One year the Washington, D.C. International looked moribund, overshadowed by a number of Eastern turf races that were offering big purses and luring top foreign horses. When Laurel president John Schapiro presided over the press breakfast before his race's 33rd running, he said gloomily, "I'm not making any predictions about a 34th International."
But the International indeed will be run for the 34th time Nov. 16, and the invitees announced yesterday by the track's new owner, Frank DeFrancis, prove that the race is far from dead. With two of the top three finishers from the Breeders' Cup, the leading U.S. turf runner and a strong supporting cast, DeFrancis could boast, "This is the best grass race that's been presented in the United States this year."
When DeFrancis bought Laurel from Schapiro last winter, he said, "One of the first major decisions we had to make was what to do with the International. In the last three or four years, the race had seemed to fall on hard times. But we decided to continue it. We wanted to build on the tradition of the oldest international turf race and bring new vitality to it. We want it to be the Olympics of grass racing. We want it to be the best turf race in America."
DeFrancis' first move was something that always pained Schapiro: he spent money. He raised the purse of the International from $250,000 to $400,000, making it a bit more competitive with rich events like the Turf Classic in New York. Then, he and Bob Manfuso, Laurel's executive vice president, made three trips to Europe to scout and line up horses for the race.
They came very close to scoring a great coup and getting Pebbles, the winner of the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf, for the International. But when the brilliant filly came out of Saturday's race at Aqueduct the worse for wear, her trainer decided to send her back home for a rest. But the second- and third-place finishers, Strawberry Road II and Mourjane, will be coming to Laurel. Strawberry Road, a 6-year-old who has raced with distinction on four continents, battled gamely with Pebbles through the stretch and lost by only a neck.
The invaders' chief competition will come from Win, the humbly bred gelding who has earned more than $1 million against top competition in New York. He probably would merit the Eclipse Award as America's top grass horse if he captures the International.
The other U.S. representative is Creme Fraiche, the Belmont Stakes winner who finished third in his grass debut recently.
The other foreign invitees include Helen Street, the winner of the Irish Oaks; Abary, the West German champion; Galla Placidia, Iades, Jupiter Island, Triptych and Yashgan. DeFrancis said he may issue one or two more invitations so he can have a field of 12 or 13.
After assembling a good field in his first try and making contacts with many of Europe's top stables, DeFrancis is optimistic about the future of the race.
"We've established a tremendous amount of good will," he said, "and we look for it to have benefits for years to come." For the first time in a number of years, nobody is issuing dire predictions about the impending fate of the Washington, D.C. International.