Saturday's Washington, D.C. International could be the last run under the direction of John D. Schapiro, the man who created it. Various groups want to buy money-losing Laurel Race Course, and its president evidently is willing to sell.
Schapiro already has assured himself a niche in racing history for his 30 years of work with the International. He is largely responsible for the current popularity and proliferation of international races. Ironically, though, his efforts did more for the sport as a whole than they did for his own track. A new owner who took a hard, dispassionate look at the International might conclude that the event is in many ways a detriment to Laurel.
Racing at Laurel has suffered because of the International's existence. For its sake the turf course was enlarged in 1959 to a mile in circumference, making the main track 1 1/8 miles. In order to run the popular distance of one mile on the dirt, Laurel must start races out of a chute in the parking lot that is out of the spectators' sight. Races at 1 1/16 miles are abominations that begin on the clubhouse turn.
Most horseplayers love grass racing, but in many seasons Laurel has hardly run any such events before the International so as not to risk damaging the course. After the International, the weather becomes unsuitable for grass racing. Laurel could get far more use out of its grass course if it operated at some other time of the year, but because of the International it has been locked into an October-November-December meeting.
The International is a turning point in every Laurel season. Schapiro is preoccupied by it, and his employes are thus preoccupied by it, but when the race is over the meeting falls flat. The physical plant seems to become grimy; the day-to-day racing becomes less interesting. Pimlico General Manager Chick Lang remarked last week that his track's daily attendance invariably drops after the Preakness is run; the rest of the meeting seems like an anticlimax to everybody. Pimlico rarely operates for more than a week after the Preakness; Laurel has 43 racing dates after Saturday.
Pimlico's preoccupation with the Preakness is at least financially justified. The race attracts massive crowds and generates television revenues that provide the track's margin of profitability every year. The International doesn't. Last year the race drew a crowd of 21,000 people who wagered $2.45 million -- just about $700,000 more than an ordinary Saturday's results. Considering the promotional and travel expenses involved in staging the International, there seems to be no economic reason for preserving it as the centerpiece of the Laurel meeting.
Once, of course, the International was a great attraction that promised to become Laurel's version of the Preakness. Schapiro had almost single-handedly overcome the prejudices of owners and trainers who thought that horses could not possibly run their best after a trans-oceanic trip. At Laurel, American racing fans had the first chance to compare their own horses with the best runners from Europe and the rest of the world. The uniqueness of the event attracted crowds as large as 40,000 in the 1950s.
But instead of building the International into a world's championship race, as he always dreamed, Schapiro simply paved the way for other tracks to emulate the International. And to upstage it.
"The success of the race reached a plateau which it didn't go above," Schapiro conceded. "The race could have been as popular a feature as the Preakness, and if it didn't reach that proportion, it's my own fault."
The International has been upstaged. Three weeks ago, Woodbine Race Course in Toronto ran the $300,000 Rothmanns Invitational. Two weeks ago, top horses from Europe converged on Aqueduct for the $300,000 Turf Classic. The $250,000 International may turn out to be a rerun of that event. And the race is no longer even the end-of-the-year race that determines the country's champion grass horse. Next month John Henry probably will wrap up that title in a $500,000 grass race in California.
Schapiro said, "After putting 30 years into establishing the race and spending a lot of money, you don't like to say 'forget about it. Let them have the Turf Classic and the Rothmann's.' I think the race can justify itself economically again if we get corporate sponsorship and I think that is a very likely possibility."
Should someone else run the track, Schapiro said, "he might look upon the International -- if he were very wealthy -- as something he'd like to do without getting a profit. If he were a promoter like Sonny Werblin, he might say that all the ingredients were here to make a lot of money."
Schapiro continues to devote much of his energy to this race because it still is his baby, his brainchild. But if new owners do take over Laurel, they might conclude that they would be best advised to concentrate on improving the racing surface, the physical plant and the day-to-day operations rather than trying to revive the fading glory of the Washington, D.C. International.