The International Turf Festival at Laurel Race Course may be renamed the "National Turf Festival" -- unless some French thoroughbreds gain last-minute flights.
That's because a strike by Air France employees has shut down equine air shipments out of Paris, making it unlikely that six French-based horses will be shipped to Laurel today or tomorrow to run in this weekend's lineup of rich grass stakes.
Without the French thoroughbreds, there will be only two foreign runners in the Turf Festival -- England's Inchinor in the International Mile on Saturday and George Augustus from Ireland in Sunday's Laurel Turf Cup.
Fields for the races could be reduced about 25 percent without European participation. Europeans already had greeted changes in the Festival with a lukewarm reception, cutting their entries in half, after purses were cut and the distance of the International Mile was shortened from 10 to eight furlongs.
"The workers have struck. No cargo is being loaded and the French trainers have taken the position that they are going to wait and see if the situation clears," said Timothy Capps, vice president of communications at Laurel/Pimlico.
Since Air France has the monopoly on shipping horses out of Paris, the only alternative, Capps said, is for the trainers to carry horses by van for five or six hours to Brussels, Belgium, to board planes.
"That lengthens the trip considerably," Capps said. Horses could get here as late as Friday morning, he added, and still clear a 24-hour quarantine.
Capps said that he talked to only one French-based trainer, John Hammond, yesterday. "His horse, Voleris, had come down with a slight temperature and might not have come anyway," Capps said.
Also affected by the strike are Andre Fabre's three horses -- Kitwood, Elizabeth Bay and Myza; Dariyoum, trained by Claude Laffun-Parlas; and Accommodating, from the stable of Francois Boutin. The 3-year-old filly -- among the preliminary entries for Saturday's All Along Stakes -- was taken off the list when it was thought that she had been sold, but yesterday showed up on the list of possible shipments.
Although not affected by the strike, English participation dropped to just one horse after Lord Huntingdon, trainer for Queen Elizabeth II, decided to run the Queen's colt Sharp Prod in Europe instead of at Laurel. And Alhinaz, an invitee by Laurel/Pimlico management to the International Mile, was sold.
Inchinor left Stanstead Field in central England yesterday, Capps said, and is expected to arrive at Laurel this morning.
"Obviously, this is a great disappointment," Capps said. "The European horses add a lot of mystique to our races and now we don't have that flavor. But we have no control over what has happened."