sunshine Forever is but a shadow of his former self, and a question persists about Yankee Affair: Just how good is he, anyway?
Yankee Affair has always been a tough, consistent competitor, but not a world-beater; he was getting beaten in Grade III stakes earlier this year. Perhaps he has undergone a wondrous transformation in the fall of his 7-year-old season, but he may have earned his new lofty reputation by winning prestigious stakes in New York against fields of overrated horses. There were no formidable foreign horses in those Belmont Park stakes. One of the principal U.S. contenders, My Big Boy, hasn't won a race in 13 months.
A better gauge of Yankee Affair's talent might be his third-place finish in the Arlington Million in September. A 3-year-old filly from England was a half-length ahead of him; a Grade III European runner was only two lengths behind him.
This evidence would suggest that Yankee Affair might be out of his element against a high-class European horse, and there is one in the International field: Citidancer II. He has won four of eight starts and the losses have all come against bona fide Grade I horses. In one recent start he finished three-quarters of a length behind Carroll House, who subsequently France's most important race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. At the upper echelon of the game, a good European turf horse is still likely to beat a good American turf horse, as Citidancer II will demonstrate.