Frank De Francis, the president of Laurel Race Course, thinks that the field for Saturday's Washington, D.C. International is "the strongest in years."
But anyone who attempts to handicap the race seriously and pick the winner may have a very different opinion. If there were one, just one, legitimate Grade I stakes horse in sharp current form among the 14 entrants, he would stand out clearly.
However, nobody in the lineup has the type of solid credentials usually needed to win a race of the International's stature. The fact that Anka Germania is the 3-to-1 morning line favorite says a lot about the quality of the field.
In a 33-race career the mare has never even competed in a Grade I stakes. Her only victory against males came against moderate competition in a Grade III event at the Meadowlands. Because Anka Germania has won her last five starts and is trained by one of the sharpest young men in the game, Tom Skiffington, she might be viewed as a plausible long shot proposition, but at a short price she is very much worth betting against.
At least two horses in the International have beaten much better rivals than Anka Germania has ever faced. Both Risk Me and Talakeno are giant-killers.
Risk Me ran away with the Grand Prix de Paris by trouncing Trempolino, who came back to win France's most important race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Talakeno was the only horse this year to beat Manila, America's turf champion of last season. But there are reasons to doubt that either horse will repeat those performances on Saturday.
I was at Longchamp for the Grand Prix de Paris, and the conditions were so much in Risk Me's favor that even I was able to pick the winner. He was in sharp form at the time; he was the lone speed in the race; and his record showed that he would love the condition of the track, which was extremely soft after a week of steady rain. None of these conditions apply at Laurel.
Talakeno was able to beat Manila at Saratoga because Manila gave the worst performance of his life; he may have wilted in the hot weather. Subsequently, Talakeno has run poorly in two New York stakes on soft turf courses. Trainer Dick Dutrow blamed the footing, but Talakeno's past performances show two victories on soft grass. The 7-year-old may simply be off form after a tough campaign.
If Risk Me and Talakeno aren't ready to fire their best shots, the strongest contenders in the International may be 3-year-olds Motley and Le Glorieux.
Motley finished a solid fourth against some of the best horses on the continent in a Grade I stakes at York in England this summer. He has speed and he can evidently handle any kind of footing.
Le Glorieux's European form doesn't appear quite as good; he scored all his victories in Germany, though he did run a creditable race against Trempolino in France earlier in the year. But Le Glorieux has already made the transition to American racing successfully.
He finished second to Theatrical in the $585,000 Man o' War Stakes at Aqueduct last weekend, though he had an easy trip and the horses who finished behind him weren't much. This may not be a ringing endorsement, but he looks good enough to win at Laurel. I'll take a flyer with a Le Glorieux-Motley exacta.