The 36th Washington, D.C. International is a wide-open, competitive race, but the principal object of attention at Laurel Race Course this afternoon will be a horse who probably has no chance to win.
Gjatsk, a 3-year-old from the Soviet Union, will be the first Soviet horse to compete in this country since 1966. Even his trainer concedes that Gjatsk is no superstar, not even by Soviet standards, but his presence in the field has stimulated widespread interest.
ABC will telecast the International live; 25 outlets around the country will conduct simulcast wagering on the race; Laurel officials are predicting a crowd of 25,000, which would be the track's largest in a decade.
They will see an International so evenly matched that 10 of the 14 entrants could plausibly win the top prize from the $750,000 purse. Experts aren't even sure whether the American mare Anka Germania, the 7-year-old Talakeno or the European colt Le Glorieux will be favored.
But most of the Europeans involved in the race agree on who is the best horse in the field. "Risk Me is the horse to beat," said the assistant trainer of Le Glorieux. The English 3-year-old won two Grade I stakes in France this year, beating the top horses on the continent. All of his successes, however, have come on courses inundated by rain.
"If we get a bit more rain and it's soft, he's unbeatable," declared Tony Kelleway, the son of Risk Me's trainer, Paul Kelleway. "But he has to have the soft ground."
With the forecast calling for clear skies today, Risk Me probably won't get the conditions he needs. A relatively firm course may help the chances of Le Glorieux. The 3-year-old raced in Germany and France this year, then flew to New York and finished second in the Man o' War Stakes at Aqueduct. That was only seven days ago, but assistant trainer Jean Laugere said, "He's a tough horse. We know he can handle it."
America's strongest representatives in the lineup are Anka Germania and Talakeno. A late-blooming 5-year-old mare, Anka Germania has won five races in a row, but they have been mostly against lesser opposition and members of her own sex. "I've been waiting for the right time to pop her in against the boys," said trainer Tom Skiffington. "We're trying to win an Eclipse Award, and I think she can do it if she wins the International."
Talakeno has competed effectively against top turf horses in New York, and scored a stunning upset over the champion Manila at Saratoga this summer. He will get plenty of support from bettors at Laurel, not only because of his record but because of his trainer, Dick Dutrow, who was a star in Maryland for many years before hitting the big time in New York.
There are plenty of others who could pull an upset: the California speedster Great Communicator; Manila's half-brother Stately Don; Nelson Bunker Hunt's 3-year-old Motley.
Frank De Francis, the president of Laurel, thinks the sleeper in the field may be the Polish colt, Omen. Even though a Polish horse was soundly beaten at Laurel last year, the country's racing officials were very eager to come back this year with Omen.
"This is the best horse we have managed to breed in the last few years," a Polish representative said this week. And Omen has impressed neutral observers at Laurel by the way he has looked and trained. He, not Gjatsk, is the Eastern bloc's best hope.
The International is part of an excellent 11-race program assembled by racing secretary Larry Abbundi. The card includes two other stakes as well as a $30,000 handicap, whose entrants include another Soviet colt, Star, who is said to be a very good miler. Post time for the first race is 11:30 a.m.