A British journalist scrutinized the handsome bay colt at Laurel yesterday morning, chomped on his cigar and offered well-informed opinion. "If the International were being run in France, that horse would be an odds-on favorite. In England, he might be 3 to 2. But 6 to 1 in your morning line is ridiculous."
The horse in question was Le Marmot, and there is a growing sentiment at Laurel that he may be the one to beat in the 28th running of the Washington, D.C. International today (WDVM-TV-9, WMAR-TV-2, 4 p.m.).
Although the American entrants, Bowl Game and Golden Act, are likely to be the betting favorites, Le Marmot's record in France suggests that he may be the one first-rate horse in the field.
Unlike most other runnings of the International, where the relative merits of the American and the foreign horses have been hard to assess, clear line of camparision can be drawn this year through the French mare, Trillion.
Last month, Le Marmot finished second in the world's most prestigious horse race, the Prix de l'Arc de Trimphe, and defeated Trillion soundly. After the Arc, Trillion came to North America, losing by only a neck to Golden Act on one occasion and by a neck to Bowl Game on another.
There is little doubt about Le Marmot's superior ability. But, as Bowl Game's trainer, Jack Gaver, said, "His effort will depend on how he made the trip and the adjustments he has to make (to racing in a new environment)."
Trainer Francois Boutin is optimistic that Le Marmot will reproduce his French form in the International.
"I've come here twice before," Europe's top money-winning trainer said through an interpreter, "but both times it was with a horse who was basically tired. I knew they were tired, but the owners were happy to come.
"This year, I know I have a horse in good form. He was second in the French Derby (June 3) and after that I did nothing with him until September. He has raced only five times this year and he hasn't traveled too much. He's very good now."
While Le Marmot ranks with the best horses in Europe, his opposition today does not include any of the best horses in America.
Golden Act and Bowl Game are useful animals who happen to be battling for the grass-racing championship because the top American horses (such as Affirmed and Spectacular Bid) never ran on grass. Golden Act started making his reputation as a turf star by beating Smarten, who isn't even one of the half-dozen best 3-year-olds in the country.
Still, Golden Act is a tough, reliable horse who can win the International if Le Marmot falters. He has had a grueling campaign, battling Spectacular Bid through the Triple Crown series this spring and then winning three straight stakes on the grass this fall.
Other animals might be exhausted after such a long season, but trainer Lorren Rettele said, "He's not tailing off physically. If anything, he's better. Since he started racing at Santa Anita last winter, he's put on weight and developed a lot. And mentally, he's a lot more mature."
Like Golden Act, Bowl Game has compiled an excellent record on the grass at the expense of rivals who may be of less than top quality. He has captured his last three races, including the Man o'War Stakes and the Turf Classic in New York.
He appears to be at a slight disadvantage to Golden Act because of the weight he must carry. In the International, older horses tote 127 pounds and 3-year-olds 120. That spread seems to give the younger horses an advantage, and 3-year-olds have won the International 10 times in the last 14 years.
The other five entrants in the International are marginal contenders at best.
Native Courier will lead the race for at least 1 1/4 miles. In the Turf Classic at Aqueduct, run at the International's line distance, he held on until the last 16th of a mile, when Bowl Game and Trillion flew past him. "He's not really a mile-and-a-half horse," trainer Sid Watters acknowledged.
Trillion's race in the Turf Classic showed that she has the ability to win the International, but she may be suffering from a case of jet lag today.
In a period of 34 days, she will have run in France, Canada, New York, California and Maryland. Even the formidable talents of trainer Maurice Zilber, a three-time winner of the Interantional, probably won't be enough to keep her in peak form.
The others in the field -- Canada's Don Alaric, France's Son of Love II and the American mare, Waya -- seem overmatched.