What has happened to the Washington, D.C. International?

Just a few years ago, Laurel Race Course's premier event was on the verge of becoming what its creator, John D. Schapiro, had always dreamed of: a race for "horse of the world" honors. It had prestige and glamor that could attract such diverse participants as the queen of England, the Soviet Union and Nelson Bunker Hunt.

But when the 28th International takes place Saturday, it will not have any special luster, just as its last two runnings didn't. The best horses in America, Spectacular Bid and Affirmed, are not at Laurel. Neither is the best horse in Europe, Troy. Only two horses are coming from abroad for the race.

While it shapes up as a good, competitive stake, the International will be more a rerun of Aqueduct's Turf Cup of two weeks ago than a unique event. b

Schapiro sadly acknowledges that his race has lost prestige. He knows the problem, but he may be powerless to supply the remedy, which is money.

"The most obvious influence on the International has been the inflation in the thoroughbred economy," Laurel's president said yesterday. "In 1952, when we ran the first International, the highest price for a syndicated horse was $1.2 million. A $100,000 purse was commensurate with the total value of the horse.

"But now the three horses I was trying to get for the International are worth $14 million and up. Affirmed was syndicated for $14 million, Troy for $16 million, and Spectacular Bid is worth somewhere in that range. My race, with a $200,000 purse, is not very competitive."

Because horses are worth so much at stud, horses are usually whisked off to an early retirement as soon as they have established their value. When a horse like Affirmed or Troy already has made his reputation, why would an owner risk tarnishing it in a tough race like the International?

He might risk it for money. Big money. "If we had a purse of $500,000 of $1 million," Schapiro said, "the money and the prestige would be so compelling that an owner or trainer couldn't refuse to run without at least having to explain." Europe's major race, the Prix de 1'Arc de Triomphe, has such a purse and a status. Troy did risk his winning streak there last month -- and was beaten.

Laurel does not have the resources to put up astronomical purse money, and so Schapiro has been looking hard for a corporate sponsor. But his efforts have been in vain.

If a racetrack does manage to stage a big-money international event, it is more likely to be the New York Racing Association, which already puts up $250,000 for its Turf Cup. The NYRA probably has the resources to stage the race Schapiro envisions, even without corporate sponsorship.

Money is affecting the International in another way. In previous years, Schapiro added interest to his race by inviting (and paying the way for) horses from such far-flung places as Singapore, the Soviet Union, Hungary and Japan. Even if they finished up at the track, these animals helped make the International unique.

But the cost of providing such window dressing for the race has become prohibitive.

The International is by no means doomed. It will surely continue to decide America's champion grass horse. If Waya, Trillion and Native Courier hit the wire in another three-horse photo finish, this International may be a memorably exciting one. But that won't obscure the fact that the goal for which Schapiro worked so long, so hard and so effectively -- the creation of a true international championship race -- has slipped away from him.