Track owner Schapiro dies at 87

He was founder of D.C. International horse race at Laurel

`Changed Maryland racing

January 07, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

John David Schapiro, the former owner of Laurel Race Course who was credited with bringing a global touch to thoroughbred racing in the United States, died Saturday from heart failure at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He was 87.

In 1952, Mr. Schapiro introduced at Laurel the Washington D.C. International, a turf race crafted to bring together the world's best horses. England's Wilwyn won the inaugural event, and the International became an important fixture on U.S. and foreign racing calendars before it ended in 1995.

"John brought American horse racing into the jet age," said Joe Kelly, former racing editor at the old Washington Star, who worked for Mr. Schapiro in the early 1980s.

"There were lots of serious doubts that he could make the International a success," said Mr. Kelly, a Baltimore resident. "It meant flying valuable horses on jet aircraft from all over the world, and he footed the bill several years. But it was a great success and John turned out to be a pioneer, a visionary in the sport."

The dapper millionaire even contributed to a temporary thaw in the Cold War -- helping improve relations between the United States and the Soviet Union when his brother-in-law, Joseph T. Cascarella, flew to Moscow and persuaded the Soviet leadership to send Russian horses to race at Laurel.

"The Soviets came here and loved it, all because of the way John Schapiro treated them," said Chick Lang, an Easton resident and former general manager of Pimlico Race Course.

"John had limousines carry the Soviets all around, which they really enjoyed," Mr. Lang said. "But what they also delighted in was going to Baltimore and Washington department stores where they bought up all the silk stockings they could find. Their country was out of them."

To Snowden Carter of Pikesville, general manager of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association from 1962 until 1986, Mr. Schapiro helped usher in the glory days of Maryland racing."[Mr.] Schapiro changed Maryland racing," Mr. Carter said. "Not only did he bring an international flavor to racing in this state and across the country, the attention the race attracted was important. The great out-of-town race writers like Red Smith and Joe Palmer covered the International."

Among the luminaries who accepted invitations to the International were Sir Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II and several presidents of Ireland.

"In those days, when New York racing closed down for the winter, Laurel and Bowie had healthy purses and brought in good horses and jockeys," Mr. Carter said. "It was the sport's high-water mark in Maryland."

In 1961, Sports Illustrated named Mr. Schapiro "Man of the Year in Thoroughbred Racing."

Divorced from his first wife, Mr. Schapiro married Eleanor Tydings, daughter of Maryland's longtime U.S. Sen. Millard E. Tydings, in 1964. They lived at Tally Ho Farm in Monkton.

Mr. Schapiro had tastes for tailor-made suits, antique furniture and fine dining. He maintained a black book in which he listed his favorite U.S. restaurants, including first names of the maitre d' at each and the best dishes served.

Some found him haughty at first meeting, but Mr. Lang said Mr. Schapiro was "in one word: class."

He was one of two sons of Morris Schapiro, a poor Latvian immigrant who built his fortune in the scrap metal business. John Schapiro was educated in public and private schools in the Baltimore area, and graduated from Stanford University in 1936 with a bachelor of arts degree.

During World War II, Mr. Schapiro served with the Volunteer Port Security Force of the U.S. Coast Guard in Baltimore.

After the war, he studied the art of business and people at his father's side.

The son's golden opportunity would come in 1950 when a shift of racing dates failed in the Maryland legislature and the Maryland Jockey Club -- at the time owners of the Pimlico and Timonium tracks -- decided to sell Laurel to the senior Schapiro.

The father named his son the track's new president. "He was scared," Mr. Carter said of the younger Schapiro. "It was a huge undertaking but he did just fine."

The younger Schapiro put millions into improving Laurel's clubhouse and grandstand in the 1950s and winterizing the plant in 1966. In 1982, he added air-conditioning when the track was awarded summer racing dates.

Mr. Schapiro sold the track, now known as Laurel Park, in 1984 to Frank J. De Francis and his partners Robert and John "Tommy" Manfuso. The reason, according to his wife and racing industry associates, was competition. The Breeder's Cup, offering $10 million in purse money and held at other tracks around the country, drew the better horses from around the world.

His other business interests over the years included serving as chairman of the board of Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. and ownership of the Crown Terminal in Baltimore. At his death, he was president of Boston Metals Co., one of the world's largest ship dismantlers.

Throughout his life, Mr. Schapiro was active and generous with many charities and organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America -- in which he was an Eagle Scout. He had served on the boards of Sinai Hospital and the Maryland Historical Society.

He enjoyed fox hunting and was an accomplished golfer.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Temple Oheb Shalom, 7310 Park Heights Ave.

In addition to his wife, survivors include sons, John Schapiro Jr. of Baltimore and Michael Schapiro of Laredo, Texas; stepchildren, Susan Gillet Chewning of Marshall, Va., F. Warrington Gillet III of Monkton and Joseph Davies Gillet of Los Angeles; and four step-grandchildren.

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