A Grade I winner from New York and a hard-luck mare from California will race at Laurel Park today in hopes of ending losing streaks against a tenacious and upset-minded home team.
Evening Attire, a winner of six graded stakes, heads the nine-horse field in the $150,000 John B. Campbell Handicap, and Bear Fan, an injury-prone but talented mare, competes in the $200,000 Barbara Fritchie Handicap. The Barbara Fritchie, a Grade II sprint of seven furlongs, kicks off Laurel's Winter SprintFest, which includes stakes tomorrow and Monday.
Those three sprint races provide the event its name, but Evening Attire provides the star power. Based at Belmont Park, the 6-year-old gray gelding has won 10 of 29 races and would, with a first- or second-place finish in the Campbell, surpass $2 million in earnings.
Evening Attire has won one Grade I, one Grade II and four Grade III stakes. His Grade I victory came two years ago in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, a $1 million race at Belmont.
He often races against the best horses in the best races -- the Breeders' Cup Classic twice, the Whitney, etc. This is his first run in an ungraded stakes, and he is the 3-5 morning-line favorite in the 1 1/8 -mile Campbell.
Patrick Kelly, his trainer, said he hopes the rare road trip for Evening Attire will set him up for a return excursion to Maryland -- for the Pimlico Special on May 14, the day before the Preakness.
"He doesn't like hot weather, so we don't go to Florida," Kelly said. "He loves the cold. And he loves snow and rain. He's a little quirky about the track; he likes moisture in it. I would wish for a monsoon, but it doesn't look as if we'll get one."
Kelly's father, T.J. "Tommy" Kelly, a retired Hall of Fame trainer, is part breeder and owner of Evening Attire, a son of 1991 Horse of the Year Black Tie Affair.
In the Barbara Fritchie, Bear Fan is the 7-5 early favorite but faces stern local challengers who thrive on their home track. Bear Fan has won four of eight races but has never raced outside California. Gazillion at 9-2 has won seven races at Laurel, and Bronze Abe at 6-1 has won five.
Of the two horses, Bud Delp, trainer of Bronze Abe, said: "We're the horse for the course. We've got the home-court advantage."
Delp noted that Bear Fan has run all her races on California tracks, which are usually harder and faster than tracks in the East.
"It's a different ballgame coming in here from California," Delp said. "I don't think she has a track to train on out there that's anything like Laurel's."
Wesley Ward, Bear Fan's trainer, shipped her to the Palm Meadows training center in South Florida this winter so she could train on the track's deeper surface. He flew her back to California for the Sunshine Millions six-furlong sprint for fillies and mares three weeks ago at Santa Anita Park.
She was favored in the $300,000 race but had what Ward described as a "horrible, horrible trip." She was blocked until the final strides, when she surged from sixth to third. Jerry Bailey rode her.
"Jerry told me afterward, 'I owe you one. She should have won by 10 lengths,' " Ward said.
A daughter of Pine Bluff, winner of the 1992 Preakness, Bear Fan won her first four races, two of them stakes for California-breds, but lost her next four. Ward said the losing streak has been the result of bad racing luck, tough competition and training setbacks. Bear Fan's career has suffered from shin, foot and ligament problems, Ward said.
"I can finally say she couldn't be any sounder," he said. "This is the first time I've been able to put two races back-to-back like this. I'm excited about this race."