Before the 14th running of the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel last week, the race had all the earmarks of a $150,000 dud. The best American horses, or at least those with the best chances at a mile and a half on grass, were either unable to start or uninvited. And the best contenders from South America, Italy and Russia, for one reason or another, were also missing. The final starting field of seven did not send turf historians scurrying off in search of superlatives.
Then, as so often happens when you get a mixed bag of horses going a classic distance, the race turned into a thriller. The two French colts, Diatome and Carvin, finished a skimpy nose apart after a sparkling stretch run during which any of five horses had a fair shot at the money, and the whole look of international racing received a global face-lifting. This was France's fourth victory in the International and balanced the record at seven wins for U.S. horses, seven for foreigners.
Some conclusions could be drawn immediately upon the playing of La Marseillaise in the peaceful Maryland countryside. The first is that the current crop of French 3-year-olds may be the best ever in a country whose domination of European racing is becoming more evident each season. Diatome, beaten 11 lengths by Sea Bird and five lengths by Reliance in the recent Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe—in short, the third best colt in France—was the winner at Laurel. Carvin, eighth in the Arc and 24 lengths behind Sea Bird, beat our Roman Brother by more than a length. The other U.S. representative, Hail to All, was back in fifth place behind the Canadian champion, George Royal. Even if Roman Brother and Hail to All were not the right selections for the International, it is clear that Sea Bird, now at stud duty at Darby Dan Farm in Kentucky, must be a rare champion indeed.
A corollary point is made by U.S. Racing Expert Charles Hatton: "While we are busy introducing American gadgetry into European racing, we ought to examine the reasons why France has been breeding and developing the world's best classic Thoroughbreds during the last several decades. The French have taken the blood of our Hanover through Frizette, and our Domino and Fair Play through Relic and Dan Cupid, and England's St. Simon through Rabelais, and have improved the breed beyond its development at home. Isn't it possible we can learn something from them?"
One thing we can do right away, especially if the French continue sending over proven grass runners to compete at Laurel, is to choose our own International entries on the basis of their form on turf. Braulio Baeza, who rode Roman Brother last week, said after the race, "My horse tried hard—but he's no turf horse." (It is also true that Baeza probably cooked his own goose when he elected to run head-and-head for the first mile with England's Super Sam.) Jockey John Sellers said simply, "Hail to All got tired."
If any horse should have become tired or discouraged during the Laurel running it was Diatome. Jockey Jean De-forge got Diatome into a perfect blind switch on the backstretch and was behind four horses turning for home. That he was able to extricate himself at all from this desperate position during the run to the wire speaks more for the ability of the colt than for Deforge's tactical judgment. Still, when it was over, the French were all hugs, kisses and smiles. Diatome's owner, Baron Guy de Rothschild, who needed the $90,000 purse like he needs another uranium mine, said politely, "It was a privilege to be invited, and I am overwhelmingly delighted to have won." We should be overwhelmingly delighted that the good Baron helped the Laurel International escape a rating in history as a very grim afternoon.