When he conceived the Washington, D.C. International and championed the concept of international racing, John Schapiro was a visionary, a man ahead of his time. But as the president of Laurel Race Course plans for Saturday's 33rd running of his world-famous race, he isn't looking toward the future.
"I'm not making any predictions about a 34th running," Schapiro admitted. Even though the International has been the passion of his life, his claim to fame in the sport, Schapiro is realistic enough to recognize that his race is finished as a top-class attraction.
Over the last few years, other tracks have borrowed Schapiro's concept and improved on it, offering bigger purse money and promoting their product better than Laurel has. Even so, the International was still able to draw good fields. Last year's race was one of the best in its history, as the filly All Along scored a spectacular victory that won her the Horse-of-the-Year title.
But the birth of the Breeders' Cup this year may mean the death of the International. That one-day extravaganza on Nov. 10, which includes a 1 1/2-mile grass race with a $2 million purse, forced Laurel to run the International earlier than usual to avoid conflicting with it, and it also forced other tracks to do the same.
As a result, the $400,000 Ballantine Handicap was run at the Meadowlands last Saturday night. The $650,000 Rothmanns is being run next Sunday at Woodbine. Sandwiched between them is the International, with its $250,000 purse, and the laws of economics dictate where the top horses are going to go.
At one time it was a genuine honor for an American horse to be invited to the International, and there was heated debate in the press over which horses deserved to come. This year Schapiro had to invite second-raters like Cost Control and Domynsky just to fill out the field.
There was a time, too, when Laurel could lure horses who had run well in Europe's premiere race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe; with three or four weeks between the two races, the timing was perfect.
But now, with only a 13-day interval, only two Arc runners are coming to Laurel -- and they are horses who finished fifth and 19th. The principal foreign horses in the lineup -- Alphabatim, Seattle Song, Strawberry Road II and Treizieme -- have respectable records, but none of them is exactly a box-office attraction. Schapiro said, "We've put together an International field with suitable credentials," and that low-key assessment is an accurate one.
Realistically, Schapiro couldn't hope to do much better in future years. The Breeders' Cup is here to stay, other tracks' turf races will continue to overshadow the International, and there is no reason to think that Laurel will be able to offer appreciably larger purse money to compete. Schapiro said, frankly, "I hate to be committed to something that doesn't lend itself to the excellence we've always tried to achieve."
As this Laurel meeting has progressed, the rumors have grown stronger and stronger that the track is going to be sold. Similar rumors have come and gone, year after year, and many people felt that Schapiro couldn't bring himself to sell the track because he couldn't let go of the International. His emotional attachment to the race may have meant more to him than any economic considerations. But he now seems to have lost his enthusiasm for presiding over a devalued race. One way or another, the 33rd International will probably signal the end of an era.