John Cunnington Jr. is a French horse trainer of British descent with remarkable prescience and unabashed confidence. In the early morning of a bright, crisp day last week at Laurel Race Course in Maryland, he watched as his long shot in the Washington, D.C. International, Admetus, paced slowly around the walking ring before going out for a loosening gallop.
He was the only person there watching Admetus. Dahlia, the strapping American-bred French filly who won the International in 1973 and already in 1974 had broken the money-winning record for fillies, drew the eyes and the praise of almost everyone else. Cunnington looked at her briefly and shrugged a typically Gallic shrug.
"She is, certainly, a very fine animal," he said. "She has a brilliant burst of speed. But my horse is stronger."
Cunnington is a rather round man with sharp, heavy-lidded eyes and rosy cheeks that pay tribute to the wines of his native country. He walked out to the track to watch Maurice Philipperon, his jockey, take Admetus through the training run. The horse moved easily over the grass with a graceful reaching stride and finished with a short sprint noteworthy for its quick acceleration.
Cunnington turned away with a small smile. "He worked very well," he said in his French-accented English. "My horse stays very well at a mile and a half and he finishes very well. He has not been given enough credit here. In the last race he has run, the Prix Conseil de Paris at Longchamp on Oct. 20, when he finished sixth, he gave 18 pounds to every horse in the race and the going was very bad. You can't give 18 pounds to classic horses. But here is different. The going is firm, and he is not giving away much weight. He is strong enough to outrun Dahlia and the other horses, too."
Admetus had been invited to the International for an essentially negative reason. John Schapiro, the owner of Laurel who initiated the race in 1952, sifts the horses of the world very carefully, beginning with those running in the Coronation Cup in England in June and on through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in October.
"I met with the owners of Admetus in July," he said before the race. "They called my attention to the horse. They didn't ask to be invited in so many words, but they suggested Admetus was worth looking at. Then he ran in August at Deauville and beat a good field there. He had won four other good races and he had one other thing going for him. Admetus is a gelding, so he could not be running and risking defeat in the Arc. That's essentially why he was invited."
After finishing first in the race at Deauville, Admetus was disqualified and placed second because Philipperon, the jockey, had rapped Ashmore, the second-place horse, smartly across the nose with his whip when he came alongside Admetus. Philipperon did not have to resort to any such unmannerly tactic in the International. He rode Admetus with the same sort of confidence that Cunnington had shown, and when he asked the gelding for speed in the stretch, Admetus moved quickly into the lead.
Lester Piggott, England's best jockey, who was riding Dahlia, had kept her on the rail near the back of the pack for most of the race, obviously relying on her celebrated closing rush and trusting to find a hole for her when the time came. "The hole is usually there," Piggott said before the race. "I am not worried." But this time the hole was not there when Dahlia needed it. As the field came off the last turn into the stretch, Piggott had to take her wide, outside horses, to the middle of the track.
In the meantime Philipperon, who had been fourth most of the way behind the slow pace set by the American filly Desert Vixen, made his bid, and the hole Piggott missed opened wide for him. Golden Don and Margouillat, another French horse, swung wide, giving Admetus a clean run at Desert Vixen. He passed the tiring leader with no trouble, and when Dahlia came up on his flank, he met that challenge just as easily and was pulling away at the finish. Desert Vixen was second by three-quarters of a length, and Dahlia, third, was another three quarters behind.
Philipperon, a handsome young man who appears much too mild to beat back challengers with a flailing whip, said after the race that he had not been worried at all. "Please, speak more gently," he said to a questioner. "More slow. I have not the good English. The pace helped. Very slow. But I thought I was winning the race all the way. I gave a small acceleration in the backstretch to position my horse, then I keep my eye on Dahlia, so I know when she was moving up. And I know she would not catch me, too."
Maurice Zilber, Dahlia's trainer, also had appeared confident in the days before the race, with one curious lapse. In 1973, after Dahlia won, Zilber said she was only at about 60% of her ability. This year he had been saying his filly was truly fit and ready and should be named Horse of the Year after her victory. But the day before the race, for a few moments, he seemed doubtful.
"She has been out of France for a long while," he said. "Shipping a horse several weeks before a race can make a problem. Horses may not be very smart but they have good memories. A horse knows where it lives and a horse can get homesick, too. When that happens, the horse gets confused and it is not possible to train properly."
Dahlia had been abroad for a month by the time she ran at Laurel, but she did not appear to have suffered as much from homesickness as from Piggott's rather overconfident ride.
In finishing second, Desert Vixen made a truly distinguished effort. She was running on turf for the first time in her racing life, competing against colts and going a mile and a half. She had never raced more than a mile and [3/16]ths before, but nonetheless she handled the turf course, the longer distance and the colts well. She just could not quite handle the gelding.