by Frank Vespe
Saturday’s card at Laurel Park will feature something new, at least to Maryland eyes. The nine-race log includes a pair of stakes restricted to horses that spent at least 90 days in South Carolina by the end of June of this year.
The $50,000 Donna Freyer, for two-year-old fillies, will go as race five. The Christopher Elser Memorial, also a six-furlong test, this one for straight two-year-olds, is carded as race seven. Both carry purses of $50,000.
The twin races had spent the last several years at Parx Racing, which is where they began. This year will mark their first visit to Laurel Park.
“Sal (Sinatra, formerly of Parx Racing and now president of the Maryland Jockey Club) was very helpful in getting them started,” said Kip Elser, a board member of the South Carolina Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, which sponsors the races. “They sort of moved with him, with the help of the (Maryland) horsemen’s association.”
Early returns on the move, Elser said, are promising.
“We have double the entries they had previously,” he pointed out.
The Elser ran with just five horses last year after three scratched. Eleven are entered for Saturday’s tilt. And the Donna Freyer had to be postponed last year as a result of poor entries; nine are entered Saturday.
And that’s despite a purse reduction, from $75,000 down to $50,000. Elser said that the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association agreed to put up the same amount it pays out for a Maryland-bred allowance race — $35,000 — and the remainder of the purse comes from SCTOBA. Handle generated all stays in Maryland.
“We appreciate the welcome of the Maryland Jockey Club and the horsemen,” he said.
The races serve to promote South Carolina’s thoroughbred industry, which, though it has no racetrack, includes a vibrant network of training centers.
“It’s a great place to get young horses started,” Elser said. “A group of us down here said, ‘What can we do to promote the local industry?’ This is what we came up with.”
The most promising of the Freyer runners — at least at this point — is Wise Gal (5-2 morning line). The Dove Houghton trainee was impressive in her first two starts, both grass sprints, winning at first asking and following up with a dominant win in the $100,000 Selima Stakes, also at Laurel. She faltered going a mile in the Chelsey Flower at Aqueduct three weeks ago; Saturday will mark her first try on the dirt.
Five of the nine runners in the Donna Freyer are based at either Laurel or Pimlico.
There are no stakes winners entered in the Christopher Elser. The morning line favorite is Hidden Funds (7-5), the Mike Pino trainee who has one win and two third-place finishes from four starts.
“There’s a long tradition here,” Elser said, “a lot of good horses out of South Carolina.”
And perhaps a couple more in Saturday’s stakes.