John D. Schapiro, president of Laurel Race Course, turned his idea of an international horse race into reality in 1952, and, on Saturday, the 31st Washington, D.C. International, with a purse of $250,000, will be run. Schapiro talked yesterday with Washington Post staff writers Kathy Blumenstock and Clem Florio about what goes into putting together an international event. Following are some excerpts from that conversation.
Question: What are the difficulties of trying to attract the top international horses when there is so much purse money readily available in Europe?
Answer: Well, we offer this race when the European racing season is just about over. By mid-October, the Arc de Triomphe and English champion stakes are over. The horses that come out of the Arc that may have had bad luck because of the field's being so large (18-28 runners) have a chance to come here and do something.
Other problems have to do with owners and horses themselves. Earlier, the owners had to be convinced their horses could travel and still retain their form. In the beginning, too, we didn't have all these "alphabet diseases" to worry about. Now we have problems with horses from below the equator. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires those horses to be quarantined for seven days to be sure they're not carriers of infectious equine anemia.
It's important for a track to have a major, prestige event. New York has so many stakes races, yet it's known for the Belmont. In the beginning, we were the only international race. I tried to tie in with England and France for an International Triple Crown: the Arc, the King George and Queen Elizabeth (stakes) and ours.
Q: Other major races, such as the Marlboro Cup, have sponsorship. What kind of problems do you encounter trying to put on a top race without it?
A: I've had people working for several years trying to get sponsorship, and it's not easy in this country.
The way costs are broken down, 85 percent of the money due the horsemen goes to overnights, and the remaining 15 percent goes to stakes. We have the right to decide how. In order to keep the International alive, a large part of it has to go to that. Now in Canada, at Woodbine, there's the international race sponsored by Rothman's. The costs of running an international are high. For each horse, it's about $25,000, and that's not all transportation. It's paperwork, people to run things, the overtime you pay the Department of Agriculture employes who test the horses' blood samples.
Q: You began the concept of the international race, and now others have imitated it. How do you feel about it?
A: You can't stop people from doing that. Now we've got the Budweiser Million, the New York Turf Classic, the Rothman, the Oak Tree and there's a big international race in Japan, too, three weeks after ours. That's why I didn't invite a Japanese horse. You can't expect their best horse if they've got that race the last week in November.
It's different now than when it started 31 years ago. Racing is only a means to an end now. A horse only has to win one or two important races before getting a reputation, and horsemen don't want to blemish what's been attained (by losing).
That's why you have to admire the owners of Affirmed and Spectacular Bid for going on an extra year and letting them really establish themselves against older horses. Today, they're syndicated almost before they've raced.
The running of the International is not going to bring together the best horses as I envisioned it 30 years ago, but as long as there is an escalation in the value of breeding horses, it won't change. We do have a better chance of getting fillies than colts, maybe because a loss won't tarnish her value as much as it would a colt's.
Q: The original idea was that this race would fire up the community, bring in a lot of attention. Why hasn't that happened?
A: It's our responsibility to do the promotion and create an awareness for the race. And for the first 15 years, we did. But as the cost of putting it on has gone up, and we appropriated a great deal of money for one race, it would be too difficult and costly to spend enough to build up a great awareness on a year-in, year-out basis. The Triple Crown has its own momentum behind it and, because it's a natural cycle of events, it just needs the normal amount of promotion.
The race used to be run on Nov. 11, whatever weekday it was, and then we put it on Saturday to get TV. But, you realize, the Triple Crown events are from 5 to 6 p.m. and do not interfere with the networks' other programming. But at this time of year, it gets dark by 10 (minutes) to 5 and you have difficulty scheduling an event like this with two networks carrying NCAA football, probably doubleheaders. (The race will be televised this year on the ESPN cable network.) It's very hard to create interest with this "little horse race" and get the network to give anything like it gives the Derby or Belmont.
Q: If you could go back to 1952 and do anything different, would you?
A: Had the Maryland legislature accepted Sunday racing, I would move it to Sunday and get it on TV. But I think I've done as best as anybody can do with this thing. I've been delighted for 31 years.