The Washington, D.C. International is ordinarily a handicapper's nightmare. Horses from different parts of the globe converge on Laurel for one race, with no lines of comparison between them.
But today's 29th running of the International is different. It seems crystal clear. For the 10th time in the race's history, a French representative is going to win it.
The $250,000 event is a duel between Argument, a 3-year-old colt, and Anifa, a 4-year-old filly, with the rest of the field thoroughly outclassed.
America's only strength today is in numbers. Four United States horses and one from Canada were invited to the race by Laurel Chairman John D. Schapiro, but none of them is a runner of real quality. This happens to be a year when there are few talented turf horses in this country, and the best of the lot, John Henry, bypassed the International to run in California. The American entrants in today's field are little more than glorified allowance horses.
Great Neck may be marginally the best of the domestic entrants. As recently as July, he was strictly a New York allowance runner; he had never even competed in a stake. But the competition has been so weak that he became a stakes horse almost overnight and last month won the Canadian International championship in a romp.
Another of the U.S. invitees, Yvonand, clearly demonstrates the inferiority of the American horses. Until this spring, he had been competing in France, where his record was undistinguished. He ran in one decent stakes race and was trounced by 16 lengths. Yet all Yvonand had to do to become a star was to move to this side of the Atlantic. In the last month, he has won a pair of $100,000 races on the turf.
The other American horses in today's field are The Very One and It's True. The Canadian entrant is Ben Fab. Their credentials cannot withstand scrutiny, either.
Into the midst of this mediocrity come two horses who have established their class unequivocally.
Argument had not been considered one of the preeminent horses in Europe until he ran in that continent's major race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, last month. He was dismissed at 74 to 1, but he mocked those odds by over-coming a great deal of bad racing luck and closing powerfully to finish second in the 20-horse field. Bruce McNall, a California horse owner who was at Longchamps that day, was so impressed by Argument's performance that he and a partner paid more than $1 million to acquire the colt.
Anifa ran well enough in Europe this year that her owner sent her to New York for Aqueduct's $300,000 Turf Classic, an event that has to some extent upstaged the International. The field was a strong one that Schapiro would love to have attracted for his race, and Anifa's performance against this competition was simply astonishing.
Anifa has the stamina to have won a 2 1/2-mile race in her previous start, yet she displayed enough speed to stalk the fast John Henry in the early stages of the Turf Classic. Before they had traveled a mile, Anifa surged past him and cruised to a three-length victory.
Even though Laurel's morning line lists her at an absurd 10 to 1, Anifa probably deserves to be the favorite today. She has the speed that usually is so important in this country's races (a quality Argument lacks) and she already has made a successful transition from Europe to America (which Argument still has to do).
Argument, however, may be the more gifted racehorse, based on his performance in the Arc. He has a great trainer in Maurice Zilber, who has had much success in the International. He is a 3-year-old, and the weight conditions of the International have historically favored 3-year-olds.
The top two horses are difficult to separate, but they will decisively separate themselves from the rest of the field. Bettors should play Argument and Anifa back and forth in the exacta, and hum "la Marseillaise" as they go to the cashier's window.