International birthday is joyous one

October 21, 1991|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

LAUREL -- They are a generation or two apart, but John Schapiro and Joe De Francis have a common bond.

Scions of wealthy dads, their fathers gave them the opportunity to run a multi-million dollar enterprise called Laurel Race Course.

When they met in the paddock of the Budweiser International on Saturday, it seemed like two eras of Maryland turf history shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries.

Both were there to see Laurel's signature race hit the big 4-0 and pass into middle age. Schapiro created the International four decades ago when he was 37.

Now it's De Francis, 36, running the show.

"Looking back, I guess that old saying, 'Fools go where angels fear to tread,' sort of applies to me. I really didn't know then what I was getting into," Schapiro recalled.

What Schapiro did create was a race with its own special cachet. It started with the very first running when the English horse Wilwyn upset the American entries.

"There was a lot of suspense because no one knew what the foreign horses would do when they were put on an airplane and flown over the ocean to compete against American horses," Schapiro said. "There was no other race of its kind in the world."

The International was such a novelty that when the French won the second running, "they gave the winner, Worden II, a parade down the Champs des Elysees when he got home," Schapiro said.

Over the years the mystique and stature of the International continued to grow.

Once, the Internal Revenue Service tried to attach one of the runners, a French entry named Mahan, after the owner had fallen behind on tax payments on a business he owned in Pennsylvania. Schapiro had to post bond in order to allow the horse to run.

"My biggest coup came in 1958 when I got the Russians to send over a horse," Schapiro said. "It was the first time a horse came from behind the Iron Curtain to run in a race."

The largest crowd in International history, 40,276 fans, came out to see the Communist equines.

"In 1960, they sent two horses and they finished third and fourth," Schapiro recalled. "But since the state owned the horses, the question was, 'Who gets the money?' They had earned $15,000 in purses. We called the Soviet embassy. The ambassador at that time was Anatole Dobrynin. He said give the money to the jockeys and grooms, but tell them they can't take it back to Russia.

"They had two days to spend $15,000. So we took them to Sears and Montgomery Ward and they bought $15,000 worth of blue jeans, ski jackets and cosmetics for their wives, all that sort of thing, and put it on the plane with the animals."

The Golden Age of the International occurred in the 1960s when such famous horses as Kelso, Carry Back, Damascus, Mongo and T.V. Lark ran in the race.

"We also attracted a great horse like Sir Ivor in 1968, who had won the Epsom Derby," Schapiro said. Over the years, he also managed to entice five winners of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe to run at Laurel, a not-so-easy feat.

"But none of them did any good," Schapiro recalled. "One of them, Puissant Chef, wheeled at the start and threw his jockey. I remember standing by the owner as he watched his horse. Calmly, he put down his binoculars, and said, in French, something like, 'I guess that's it.' "

Another Arc winner, San San, nearly fell in 1972 after two horses went down in front of her on a soft spot on the course that came to be known as "Boreen's Bog." It created something of an International incident.

The mystique and surpise element fittingly carried over to Saturday's fairy tale 40th running.

Edgar Prado, a local jockey who lives in Columbia, acquired the mount on 44-1 longshot Leariva at the last minute, and won the race for an elegant Dutch baron.

"All of a sudden this horse appeared on the outside and ran them all down. There was no Cordero, no Pincay, no Piggott on her back, but a local jockey who rode her down the stretch," Schapiro said. "It was just beautiful."

The day was also a triumph for De Francis. His tracks have been plagued with some disappointing, but hardly unexpected, business declines during the recession.

But on Saturday, Laurel sparkled. The largest crowd in 14 years, 25,111, turned out at Laurel and the Pimlico simulcast center and bet over $3 million on the 12-race card, making it the second largest International Day handle in 40 years.

It was such an interesting, quality field that at a track like Santa Anita, which received the simulcast, over $760,000 was bet on the race.

Does Schapiro have any advice for his youthful successor?

"From the looks of things," he said, "I'd say Joe is wise enough to handle things on his own. He has set his sights high, has some good people working for him and seems to be doing all the right things.

"I just hope he continues to keep the International going, and has as much fun with it over the years that I did."

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