A kiss from his jockey, Manuel Ycaza, was Bald Eagle's reward after his runaway victory over a superb field of U.S. and foreign Thoroughbreds in the ninth Washington D.C. International at Laurel. For the story of the race and the Russians' controversial claim of foul, turn the page
THE RACE WAS FOR SECOND PLACE
The ninth running of the Washington D.C. International over Laurel's fine course last week clearly proved that this race is now not only an American but a world classic. It is an invitational event, run on turf as a courtesy to foreigners, who rarely race on dirt, and it had already drawn horses from 14 countries in previous years. Last Friday's 11 starters represented the best field of foreign and homebred horseflesh ever assembled on an American track.
Parading under a clear sky on a crisp afternoon were the best from France, fresh from running one-two in their own classic Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. England was represented by another pair, perhaps not as formidable as Ballymoss (who ran third two years ago) but solid contenders nonetheless. There was one Irish horse, two Italians (for the first time) and a hopeful new pair from Russia.
The host country was well prepared for this group of invaders. The leader of the American team was the defending champion himself, Cain Hoy Stable's Bald Eagle. Invited also was Sword Dancer, the champion of everything else a year ago, but Sword Dancer was injured a few days prior to the International. As his replacement, Laurel asked for Mrs. Richard duPont's late-developing 3-year-old, Kelso. But Mrs. duPont decided against giving Kelso his first start on grass against such a field, and so another standby was called. His name is Harmonizing, and although he was picked up for $6,500 in a claiming race earlier this year, his credentials on turf were excellent: in his last grass race he had beaten both Bald Eagle and Sword Dancer at this same mile-and-a-half distance.
As it turned out, his trainer should have given him a chance to get acquainted with the tricky new web-barrier gate used this year. Every other horse in the race was familiar with it, either through racing abroad (where such a gate is standard equipment) or through schooling sessions in the days at Laurel immediately prior to the International. At the start, Harmonizing did not break with his field, and it is conceivable that this cost him the victory.
The crowd of 29,336 saw a thrilling horse race—for second money. The $70,000 winner's share of the $100,000 pot was won at the start when fiery young Manuel Ycaza charged away from the line on Bald Eagle with all the skill and confidence of a hot pilot opening the throttle of a graceful jet. From that point on, as Bald Eagle's magnificent long stride carried him away, the only question was his ultimate winning margin. He tired noticeably in the last few furlongs but managed to hold off Harmonizing by two lengths. He was 10 lengths ahead of the field for the better part of the race.
With the U.S. finishing one-two, the real drama and excitement of the ninth International was the amazing show of strength by the Russians, who came in third and fourth with the entry of Zabeg and Zadorny. The French were fifth and last, the Irish sixth, the Italians seventh and eighth and the English ninth and 10th. Actually, Russia's Zabeg, a big brown 3-year-old, would have been second if a legitimate foul claim by his rider, Nikolai Nasibov, had been made at the proper time, before the result became official.
Turning for home, four horses still were in the hunt for second money. The French colt, Hautain, was leading this pack but starting to tire. Harmonizing was about to take over but, outside of him, the two Russians were also getting into high gear. Suddenly John Ruane, aboard Harmonizing, allowed his mount to drift out and, when he did, he put Zabeg momentarily off stride. By the time Nasibov, an accomplished horseman, could get straightened out, it was too late, and Harmonizing beat him to the wire by a length.
Naturally, Nasibov wanted to claim foul, but he had either forgotten or had never properly understood the instructions given to each rider on the proper procedure. "In Russia," he said later, "we claim foul by waving the whip at the stewards." Riding back to the unsaddling area, Nasibov did exactly that. Of course it did no good, for in this country all riders are instructed to tip their whips toward the stewards' stand in a salutatory gesture before dismounting. Over the years this has come to indicate a recognition on the part of the jockey of the stewards' authority.
Claim was too late
What made it all the more difficult for Nasibov was that his trainer, Yevgeni Gottlieb, had watched the race from the stands and was now fighting his way to trackside through a mob that refused to give ground. Furthermore, the Russian interpreter had assisted at the starting gate and, by the time he returned to find his rider in the jocks' room, the official sign was up and all protests were useless. In the face of all this, the Russian team was surprisingly calm. "We are not mad," said Trainer Gottlieb, "because we know that in horse racing there is some good luck and some bad luck. Still, being third is not as nice as being second, is it?"
Actually, it was astonishing that the Russian rider should have had to claim a foul on his own. Movies of the race clearly show Ruane to have been at fault. It is the responsibility of the patrol judges and stewards to flash the inquiry sign well before any jockey feels a need to raise the question himself.
There was, of course, considerable controversy over the start—which is always the case when horses are sent away from anything but our cold and grisly mechanical contraptions. Starter Eddie Blind had given each rider specific instructions on how he was going to get the field away, and when the time came he did a good job of it. What trouble there was could in no way be blamed on him.
But there was trouble—for Puissant Chef, the French winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, and for Harmonizing. Having drawn the rail position, Puissant Chef showed an immediate dislike for the whole business. Several times he backed away from the line. Then, at the instant of the start itself—and there was no interference from starters or other horses—he wheeled in fright, did a complete 180° turn to his right and spun his jockey, Maxime Garcia, off like a runaway top. Garcia remounted and galloped off in pursuit of his field, but the best horse in France had traveled 3,000 miles in vain.
Harmonizing just chose not to run when the barrier went up. Later, in a surprising display of poor taste and bad sportsmanship, Trainer Ev King blamed the starter, even to the point of claiming that Eddie Blind had rigged the start in favor of Bald Eagle.
As a matter of fact, the Bald Eagle team of Owner Harry F. Guggenheim, Trainer Woody Stephens and Jockey Ycaza had no definite prerace plan to take the lead. "We don't know where the early speed really is," said Guggenheim in the paddock. "Most of these foreigners, you know, like to gallop off for a mile and then run their best for the last half mile. If there's nobody who wants to show some early speed, we'll tell Ycaza to go to the front and rate his horse out there as best he can."
No matter what the Cain Hoy team had on its mind, the only thing Bald Eagle had on his was running. And he did it from the start in such a way as to pulverize his field. For those trailing him there was no excuse. Everybody was simply outrun by a horse who, when he is so inclined, can be the very best in America—and maybe in the world.
A single race never can prove conclusively the superiority of one nation's Thoroughbreds over another. The Laurel classic is valuable in that it brings together racing people and competitors from all over the world. But obviously the conditions of such a race will seldom suit all participants.
American horses break from a starting gate; visiting foreigners do not. Our horses are accustomed to turns considerably tighter than those on European courses. Many foreign horses never race in a counterclockwise direction before coming to Laurel. Many visiting jockeys do not understand English.
Despite all this, the Laurel race has been a tremendous success, if only in international public relations.
Future renewals of the race are certain to bring back the English, French and the Irish—to race and to offer their well-bred runners for sale on the expanding American buyers' market.
The Russians have a different attitude. Their interest in the race is, simply, to win. They spent hours studying the Laurel track, watching our riders and observing early-morning training methods. And when they say, as would an American baseball fan, "Wait till next year," they aren't just kidding.
Next year, for example, the Russians are coming back with a colt named Expert. Between now and then it's a good guess that Expert will get his training at a Russian duplicate of Laurel, complete to the cut of the grass, the angle of the turns and the haberdashery of the commissar of the starting gate.