At age 54, Jean Cruguet still knows how to find his way into a Grade I winner's circle.
Yesterday the French-born jockey -- who won the 1977 Triple Crown aboard Seattle Slew -- regained a glimmer of that faded glory when he guided Buckhar to a 1 1/2 -length victory over Cleone in the $600,000 Washington D.C. International at Laurel Race Course.
A bumping incident at the 3/16ths pole in the stretch of the mile grass race resulted in the disqualification of Cleone and moved the Maryland-bred long shot, Maryland Moon, up from third to second place.
"I didn't want the French to show up," winning trainer Mike Freeman said, joking about the absence of some foreign thoroughbreds who missed the race because of a strike by air cargo employees in Paris. "But I wasn't referring to Cruguet."
It had been 15 years since the hardy Frenchman, who does 8O push-ups each day to stay in shape, had ridden in the International. He won that year aboard MacDiarmida after finishing off the board on three previous occasions.
At one point in his 37-year riding career, Cruguet called it quits and trained horses. But after a couple of years off in the early 1980s, he resumed riding at the New York tracks. "I'll keep at it as long as people like Mike Freeman give me a horse like Buckhar to ride every now and then," he said.
Freeman did an exemplary job training Buckhar. The 5-year-old roan horse is a grandson of the mighty Dahlia, one of the great thoroughbreds to win the International.
But he had a near-catastrophic injury late last year when he had a reaction to a shot of Butazolidin and his jugular vein collapsed.
Just a few months ago the horse was recuperating in the care of trainer Jim McGreevy at the Fair Hill Training Center in Cecil County. Then Freeman put him back into heavy work and got him ready for his win yesterday after just one prep race at Belmont Park.
"Of all the horses I've trained, this is probably the most competitive and the one who loves to race the most," said Freeman.
Yesterday's International drew a small field, but it was an eventful race from the beginning.
Allen Paulson's brilliant miler, Cleone, swerved coming out of the gate and ran into California invader, The Wicked North. But the incident did not deter that horse from making the early lead.
Jockey Corey Black on The Wicked North set slow fractions while Cruguet kept Buckhar on the rail in second place under a tight hold.
"He is a fresh horse and was eager to run, " Cruguet said. "I didn't want him to go to the lead, but it was hard keeping him in second because no one pressed the front-runner."
Eventually, Cleone joined The Wicked North on the backside and that pair raced as a team until the top of the stretch.
At that point, they succumbed to Buckhar when Cruguet swung three horses wide after Inchinor, the lone foreign entrant from Great Britain, tired going around the final turn.
"I was glad to see the English horse die, but he died too soon," Cruguet said. "I made the lead too soon and thought it might be a mistake. This is an older horse and he could start to loaf when he gets in front."
Buckhar had opened up nearly a two-length lead when Maryland Moon started a belated rally from last. Jockey Larry Reynolds drove for a hole along the rail in mid-stretch between a tiring The Wicked North and Cleone.
Cleone, under Pat Valenzuela, came in and caused Reynolds to briefly check his horse before resuming his run along the rail. Maryland Moon finished a nose behind Cleone. Reynolds claimed foul against Valenzuela. After studying the films more than five minutes, the stewards disqualified Cleone and placed him third.
"If you look at the head-on shots, Valenzuela just came in too far from where he had been at the top of the stretch," said chief steward John Heisler.
Bill Mott, trainer of Cleone, disagreed: "That's nonsense. He [Reynolds] had very little room when he went in there." Black, on The Wicked North, said he had gotten pushed in "for several strides."
Furiously, the International favorite, finished fourth. "He didn't run today," said his jockey, Jerry Bailey. "He just wasn't willing."
Leo O'Brien, trainer of last-place finisher Fourstars Allstar, said his horse didn't like the soft going and he will not run him back today in the Laurel Dash, a move he had contemplated.
Buckhar was timed in the mile in 1 minute, 38 seconds, four seconds off the track record set by Portsmouth in 1965. He earned $360,000 for his owner John Meriwether, a financier from New York City.
In the supporting feature, the All Along Stakes, Black guided Lady Blessington to a ground-saving trip along the rail and defeated favored Via Borghese by a nose. Earlier in the card, favored Star Minister was scratched from the Stefanita Stakes when she reared in the paddock and refused to be saddled. The track refunded about $45,000 bet on the filly.
In-state handle on the Laurel card and supporting full-card simulcasts amounted to about $2.6 million, up about $100,000 from last year's total, which did not include the simulcasts. Another $849,107 was bet on the full Laurel card out-of-state, making the gross handle for the day about $3.5 million, about $600,000 less than Maryland Million Day, but considerably more than the $2.5 million gross International handle last year.
An additional $1.6 million was bet on the International at non-co-mingled out-of-state sites.
Attendance of 18,779 fell short of last year's 21,122.