The Washington, D.C. International was once billed as a race for "horse-of-the-world" honors. But if the favored American filly Waya wins it today, she can merely prove that she is the second-best grass runner in America.

The champion horses that the International should attract are not at Laurel Race Course today. Exceller, the top United States turf runner, is competing in California. Seattle Slew bypassed the International to run in New York. Alleged, the best horse in Europe, retired instead of coming to Laurel.

These horses' absence is symptomatic of the international's loss at prestige, glamor and uniqueness. The International, to be run at 4:20 p.m. and televised on WDVM-TV-9, has suffered in part because its purse has not kept pace with the inflation of the racing economy. An owner whose horse has a potential $10 million stud value might not want to risk the animal's reputation for a $200,000 purse.

And if an owner does want to test his horse against international competition, he can do it at other tracks besides Laurel. Two weeks ago, Belmont Park staged its $200,000 Turf Classic, in which Waya narrowly defeated Tiller and Trillon. Today's race at Laurel is little more than a rematch of that event.

Although there is no Sir Ivor, no Dahlia, no Kelso in the field, Laurel's management does not have one bit of solace. The 27th running of the International should be as competitive and exciting as just about any of its predecessors.

Its principle combatants are two fillies preened by men with cosmopolitan racing backgrounds.

Angel Penna, the trainer of Waya learned his profession in his native Venezuela, came to New York in 1967, moved to France in 1971, and came back this year with a stream of horses for the famed art dealer, Daniel Wildenstein. Waya was not considered the most talented member of this contingent but she blossomed when she returned to the land of her birth.

"It's a matter of love," Penna said. "She loves this country and the tracks feel better to her. She's an American-bred filly and I don't think she was right for European races. But she's tougher and bigger now and she fires every time she runs."

Waya dominated the memebers of her own sex during the summer, and then defeated males in the man O'war stakes and the Turf Classic at Belmont. Having already beaten her chief rivals in today's field, she would be a clear favorite, except that one of her opponents, Trillion, is trained by the man who has made a speciality of winning the Washington, D.C. International.

Maurice Zilber has a background as eclectic as Penna's. Born in Cairo, the son of a Turkish mother and Hungarian father, he was the leading trainer in Egypt for a decade before he moved to France. There he now manages the powerful stable of Nelson Bunker Hunt. Zilber obviously understands the fine art of preparing a horse for the International. He has won three of its last five runnings with Hunt's horses.

Trillion came to New York after a long, successful campaign in France, but her travel plans went awry and she arrived only three days before the Turf Classic. She emerged from quarantine on the morning of the race, but nevertheless finished only a neck behind Waya. Now that she has had more time to become acclimated, she should improve upon her last performance. But she may be hampered by the rock-hard texture of the Laurel turf course, a condition that she never encountered in France.

The other foreign entrants in the International - Canada's Overskate, Italy's Stone and France's Frere Basile - do not appear to be serious contenders. The rest of the American contingent looks slightly more formidable.

Tiller ran second to Waya in his last two starts and could win if the fily falters just a bit. Noble Dancer II was a sensational grass runner earlier in the season, but his form has deteriorated drastically in the last month. MacDiarmida will attract a lot of support because of his 11-for-12 record on the grass, but he compiled it mostly at the expense of weak 3-year-olds. He still has not proved his class. CAPTION: Picture, Frere Basile, from France, is among eight horses expected to start today in Laurel's $200,000 Washington, D.C. International, among racing's premier turf events. By Richard Darcey - The Washington Post