Laurel Race Course directors invited Vanlandingham to the Washington, D.C. International 10 days ago, but the 4-year-old colt's handlers had no idea what the upshot would be until a long-distance phone call was made Thursday.
Jockey Donald MacBeth at Belmont Park in New York spoke to trainer Shug McGaughey at Churchill Downs in Kentucky. The topic: Vanlandingham's first workout on grass. Ever.
"Don called me as soon as he got off the horse," McGaughey said. "He said he ran fine, and that he seemed to handle the course well. The decision was made then to come here."
"I worked him a half-mile, and he was just as happy as he could be," MacBeth said. "He was very comfortable on the grass."
A word from MacBeth cemented the aspirations of owner John Ed Anthony. He transported Vanlandingham to Laurel Friday for the International, a 1 1/2-mile race on grass that lured some of the world's best turf runners.
Yesterday, Anthony became $240,000 richer for that decision, and Vanlandingham improved his horse-of-the-year chances.
"To be honest, I was hesitant about the International," McGaughey said following yesterday's victory, Vanlandingham's fifth in nine tries this year. "It was Mr. Anthony's decision. This was where he wanted to come.
"I'm not opposed to grass races, it's just that I haven't had much luck on it. And I'm not a big believer in giving a horse a lot of work on grass before he races on it. I've had horses win on grass that have never run on it."
Vanlandingham proved the rule and, in the process, indicated his abilities on turf may be greater than on dirt.
In Laurel's stable area, dubbed "International Village," early yesterday, Jack Liebau and John Sullivan, owner and trainer of Britain's Yashgan, gazed out at the rain and concluded that the International picture was as cloudy as the day.
"If Vanlandingham gets out in front and gets an easy lead, he's gonna be tough to catch," Liebau said. "There's not a lot of speed in the race, and if he takes to the turf, he could steal it."
Yashgan epitomizes the true international thoroughbred. He was foaled in Britain, raised in France, is now owned by Americans and is trained by a native Irishman. Yesterday, he didn't trail Vanlandingham by more than three lengths, but he never caught him.
"I was trying to keep the pressure on him early," said Chris McCarron, Yashgan's jockey. "He was running great, and he gave me a big move around the turn, but he was just overmatched."
"Going in, I figured he was the horse I had to beat," said MacBeth.
The victory adds to MacBeth's melodramatic story this year. He was criticized for his performances astride Chief's Crown during the Triple Crown races. The talk peaked after the Preakness, in which Chief's Crown lost a sizable lead in the stretch and finished second to Tank's Prospect.
Yesterday, MacBeth smiled at that aspect of a jockey's life.
"In this business, you just have to get used to the heat," he said. "Once you've been in the oven long enough, there's nothing to it."