When preliminary entries were released at Laurel Race Course yesterday for next weekend's International Turf Festival, there wasn't a Head or a Zilber in sight.
Participation by foreign entrants plummeted 50 percent this year and such well-known names as owner Alec Head and his daughter, trainer Criquette Head, and "Mr. International" himself, Maurice Zilber, are without runners in the lineups.
However, French trainer Andre Fabre is back in force with entries in three of the four races and is shooting for a third straight victory in the All Along Stakes for owner Shiek Mohammed al Maktoum, who won the last two runnings with Sha Ta and Marble Maiden and is represented this year by the 3-year-old Mr. Prospector filly, Elizabeth Bay.
There is also the intriguing presence of royalty, with Queen Elizabeth II entering Sharp Prod in the Laurel Dash.
There is a foreign horse in each race and the fields are comprised mostly of horses experienced in Graded or Group competition. Top local sprinter, Montbrook, who has designs on the Breeders' Cup Sprint, could make his grass debut in the Laurel Dash.
Last year a total of 19 horses from France, England and Ireland ran in the races as well as three other entrants from Canada. An English-based horse, Zoman, won the International and French-trained Marble Maiden triumphed in the All Along Stakes.
This year there are only 10 foreign entrants, but the packaging of the Festival has changed significantly. Purses were cut, the distance of the Washington D.C. International was shortened from 10 to eight furlongs and the Laurel Turf Cup replaced the Selima and Laurel Futurity in the block of Festival races.
The Selima and Futurity are being run a week ahead of time, carded tomorrow and Sunday. There are no foreign entrants except Canadian filly In My Heart in the Selima, and the Futurity, drawn today, is expected to have no foreign participation.
"I talked to Alec Head yesterday and, apologetically, he regretted not running in the races," said Timothy Capps, Laurel/Pimlico's vice president of communications who handles the foreign runners. "He had horses pointed for the International Mile and All Along, but both ran badly during Arc weekend and he didn't think they were good enough to send. Zilber hasn't run anything of consequence this year and the two horses we expected from the yard of Francois Boutin were both sold, so we had those last-minute defections."
The two best American turf horses, Lure and Star of Cozzene, are running elsewhere. Lure is going in the Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park, although his stablemate, Furiously, is entered in the International Mile, and Star of Cozzene, recently purchased by Japanese owners, is heading for the Japan Cup.
Capps said he doesn't think shortening the International hurt its appeal. Last year there were eight runners when the distance was 10 furlongs. This year, at a mile, 12 horses are among the preliminary entries although Fourstars Allstar is cross-entered in the Laurel Dash.
"The competition in Europe this year mirrored what happened in the U.S.," Capps said. "There wasn't a standout horse in any division and the 1 1/4 -mile group was especially thin. I think we did better having our race at a mile. It's been a moderate season and horses, like the Heads' Hatoof, that might have come here for the International, stayed home to run in the [English] Champion Stakes because the competition [abroad] isn't that great."
The first foreign horse, George Augustus, recently third at Belmont in the Turf Classic, arrives at Laurel today and the rest of the European entrants are due to fly in Tuesday.
TURF FESTIVAL ENTRIES
$600,000 Washington D.C. International Mile; 3yo & up; 1 m. Turf
Alhijaz (Great Britain)
Finder's Choice (U.S.A.)
* Fourstars Allstar (U.S.A.)
Inchinor (Great Britain)
Maryland Moon (U.S.A.)
The Wicked North (U.S.A.)
$250,000 All Along Stakes: 3yo & up, fillies & mares; 1 1/8 m. Turf
Elizabeth Bay (France)
Grab The Green (U.S.A.)
Lady Blessington (U.S.A.)
Logan's Mist (U.S.A.)
Mz. Zill Bear (U.S.A.)
Via Borghese (U.S.A.)
$200,000 Laurel Dash; 3yo & up; 6 f. Turf
Central City (U.S.A.)
* Fourstars Allstar (U.S.A.)
Home Of The Free (U.S.A.)
Sharp Prod (Great Britain)
Strike A Gold Mine (U.S.A.)
Tsunami Spangler (U.S.A.)
Western Approach (U.S.A.)
$200,000 Laurel Turf Cup; 3yo & up; 1 1/2 m. Turf
Dear Doctor (France)
Dive For Cover (U.S.A.)
George Augustus (Ireland)
Spectacular Tide (U.S.A.)
Square Cut (U.S.A.)
Stark South (U.S.A.)
Third Eye (U.S.A.)
* -- denotes cross entry