Mikhail Gorbachev may be playing it coy on the matter of a summit meeting, but at least Gjatsk is upholding the spirit of glasnost. The 3-year-old will be the first Soviet thoroughbred to race in this country in 21 years when he starts in the Washington, D.C. International.
Although he has attracted more attention than any of the other horses who will compete at Laurel Saturday, Gjatsk remains a mystery horse, for Soviet racing is even more insular than the rest of Soviet society.
Soviet horses almost never venture outside of the Eastern bloc, so there are no lines of comparison to draw between them and horses from Europe or America. Who knows what it means that Gjatsk won the Soviet-Mongolian Friendship Prize by a length this summer?
Most likely it means that the colt was meeting a distinctly inferior brand of competition, but that's what American handicappers figured when the last Soviet entrant, Aniline, competed in the 1966 International. He finished second to France's Behistoun and beat America's top grass runners in the process.
Aniline's jockey and trainer that day was Nikolai Nasibov; this week, he is back at Laurel training Gjatsk. He still remembers Aniline with affection.
"We had three trainers at our farm, and we would draw lots to decide who got what horse," he said through an interpreter. "We put the horses' names on pieces of paper and pulled them from a hat, and I was the one who got Aniline.
"He was a very good horse. He is remembered not only in the Soviet Union but in Europe. In the International, he just couldn't keep up in the final 500 meters. But we haven't had a horse so good for a long time."
Is Gjatsk in Aniline's class?
"Nyet, nyet," Nasibov replied. He explained that there were at least two better horses in the Soviet Union when it was decided to send a representative to the International, but both of them broke down. Gjatsk has been beaten this year by Omen, the Polish entrant in the International, and also by his countrymate Star, who accompanied him here and may run in a one-mile allowance race on Saturday. Moreover, Gjatsk hasn't raced in two months. And he's never competed on the turf.
Realistically, the Soviets cannot expect to win this International, but they are here to observe and to learn what they can from American racing and breeding. "When they come here, they're students," said Laurel vice president Bob Manfuso.
The differences between the two countries' thoroughbred industries are drastic, of course. Nasibov sees only one great similarity: the fans. "We have the same crazy people like in America," he said. "They like to bet."
They are certainly a hardy breed. While thoroughbred racing is conducted at the Moscow Hippodrome in only the temperate months, harness horses run year-round. Nasibov said racing is canceled only if the temperature falls below minus-25 degrees.
When the Olympics were held in Moscow in 1980, Newsweek's Pete Axthelm paid a visit to the Hippodrome and came away with the impression that Soviet horseplayers may have to suffer from more than the weather.
"When the horses came out for the feature race, there was one big, strapping chestnut mare, another one who looked okay and the rest of the field didn't even look like thoroughbreds," Axthelm said. "I stepped in and bet 200 rubles to win, a 100-ruble exacta and wheeled the mare for five rubles in the double. She won by 20 and the other horse finished 20 lengths in front of the rest of the field. There wasn't any tote board, but I figured I'd made a tremendous score."
Axthelm went to the window and, for his 340-ruble investment, collected a total of 400 rubles -- a return of less than 1 to 5 after hitting the winner, the exacta and the double. While the Soviet system doesn't forbid gambling, it evidently discourages too much profit from it.
In the rest of the Soviet thoroughbred industry, profit isn't a consideration, either. The state owns all of the horses, although they are managed by 12 different breeding farms. If Gjatsk did win the International, his earning would not go to the Dnepropetrovskii Stud, but to the Ministry of Agriculture. If, in turn, a stud farm needs money -- say, to buy and import a stallion from England -- it asks the Ministry of Agriculture.
Even though it may sound as if there are no incentives in the system, Nasibov explained that the farms are autonomous and have a spirited rivalry. "Everybody wants to beat each other," he said. "Without competition, you can't have progress. It's the same as in America."