Maurice Zilber, the French connection in the Washington, D.C. International, was finished with his relatively unimportant work for the day. Exceller had galloped once around the Laurel turf course for the trainer in the early morning drizzle, and was safely tucked away in his stall in the International Village.
Now it was 1 o'clock, the second race of the afternoon was about to be run, and Zilber was suddenly enthusiastic. He came pounding into the press box, program in hand, looking for "hees fran," whom he described as "the best handicapper I have met in America . . . Clem Florio."
The two men started talking Neapolitan. Dante Tettamanzi, the trainer of Italy's International invitee. Stateff, might have appreciated the conversation but no one else could translate.
Gradually, as he talked with Florio, and the handicaper for the Washington Post circled to Zilber's face. "Why do you no give me a horse in the third?" Zilber asked.
"They're not in the horse family," Florio replied.
"Circle one or two, anyway," Zilber prodded. "I must have the action."
This is Maurice Zilber, the Egyptian-borne master of seven, languages who has become a fixture at Laurel's dominated the International since 1973, winning four straight - and Zilber in '73. Nobiliary in '75 and Youth last year.
Zilber still trains a few horses for Bunker Hunt the Texas millionaire. They are an odd couple, far from the perfectly proper, beautifully bred owners and trainees the International usually attracts.
Certainly, Zilber will never be confused with Cecil Boyd Rochfort. He is not given to hyphenated names, unless it's Turn-toss.
Zilber, the ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips, cannot escape that part of the racing world he loves the best; the action. He is admits to having been a tout, a handicapper, a man able to make a healthy living come what may.
"If I was able to gamble in New York, I would make a million dollars a year." Zilber said. Somehow, the way he said it, you believed him.
The nice thing about Zilber, compared with most other trainers of International horses, is that once he gets to Laurel he is not afraid to say something. A more typical Q-and-A place yesterday at the International brunch.
"What do you think of the turf course?" a reporter asked Tettamanzi through an interpreter.
"I like it," was the reply.
"How did Stateff work today," the reporter persisted.
"I like it." the trainer answered.
"Ask him how he likes Lollobrigida?" someone interjected.
He likes it." a reporter volunteered.
Zilber, by comparison, has strong opinions and is not afraid to express them.
"Exceller may be as good as Youth which won the '76 International by 10 lengths)," the trainer declared I think he will win.I'm sure he will."
Exceller figures to be favored slightly, over Majestic Light, at 8 to 5 to 9 to 5. No one will get rich betting to win only. So give me the exacta, Maurice please.
"Crow," he replied.
"Crow has a good draw." The No. 1 post, in fact.
As Zilber sees the 26th running the International will again have an all-French finish. But American should not feel to left out. Exceller was bred in Kentucky of distinguished Blue-grass-based parents. Vaguely Noble and Too Bald. Crow is named for an American Indian tribe.
Crow also is what Zilber has had to eat, occasionally, when his predictions have been wrong. He did, after all, lose an International rather recently, in 1974, when Dahlia finished third at 3 to 5. And he wanted to scratch Youth from the last International because of a heel injury, the Tuesday before the race.
So the French connection is not infallible. Zilber could be wrong. Just to be safe, take his exact both ways, 7-1 and 1-7. Should Majestic Light win, ZIlber will be at Hialeah with seven horses this winter to answer all complaints.