It is doubtful that even our Kentucky Derby, now 85 years old, commands more universal interest than the Washington, D.C. International, a mere 8-year-old event designed to bring together the best horses of every continent to test one another over a mile and a half of Maryland grass at Laurel.
Appeal and enthusiasm alone, however, cannot create a fully acceptable classic race, and, as anyone who watched Cain Hoy Stable's Bald Eagle win last week's eighth International well knows, what Laurel's admirable promotional venture needs even more than an all-star equine cast is a suitable stage on which to present a race worthy of its name and the dreams of its entrepreneurs.
Last week's race, for example, resulted in chaos and near tragedy when horses from Venezuela and Australia collided on the clubhouse turn. The chorus of protests which understandably arose is regrettable in many ways. For International Day at Laurel is one of the delightful experiences of the whole racing year. The colorful and festive atmosphere of the occasion is unique on this side of the Atlantic. Here is an annual opportunity to meet horsemen from all over the world, some of whom believe that this race is second only in importance to England's Epsom Derby.
That, too, was the wish of Laurel's top officials, John D. Schapiro and Joe Cascarella. They have worked longer and harder than any racing people I know to put this show across. After last year's shambles, in which a half dozen false starts sent tempers to a boiling point, Laurel spent a million dollars enlarging the turf course to a full mile. Further, they imported a barrier-type starting gate from Newmarket to insure against future post-time fiascos.
But alas, on race day it was discovered the new barrier was malfunctioning, leaving Starter Eddie Blind no recourse but to send the anxious field away from a movable tape used here only for jump races and at hunt meetings. Even after two false starts a third "good" one was still bad for seven of the 12 horses. And the course is still not big enough for a big race.
The race quickly turned into a duel between Tudor Era (last year's disqualified winner), who led for the first part, and Bald Eagle, who under a clever ride by Manuel Ycaza, took over turning for home and won easily over the French colt Midnight Sun.
The Russians again sent two horses, and this time Gamier, who was sixth in 1958, moved up to fifth and might have been in the money had he not run into traffic problems resulting from the collision between Pensilvania and Vogel. As it was, his jockey, Nikolai Nasibov (the same comrade who spelled his name Nasimov a year ago), dismounted with a bloodied nose and the furious protest that "When they race like this I do not wish to be killed."
Laurel might do better, it is suggested here, to reconsider the November 11 date for the International. It is difficult at best to attract the leading horses from America, England and France at a time when their major races have already been decided.
And if nothing can be done about a switch in dates, maybe the International—which should have a brilliant future—ought to be taken out of its inadequate setting and transplanted to a big-time course.