LAUREL -- Will his 13th try prove lucky for trainer Maurice Zilber and give the French horseman an unprecedented five wins in the Budweiser International?
Will the Head family, in a period spanning nearly 40 years and three generations of trainers, finally achieve an International victory?
Those questions will be answered today in the 41st running of the $750,000, 10-furlong Budweiser International turf classic at Laurel Race Course.
Yesterday, two of the elder statesmen of the French training ranks, Zilber and Alec Head, were at Laurel supervising final preparations of their horses.
Zilber is represented by the 3-year-old Contested Bid, a son of Alleged and a non-winner in five starts this season. Contested Bid placed third in two European classics, the Irish and French derbies.
Zilber, who was born and raised in Egypt, was once a leading trainer at the Heliopolis and Gezireh tracks in Cairo. He then went to France and became a dominant force and then demonstrated an uncanny ability to train winners of an international grass race in Laurel.
For some reason a few trainers develop a knack for winning certain big races. Woody Stephens has won five Belmont Stakes; Charlie Whittingham, countless runnings of the San Juan Capistrano Handicap; Buddy Raines, four Maryland Millions and Maurice Zilber, four Budweiser Internationals.
"If I win five," Zilber, 66, said, "It will never be done again in another 50 years. I will be able to see that looking down from heaven -- or up from hell."
Zilber said the two best horses he ever trained, Dahlia and Youth, both won the International. Both horses were owned by Nelson Bunker Hunt, an oil and metals magnate, who at one time owned more than 200 thoroughbreds before his empire collapsed.
Hunt, his long-time friend Ed Stephenson said yesterday, now owns no horses.
But despite Hunt's exodus, Zilber endures. He has only 18 horses now, far less than his competitors, but he still makes the most of his opportunities. In addition to Contested Bid, Zilber has two other Group horses, Savino and Paix Blanche.
He regards the International favorite and Head family horse, Sillery, as one of the top 4-year-olds in Europe and the horse to beat today.
He is here, he said, not only because Laurel is his lucky track -- in addition to four Internationals, Zilber has won the All Along and Selima stakes -- "I've learned you can't win if you don't try."
Trying is something the Head family has been doing for a long time at Laurel.
William Head, first of the three generations of Heads that trained Budweiser International starters, was second in 1954 with Banassa.
His son, Alec, considered one of the world's most accomplished horsemen, has bred and trained winners of the French Derby and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, but never the International.
His daughter, Criquette, is now one of the hottest trainers in France.
"She won three races and had two seconds from five starters yesterday at Longchamps," Alec Head said. "She also won four Group races on the Arc 'under' card."
Criquette Head now trains her family's runners as well as a large number for outside clients.
"She has about 150 horses in training," her father said.
Alec Head added "we've won the Along Stakes here [with Ravinella] and had seconds and thirds in the International, but for some reason we've never won."
He said Sillery, second last year, has an improved chance to upset the 1991 winner, Leariva. "Last year, Corey Black rode Sillery, and he'd never been on the horse's back before," Head said. "This year, my son Freddie is riding, and he knows the horse well."
Alec Head said he thinks Zilber has a lukewarm chance to win with Contested Bid. "The horse is fresh, and that helps with running in the International," he said. "But I'd say this year's crop of French 3-year-olds is not that good, only moderate."
He thinks Leariva is looking and training especially well. "I think the result will be the same as last year," he said. "Only reversed."
David Smaga, trainer of Leariva, chose French jockey Dominque Boeuf to ride his mare instead of Edgar Prado, who guided her to a 44-1 upset last season.
"Boeuf rode the mare in England and he rides many of my horses in France," Smaga said. "If I don't ride him here, when I get back to France he'll say 'why don't you get that American [Prado] to ride your horses.' "
Smaga said Leariva cracked a pastern bone after her eighth place finish in the Prix d'Isphahan at Longchamps on May 31. "She was confined to a stall until August," he said. "Since then, we've had to hurry to get her ready. I was particularly pleased with her last start when she was fifth, beaten less than three lengths, in the Prix de l'Opera."