In the absence of one clearly dominant horse, today's Washington, D.C. International is likely to be decided by jockeys, by strategy, by the pace of the race and by luck.
This will not be unusual for the International, whose 29 prior runnings have produced a lot of strange, flukish results. But the 30th running of the Laurel Race Course classic today at 4 p.m. seems certain to be unusually run because of the aberrant composition of the field.
Of the 10 horses in the field -- four from the United States, one from Canada, four from Europe and one from Singapore -- not one is a front-runner. The two principal American entrants, Open Call and Galaxy Libra, are one-dimensional stretch-runners who plod along at the back of the pack.
Jockey Philippe Paquet concedes that the favorite, April Run, "doesn't have much speed." Michael Jarvis, trainer of Beldale Flutter, concedes that his colt may be quicker than the others, but says, "This horse wouldn't be asked to make the pace."
Practically every jockey in the field would like to be sitting third or fourth. Under such circumstances, a race can be won by a rider who makes a sudden early move while his rivals are biding their time (as Steve Cauthen did with Johnny D. in the 1977 International). More often, a race can be lost by a jockey who keeps his horse too far behind a slow pace.
To win at Laurel this afternoon, a horse will have to be versatile and tractable. No member of the field has demonstrated these qualities more than April Run.
Owned by Mr. and Mrs. Bert Firestone of Waterford, Va., April Run established herself as the best filly in France this season. She closed powerfully to finish third in Europe's most important race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Then she came to New York for the Turf Classic at Aqueduct, stayed within three lengths of the early leaders and scored a decisive victory.
Despite her formidable credentials, students of past Internationals have to view April Run with a measure of skepticism because of Paquet's presence in the saddle. Two years ago, he rode a vastly superior horse, Le Marmot, and managed to get him beaten with a weak riding performance.
Beldale Flutter, a 3-year-old who represents England, also seems quick enough to get a good position near the leaders. "He likes to run pretty close to the pace," trainer Jarvis said. "A slow pace will favor us." Beldale Flutter's odds should be generous, since in his last start he finished next to last in the Arc. Jarvis dismissed that bad effort, saying that his colt doesn't care much for racing clockwise, and that he was further hurt by drawing post position No. 20.
Usually, it is American horses who set the early pace in the International; racing in this country is much more speed-oriented than in Europe. But both Galaxy Libra and Open Call are habitual stretch-runners.
Galaxy Libra raced consistently well on the West Coast for most of the year. Two weeks ago, he came from 13 lengths behind and lost by three-quarters of a length to April Run at Aqueduct.
"I think he was the best horse that day," trainer Charles Whittingham maintains, but most objective observers disagree. Not only will Galaxy Libra be hindered by his lack of speed today, but he also must carry 127 pounds, spotting seven pounds to the 3-year-olds. Those conditions have traditionally proved favorable to the younger horses in the International.
Open Call has won five of his six career starts on the grass. He came from 16 lengths behind to win the $300,000 Rothmans International at Woodbine. "This field might be a little stronger than any he has faced," conceded Bob Reinacher, assistant trainer for Greentree Stable, "but he's been improving every time he runs."
Open Call's principal asset today may be his jockey, Jorge Velasquez, a master tactician and judge of pace. He won the 1979 International aboard Greentree's Bowl Game, with lots of help from Paquet's poor ride.
The rest of the horses in the International lineup seem overmatched. New York-based Match the Hatch may inherit the early lead by default, but he can't beat horses of this quality at 1 1/2 miles. Neither can the other Americans, Providential II and Johnny Dance.
The other foreign horses -- Rain-bow Connection of Canada, Cairn Rouge of Ireland and Siapa Rajah III of Singapore -- figure to be longshots, too. Cairn Rouge ran races in 1980 that established her as a top-class filly, but when she came to Laurel last year she contracted a serious fever and had to be withdrawn from the race.
That's one way to lose the International. Today's race, with its expected slow pace and emphasis on tactics, should provide the jockeys with a wide range of opportunities to do the same thing.