If there were such an event as the world championship horse race, only three classics around the globe could rightfully contend for this honorary title. They are the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in mid-July at Ascot, the Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe in early October at Longchamp and the Washington D.C. International at Laurel on Veterans Day. All three are run over the mile-and-a-half distance and over the internationally accepted grass surface.
However, because American owners are still reluctant to ship their best horses abroad for the first two of these events, the Laurel International is, in fact, the closest thing racing has to a world championship. Not all the best horses show up at Laurel, but enough of them do to turn this unique and colorful spectacle into one of the finest racing events on this or any other continent.
Next week's 10th running of the International, sponsored by Laurel President John Schapiro (the track pays all transportation and housing costs for its invitees), will no doubt be accompanied by the usual criticisms. These come from racing people who have nothing to do with the race but are jealous that Laurel, and not some other major track, puts together a race that has won such wide public acceptance.
The great difference between this year's race and its predecessors is that the U.S. will be represented by the very best horse we have ever put into worldwide competition. Kelso (see cover), running in the colors of Mrs. Richard C. duPont, gives the U.S. such a strong hand (our other entry will be Preston Madden's T.V. Lark) that we may have frightened off Europe's three best—Molvedo, Right Royal and St. Paddy—all of whom ranked high on Schapiro's invitation list.
On performance alone it would be hard to pick against Kelso next week. Some few do not like his chances because this will be his first start on a grass track. They conveniently forget that in 1954 Fisherman had never so much as galloped over grass until he was named a substitute entry for the injured High Gun just 48 hours before his winning race.
As a matter of fact, Kelso's accomplishments have been so outstanding this year (seven wins in eight starts) that he has already earned our Horse of the Year title for the second season in a row—no matter how he fares at Laurel. And to those who wonder what he can hope to gain by winning at Laurel (in addition to first money of $70,000), his sporting owner has a most appropriate reply. Mrs. duPont, who plans to try Kelso over fences in the hunting fields of Maryland and Delaware, says, "Kelso has already proved he can run any distance from sprints to two miles. He has proved he can carry all the weight in the world. To those who claim that Kelso has yet to prove he can handle all kinds of tracks I say that we'll run at Laurel and show that the grass won't make any difference to him." In a final demonstration of Kelso's versatility, Mrs. duPont may eventually turn him over to her beautiful and talented daughter Lana for Olympic-type equestrian events.
It is a shame that Europe's best will not come over to challenge Kelso. Britain's St. Paddy has retired for the season. The Italian Molvedo, winner of the Arc de Triomphe, has also called it quits. France's Right Royal, second in the Arc, has gone to stud.
What does this leave as an invading force? Well, there are the third horse in the Arc, France's Misti, an assorted bunch from England, Ireland, Denmark, Argentina and Venezuela, and an entry from Russia that is coming to Laurel for the fourth time. The Reds are not making the trip to go sightseeing in the lovely Anne Arundel countryside of Maryland. In recent years they have put into their racing the same determination to succeed that has marked their advances in track and field, in ice hockey, basketball and, to a lesser degree, in international tennis. In 1958 they finished sixth and last; in 1959 they were fifth and eighth; last year they were third and fourth. This year one of their entries is the 4-year-old Zabeg, who finished third a year ago, beaten only three lengths by Bald Eagle. He would have been second if his Russian jockey had remembered the correct procedure for claiming a foul. That jockey, who has been on the leading Soviet finisher for the last three Internationals, is a prickly-faced man named Nikolai Nasibov.
Nasibov is more than his country's leading jockey; he is an exceptional rider by anybody's standards. At Laurel he has withstood a number of nerve-racking false starts. Through quick thinking, he skillfully avoided a dangerous fall in the 1959 race when two horses went down almost directly in front of him. Last year he rode Zabeg with an excellent sense of pace, and this year the same team will hardly be rattled by anything around them, including the tactics of our own old pros, Johnny Longden and Eddie Arcaro. The other Russian horse is called Erpich, his rider is a newcomer here named Aleksei Garmash, and your guess is as good as mine about what to expect of them. The Russians aren't talking.
Notwithstanding the probable improvement of Russia's Zabeg, I think France's Misti may be the more dangerous European challenger. His owner, perfume manufacturer Comte Guillaume d'Ornano, describes his 3-year-old brown son of Medium, out of the mare Mist, as the kind of very fast colt with a good, yet not too heavy build "that I believe is just right for Laurel." When Comte d'Ornano was advised that foreign horses seem unable to make much of an impression at Laurel unless they are fitted to American shoes with calks or toes (disallowed in France) he replied, "People who have raced at Laurel have told me the same thing. For your type of course and with the predominance of speed in your races, it is probably true that unless a European horse is five or six lengths the best of his field, he should wear American plates at Laurel. Misti will wear them."