John D. Schapiro, 87, a Baltimore businessman and key figure in Maryland horse racing who helped Laurel Race Course gallop to international prestige before selling it in 1984, died of a heart ailment Jan. 5 at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He lived at Tally-Ho Farm in Monkton, Md.
Mr. Schapiro's chief contribution to racing was starting the Washington, D.C., International in 1952. That event brought some of the world's best racers to the Prince George's County track, a journey considered unusual at the time.
"Most people in Europe had not been exposed to shipping their horses," Mr. Schapiro told The Washington Post in 1992. "The skepticism was probably about the same as when Columbus was discovering America."
The first tournament, in which the British horse Wilwyn took top place with other European-based animals close behind, proved a huge public relations boon, he said.
"The trainers of the European horses that first year went home and said this was no big deal," he said. "Their horses ate American hay and drank American water, and they were fine. Then, the next year, Worden II came over from France and won. When he went back, they gave him a parade down the Champs Elysees. That was about as good publicity as I could get."
He added dryly that losses by the overseas entrants were almost always chalked up to the tiring voyage to the United States.
Horses came from Venezuela, Ireland, West Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, Japan, the Soviet Union and Canada, and press accounts during the course's heyday hailed the event as an unexpected diplomatic coup.
Royalty and heads of state frequented the course as well, prompting Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich to call Laurel "the world's only horse track with a foreign policy."
Mr. Schapiro was decorated by foreign governments, and Sports Illustrated named him "Man of the Year in Thoroughbred Racing" in 1961.
During the next few decades, Mr. Schapiro lavished millions on the track for improvements, including construction of a grandstand and clubhouse. But in many ways, his initial success with the course led to the track's decline by the early 1980s.
Competing tracks started to offer significantly larger purses, some in the millions, compared with the $250,000 at Laurel.
Unable to attract corporate sponsors, Mr. Schapiro finally sold the track in 1984 for $15.5 million to a group of investors headed by Frank J. De Francis, the late Maryland politico and Freestate Raceway owner.
The deal included Laurel and Mr. Schapiro's half interest in the Bowie Race Course, which he and the Baltimore-based Pimlico Race Course had bought for $12 million a year earlier.
The new owners tried to stave off competition by increasing the purse and making the international a two-day event. Foreign interest trailed off considerably by the early 1990s, and by 1995, what was then named the International Turf Festival ended.
The track is now called Laurel Park, which was its name when it opened in 1911.
John David Schapiro, a native of Baltimore, was a 1936 graduate of Stanford University. He was a Coast Guard veteran of World War II.
Mr. Schapiro's father, Morris, a Latvian immigrant and a self-made scrap-iron magnate, bought a large interest in the Laurel Race Course in 1950 from the Maryland Jockey Club. He named his son president in 1950.
The younger Schapiro also went into the scrap-metal trade, becoming president of Boston Metals Co., a Baltimore-based concern that specialized in ship dismantling.
He was a former president of the Thoroughbred Racing Association.
His first marriage to Jeanne Schapiro ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, Eleanor Tydings Gillet Schapiro, the daughter of former U.S. senator Millard E. Tydings (D) and sister of former U.S. senator Joseph D. Tydings (D); two sons from his first marriage, John Jr., of Baltimore, and Michael, of Laredo, Tex.; three stepchildren, Susan Gillet Chewning of Marshall, F. Warrington Gillet III of Monkton and Joseph Davies Gillet of Los Angeles; and four grandchildren.