The turf course will be soft. There is no pace in the race. All signs, accordingly, point to a fifth straight French or foreign victory. Yet there will be solid support today at Laurel for Majestic Light of the United States against Exceller in the 26th and richest running of the $200,000 Washington, D.C. International (WTOP-TV-9, 4:80 p.m.)
An American thoroughbred has not won John Schapiro's 1 1/2 mile turf classic since 1972, when Droll Role was fortunate to escape the spills and near-spills at "Boreen's Bog." Majestic Light, the best turf runner in the U.S., also could use a little luck today if he and three compatriots are to turn the tide against three French, one New Zealand and one questionable Italian rival. Foreign horses lead the series, 14-11.
"I don't believe the recent Canadian International was conclusive, when Exceller beat us after we'd beaten him in the Man o' War," Majestic Light's trainer, John Russell, observed yesterday, adding, "What bothers me is that the Canadian race was typical of the race developing here Saturday. I'm going to have to check how the pace will be; I'm sure it will have a great bearing on the outcome."
Maurice (The Great) Zilber, trainer of Bunker Hunt's French-based Exceller, fells his charge should be a shorter-priced favorite than thje 8 to 5 quoted overnight.
"I have never seen such a cinch in my life," the feisty conditioner declared yesterday morning at the International Village. Zilber, one of the world's sharpest gamblers, by self-proclamation, goes so far as to tout France's Crow as the second horse in today's successful exacts.
Zilber is rapidly becoming the Muhammad Ali of thoroughbred racing. Like Ali, however, his boastful predictions have a habit of happening. Dahlia, Nobiliary and Youth, three of the last four International winners, were saddled by Zilber for Hunt.
Exceller ran third to this year's English champion. The Mistrel, in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. The 4-year-old bay son of Vaguely out of the brilliant sprinter Too Bald was beaten by 1 1/2 lengths that day while conceding. The Minstrel 13 pounds at weight-forage.
Brought to the United States, Exceller had to alter course and lost by 4 1/2 lengths of Majestic Light at Belmont Park then downed that rival by a length two weeks ago in Canada over an exceptionally soft grass strip.
There was early speed in the Man o' War and adeqaute pace at Woodbine. Today, at Laurel, there will be none. Johnny D. probably will inherit the lead under the sensational Steve Cauthen. "And Majestic Light will have to lay up much closer than I like," Russell said.
Sandy Hawley rides Majestic Light, Zilner is supremely confident that Angel Cordero Jr., on Exceller, will be able to stay near Majestic Light - and outfinish him.
Balmerino, a New Zealand-bred, figures to be the third choice in the betting. He was a good second to Alleged in the Arc de Triomphe this fall but was shipped to Milan for a race Oct. 16 and, this week, lost his appetite after a van trip from New York.
Crow and the 3-year-old Monseigneur complete the French tricolor. The 4-year-old Crow finished second to Ivanjica and ahead of Youth in the 1976 Arc and appears to be returning to top form after a disappointing season. He has some early foot. I like him, slightly.
Stateff, the Italian entrant, may not start. The tendon of his left foreleg was extremely sensitive yesterday. Trainer Dante Tettamanzi will make a decision this morning.
Vigors and Great Contractor complete the American contingent, along with 3-year-old Johnny D.
This International shapes up as a jockey's or a trainer's race. Tactics could turn out to be extremely important, as Russell knows. "I was hoping for an inside post for Majestic Light, instead of the No. 8 he drew." the trainer quipped. "now I'll tell the jockey to go to the front and improve his position from there. I hope he doesn't listen to me."