01/09/2002 12:00AM

Schapiro made International news

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - International racing is part of the scene these days, and an important part. Less than three months ago, the racing world thrilled as America's Tiznow stood a long drive gamely to edge Europe's Sakhee by a nose in an exciting Breeders' Cup Classic.

There were a number of other international races of significance in 2001, but that wasn't always the case. For practical purposes, there wasn't any international competition in this country until John Schapiro of Laurel Race Course in Maryland introduced the Washington D.C. International in 1952 and promoted it with remarkable energy. In relatively short order it became one of the best-known and most significant features on the stakes calendar.

Its place in the sun was relatively brief. With the introduction of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, the Washington D.C. International's status, like that of many other celebrated stakes, was overshadowed. It was an expensive race to present and required the star treatment it received during its heyday. Cast in a supporting role, it lasted a few more years and then faded into history.

Schapiro, who died last weekend in a Baltimore hospital at 87, was cast perfectly for his role. A graduate of Stanford, he, like many Marylanders, was a keen racing fan. He traveled extensively in Europe after World War I, and after his father bought Laurel in 1950, John was installed as president. He sought a signature race to give his track an identity and settled on an international approach.

Schapiro helped his cause with two wise decisions. Although Laurel is closer to Baltimore than Washington, Europeans are familiar with Washington as the seat of government and know very little about Baltimore. The selection of the name for the new race was a ten-strike. Attempts had been made to present international racing but invariably failed because of the expense involved. Schapiro decided he would bear the expense and was in a position to do it.

The first Washington D.C. International was set for a Saturday in early November of 1952. Snow fell that weekend, causing the cancellation of racing, and the new race appeared to have gotten off to a bad start. The following Tuesday was Veterans Day (nŽe Armistice Day) and that was the fallback position. Veterans Day was beautiful, the International attracted a splendid crowd, and it was decided to keep Veterans Day as the permanent date.

The major stroke of luck for the International was the victory of an English horse, Wilwyn in the inaugural running. Wilwyn's connections had a most enjoyable time, for Schapiro was an outstanding host, and the word spread quickly. The International was fun. There was strong support from Europe for the second running in 1953 and when Worden, a French runner, was the winner, the race was firmly established.

The International took on greater stature in 1958 when Sailors Guide, from Australia, was the winner via disqualification. Sailor's Guide was not an originally invited by the selection board, composed of newsmen. But the horse's connections said they would pay their own way and they received a green light. They sent their horse to the States by boat, and Sailor's Guide was in his portable stall for more than a month before arrival.

His American trainer, J. Bowes Bond, did an outstanding job of getting Sailors Guide ready for the International's mile and a half. He looked like a winner until he was bothered in the drive, and when jockey Howard Grant claimed foul for interference, the stewards agreed. Their decision prompted an outcry from the Australian horse's owner and trainer, who said they preferred not to win a race by a ruling. Nevertheless, the ruling stood.

Another highlight of International history was the participation of the Russians.

Schapiro, working through diplomatic channels, learned the Russians might look favorably on an invitation. He sent a mission group to Moscow, consisting of sports columnist Red Smith and Schapiro's brother-in-law, Laurel's vice president, Joe Cascarella, a former major league pitcher. They returned with an agreement, and two Russian horses plus staff came to Laurel.

Tremendous interest in the race built steadily, and a record 40,000 turned out for the International. Nothing much was expected from the Russian horses, but there was a buzz from the crowd when it was announced that one of the Russian jockeys was five pounds overweight and couldn't "do" 126 pounds. He had become enamored of the track kitchen, and with all the food he wanted at no charge, put on a lot of weight during his week's visit.

Many of the world's top trainers and jockeys came to Laurel for the International and left vivid impressions, including England's perennial champion, Lester Piggott, Enrico Camici, who rode the undefeated Italian champion, Ribot, and the great Australian jockey, Rae Johnstone, who compiled 30 classic victories in Europe.

Dapper and suave, Johnstone came to Laurel in midweek to work a horse. He arrived by limousine, which drove to trackside. Surrounded by American horsemen and jockeys in blue jeans and casual attire, Johnstone made a contrasting appearance as he stepped from the car. The driver rushed to him and slipped a cashmere overcoat from his shoulders. Johnstone, in turtleneck sweater, beautifully tailored jodhpurs and gleaming leather boots, quickly mounted his horse, who had been led to the car. He put the horse to his paces, then returned to the limousine, slipped into the topcoat and drove to Washington without having said a word. His "audience" was silent, too, and slack of jaw.