When jockey Cash Asmussen climbed aboard Seattle Song today, he said he could feel the nervous energy the colt was exuding. The 3-year-old had been erratic all season, but he could run with the best horses in Europe on his best days, and this was going to be one of his best days.
All he was going to need to win the 33rd Washington, D.C. International was a good ride, and Asmussen delivered a flawless one. While some of his rivals were seemingly bent on self-destruction, the son of Seattle Slew came from last place to score a decisive victory.
He won by three lengths over the filly Persian Tiara, with the Australian representative Strawberry Road II third and the favored Treizieme eighth. But if Strawberry Road II had had a capable jockey like Asmussen, he might have been led into the winner's circle this afternoon.
Riding tactics and jockey foul-ups traditionally have had a great effect on the outcome of the International, and this one lived up to that tradition. When the horses came out of the gate, all 11 jockeys were restraining their mounts, and the field crawled the first quarter in 25 seconds. Gary Moore had such a tight hold on Strawberry Road II that the Australian horse was throwing his head wildly, trying to fight the rider.
But after this slow quarter, Alphabatim went into overdrive and surged to the lead, running the second quarter in an astonishing 22 3/5 seconds. The English colt had been equipped with blinkers because he had been so sluggish in his recent races, and now jockey Don Miller was having trouble controlling him.
The colt set a blistering pace, opening a four-length lead as he hit the three-quarter mark in 1:11 2/5. Asmussen sensed how fast the leader was going, and so he was content to let Seattle Song linger near the back of the pack.
As the field reached the final turn, the contenders in the rear of the field started to accelerate, and here the International was decided. Seattle Song advanced three-wide around the turn, with Ends Well and jockey Jorge Velasquez just outside him.
"When Velasquez came up outside, I knew I had to move -- or else it would have been in the same shoes as Strawberry Road," Asmussen said. "I never had any traffic problems."
Poor Strawberry Road II. After overcoming his jockey's attempts to strangle him early, he had advanced along the rail -- until Moore ran into a wall of horses and had to stand in the irons to avoid disaster. The horse recovered and settled into stride again, when Moore promptly ran into another wall of horses. He dropped back again, and finally angled to the outside looking for racing room -- but it was much too late.
As Alphabatim started to weaken -- he would wind up ninth -- Seattle Song accelerated sharply and took command of the International in a dozen strides. "He has a great finishing kick," Asmussen said. Persian Tiara never threatened him as she rallied to be second, as Strawberry Road II closed strongly to miss the place by half a length.
Seattle Song covered the 1 1/2 miles in 2:27 1/5 and paid $26.60, $9.80 and $5.80. Persian Tiara returned $8 and $5 and Strawberry Road II paid $6.20 to show.
The surprise and disappointment of the race was the French filly Treizieme, the 11-to-10 favorite. Her trainer, Maurice Zilber, was confident she was going to bring him his fifth International victory, but even though the filly had good position through much of the race, she never really accelerated.
Although he has spent his whole career in France and is owned by the Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, Seattle Song has plenty of U.S. connections. His jockey is a native of Texas, who won the Eclipse Award as the nation's leading apprentice before trainer Francois Boutin gave him a three-year contract to ride in Europe.
And the horse himself is purely American. A son of Seattle Slew, he was sold here as a yearling for $350,000 and will stay here to stand at stud in Kentucky next year.
Seattle Song had shown great promise as a 2-year-old last season, but he hadn't been able to win a race this year. He ran second to one of the best horses in Europe, Sadler's Wells, in his next-to-last start, but followed that performance with a mediocre fourth-place finish against a field he should have beaten.
Boutin thought he finally understood the key to the colt's in-and-out form: "He definitely needs a lot of time between races." With a three-week respite before the International, and with the help of Asmussen, he did look yesterday like the top-class horse he was cut out to be.