The principal rivals in today's Washington, D.C. International come from very different parts of the racing world. Win is a rags-to-riches American horse, with all his roots in New York. Strawberry Road II is thoroughly cosmopolitan -- bred in Australia, based in France, owned by an international art dealer.
Yet on the track they are very similar. Each may be the toughest, most consistent runner on his side of the Atlantic. Both are so durable that they have a chance to join the ranks of the world's top money-winning thoroughbreds. Both have a combination of speed, stamina and tractability that enables them to win races in almost any way they develop.
Win versus Strawberry Road II is the type of matchup Laurel officials probably dreamed of when they set out to restore the prestige of the track's premier race.
The new management raised the purse of the International to $400,000, recruited foreign horses aggressively and wound up with a high-quality field of 11.
The bettors at Laurel are likely to make Win and Strawberry Road II virtual cofavorites this afternoon at 4:15.
The 5-year-old American gelding has finished first or second in five straight New York stakes. The 6-year-old invader gave an excellent performance in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf two weeks ago, losing by only a neck.
Win did finish 1 3/4 lengths in front of Strawberry Road II in the Turf Classic at Belmont Park in September, but the turf was very hard, which Win prefers. Laurel's course won't be so firm, as a result of last week's steady rain.
"A soft course is definitely not his preference," trainer Sally Bailie said. "But when Win galloped (yesterday morning), he seemed quite happy out there. I was quite satisfied."
As strong as the favorites' credentials are, the 34th International is no two-horse race. The field is deep in talent. All but one of the entrants has won a Grade II stake or better this year. All but the outclassed German horse Abary have a plausible chance to win.
One respected English journalist here said that if this race were being run in Europe, Strawberry Road II would not be favored. Jupiter Island would. The 6-year-old's record doesn't look especially impressive to an American student of the Racing Form, but his three-length victory in his last start in France was evidently quite impressive.
A European longshot with a chance is Iades, a 3-year-old colt who ran well against some big-name horses in France. Iades finished a lackluster fifth in his U.S. debut, a stake at Aqueduct, but the distance was too short for him, the turf was probably too hard and he had trouble handling the sharp turns. Trainer Francois Boutin has been pleased by his work at Laurel.
America's representation in the International probably isn't as deep as Europe's -- but it's hard to tell. Two of this country's best dirt runners are in the field, but one of them, the Belmont Stakes winner Creme Fraiche, lost his only race on the turf and the other, Vanlandingham, has never competed on grass.
Others in the field include Persian Tiara, Helen Street, Yashgan and Galla Placidia. Bob Back, a scheduled starter, was scratched from the race yesterday, and Mourjane and Triptych were withdrawn Thursday.