"I don't know why everyone gets so concerned about winning these big races," novice horse owner Berry Gordy wondered after the Washington, D.C. International yesterday. "Is this supposed to be hard?"
Indeed, winning the $250,000 event at Laurel was the essence of simplicity for Gordy and fellow Californian Bruce McNall. Three weeks ago they paid more than $1 million to purchase a French colt named Argument, and yesterday they watched him yield a quick return on their investment.
Argument scored a decisive one-length victory in the International over an American filly, The Very One, with Yvonand another 1-3/4 lengths back in third place.
The 3-year-old was sufficiently superior that he didn't need luck, but he got that, too. Anifa, the filly who had looked like his toughest rival, broke her leg while she was racing only inches away from Argument. The colt not only avoided trouble in that incident but avoided trouble that seemingly beekoned him at the crucial stage of the race.
Jorge Velasquez, who rode The Very One, claimed Argument impeded his horse as the winner began his charge on the final turn. But the stewards disallowed the claim after reviewing the tapes for 15 minutes.
Argument's performance confirmed last month's indications that he may be one of the best racehorses in the world. He had managed to overcome much bad fortune to finish second in Europe's premier race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe McNall, an active buyer of horses, had watched that performance and made a bid to buy the horse.
He told Gordy, the founder of Motown Records who had never before bought a thoroughbred, what he had seen in the Arc. Gordy inquired, "What's an ark?" Aftger McNall enlightened him, the two men bought the colt, enlisted the brillant Maurice Zilber to train him and got England's legendary Lester Piggott to ride.
Since French representatives had won nine prior runnings of the Laurel classic, Zilber had trained three winners and Piggott had ridden two, these were impeccable International credentials. They helped persuade the crowd of 21,057 to make Argument the 2-to-1 favorite.
Piggott let Argument drop to the rear of the field, as expected, while practically every member of the field raced into strong contention at some stage of the race. The hapless Japanese representative, Hashi Kurantsu, sprinted to the early lead with Anifa stalking him. After a half-mile, Buckpoint rushed up to go ahead. At the one mile mark, Yvonand, It's True and Ben Fab all had made moves and were racing three abreast. The critical moment of the International had arrived.
Jockey Alfred Gilbert on Anifa had surrendered a good early position and was not in the midst of heavy traffic, just behind the leaders. Piggott had let Argument advance slowly and now moved into the second flight, just outside the filly.
In a split second, the filly staggered and practically stopped in her tracks as the crowd let out a collective gasp. "I thought it was my horse who pulled up," Gordy said, "but then everyone started yelling, 'He's back! He's back!'"
Anifa had broken the cannon bone in her right front leg; veterinarians at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center will have to determine whether her life can be saved.
"She must have taken a bad step," Gilbert said. Remarkably, though, her mishap didn't interfere with any of the other contenders in the race.
Piggott had escaped a potential disaster, but now he encountered a tactical problem. Not only was a wall of three horses in front of him but Great Neck and The Very One had moved outside of him. Gordy might have been humming his old Motown hit, "Nowhere to Run."
On the turn, Piggott angled Argument outside the three leaders and to his good fortune the jockeys outside him were angling, too, instead of trying to pin him on the rail. As soon as the 45-year-old Englishman was daylight in front of him, the International was over.
Even as he was starting to accelerate past the three in front of him, he was glancing over his shoulder to see if he had anything to worry about. The Very One, owned by Helen Polinger of Olney, was rallying, but she was never going to catch him. Argument won comfortably, covering the mile and one-half in 2:30 1/5.
Argument returned $6.80, $3.60 and $3. The Very One paid $4 and $3.20, and Vonand paid $5.40 to show. The exacta was worth $25. Argument won $150,000, boosting his 1980 winnings to $464,544.
Having given foreign horses a 15-14 lead in the International series, Argument now will become an American horse. In the next few days he will be sent to his new home base in California. He probably will dominate his opposition in the rich grass races at Santa Anita this winter, making Gordy and McNall's million-dollar plunge look very cheap, indeed.