11/10/2006 12:00AM

An old Veterans Day tradition


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There are those of us among racing fans who go cross-eyed with boredom this time each year, as the horse traders and middle men seize center stage to buy and sell, or retire and syndicate, the grand athletes that only until recently had been performing for our pleasure.

There are antidotes, of course. Replay the TiVoed Breeders' Cup and savor those Progressive Auto Insurance adds. Dial up your favorite online gambling platform and dive into the races at places like Zia Park and Penn National. Or be like me, bereft of imagination, and wallow in the past, especially autumns of long ago, when this time of year brought forth the most fascinating race of the entire American calendar - the Washington, D.C. International, created by Maryland racing impresario John D. Schapiro.

As a party it must have been a hoot, with a section of the Laurel backstretch given over to an "International Village" along the lines of a mini-Olympics, only with road apples. As a Thoroughbred racing event it was without equal, attracting an international array of human and equine all-stars. As a precedent-setting idea, the D.C. International can be found close-up in the pedigrees of the Arlington Million, the Japan Cup, the Breeders' Cup, and the annual fall festival of races in Hong Kong.

In fact, the International was in some ways even more international than its modern-day American incarnation, the Breeders' Cup Turf. The winners of the first four runnings, 1952-1955, were from England, France, the United States, and Venezuela. The 1956 running, for instance, featured runners from Sweden and Australia, in addition to England, France, and the U.S. The 2006 BC Turf, by comparison, could lure only the usual suspects from Ireland, France, and England, in addition to the home team.

Of course, there is nothing much familiar about 1956 anymore in any corner of the culture, let alone horse racing. Forget about such obvious disconnects as the price of gasoline, or the salary of the average shortstop. Consider instead something as mundane as the contents of the average car, circa 1956, which might include a cigarette lighter, a push-button AM radio, and maybe a map, but certainly not today's standard vehicle equipment of Blackberries, Bluetooth, six-disc CD players, GPS tracking, remote gate and garage openers, cupholders, Big Macs, seatbelts, and girls in soccer uniforms.

The International was traditionally run on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, formerly known as Armistice Day, which celebrated the end of the first World War. In 1956, there was no racing on Sundays - a quaint idea in this era of 24-hour action - so the International was staged on the holiday Monday, Nov. 12, instead.

At the time, on the real international stage, things were a tad tense, with the U.S. and Soviet Union trading tough talk and hydrogen bomb tests. Think things are grim these days? Consider the events of the week leading up to Laurel's little hoedown:

On Nov. 4, British paratroopers and French ground troops began an assault intended to reclaim the Suez Canal from Egypt. On Nov. 5, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and mowed down demonstrating students and workers celebrating Hungary's intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. On Nov. 6, Cold War-weary Americans went to the polls and re-elected President Eisenhower.

With all that, perhaps the escape of an international horse race was just the ticket. At least the 33,615 fans who showed up at Laurel thought so. For their money, they got a day of intermittent hard rain, soft ground, and high pageantry.

The American side was represented by favored Dedicate, Woodward Stakes winner Mister Gus, and 1954 International hero Fisherman. England sent Le Pretendant, owned by no less a personage than Sir Winston Churchill, who at the time was busy putting the finishing touches on his four-volume "History of the English-Speaking Peoples," while the Swedish flag was flown by 3-year-old Chanteclair, not to be confused with the French jockey Guy Chancelier, who rode the winner, Master Boing. Daily Racing Form's Charles Hatton reported it this way in the 1957 "American Racing Manual":

"Nothing can be detracted from the dazzling incandescence of Master Boing's performance," Hatton wrote. "He simply crushed his opposition when Chancelier gave him his head on the far turn, disposing of Mister Gus with unhurried confidence in the run to the top of the straight.

"The time of 2:39 was well behind Girder's course mark of 2:29 4/5," Hatton noted, "but this aspect of the race became quite insignificant in the going and in consideration of the impressive elan with which Master Boing prevailed. It was quite clear before the end of the first half-mile that what any of this field could do he could do better."

By happy coincidence, the same vocabulary could be employed to describe the victory of Ouija Board in the BC Filly and Mare Turf, run last weekend in Kentucky. There was one glaring difference, however. When Master Boing entered the winner's circle to be saluted for the International, a live band sounded forth "Le Marseillaise," the stirring French national anthem. At Churchill Downs, upon the triumph of the very British Ouija Board, it was pretty much cue graphics and cut to commercial, when it should have been "God Save the Queen."