A Veterans Day Classic: Remembering the Washington, D.C. International
The Veterans Day holiday falls on Wednesday this week, and it's a decidedly low-key afternoon on the American racing front. However, for an older generation of racing enthusiasts, November 11 (or an adjacent Saturday) is fondly remembered as the day they used to run one of the greatest races ever conceived in the U.S. -- the Washington, D.C. International.
Fifty years ago this week, the International post parade was led by DRF Horse of the Year Roman Brother. Eventual winner Diatome was No. 2 and Belmont Stakes winner Hail to All was No. 5
In response to the growing popularity of grass racing in the U.S. and improved methods of transporting horses worldwide, Laurel Race Course president John Schapiro founded the 1 1/2-mile International in 1952 as way for the world's leading Thoroughbreds to meet on one stage to determine who was best. Lofty in its idealism and not always successful in that regard, it was nonetheless a prescient creation and a much friendlier way for the nations of the world to wage battle against one other than had been the case less than a decade before.
Trainer Miguel Clement (father of Christophe Clement), jockey Yves St. Martin and John Schapiro after Match II's victory in the 1962 International for France
An entire book could be written about the race and its historical impact on the sport. It was a success from the start, attended by politicians, ambassadors and diplomats from around the world. It also spawned such preliminary festivities as the International Ball (once described "as the most gala and glittering charity event of the Washington social season"), the International Press Dinner, and various foreign embassy receptions.
The International was an expensive race to host. An invitation-only event at the height of its popularity, Schapiro often assumed all costs of transportation and upkeep for horses, horsemen and caretakers participating in the race. The final bill usually ran to double the amount of purse money offered.
Much like the former British Empire, the sun never set over the range of nations that participated in the International. In 1975, Laurel reported that 167 horses from 21 countries (including several representatives from the Cold War-rival Soviet Union) had collectively traveled more than one million miles to compete in the first 23 editions of the race.
In addition to state-owned Thoroughbreds from the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, International runners in the early years also sported the silks of notable turf patrons Queen Elizabeth II and Sir Winston Churchill. Unfortunately for Her Majesty and her former First Lord of the Treasury, their steeds faded to last in their respective Internationals after setting the early pace.
As could be expected, the U.S. and major Western European countries dominated the race. Two early exceptions were in 1955, when Venezuelan participants El Chama and Prendase shockingly ran one-two, and in 1958 when the great Australian horse Sailor's Guide was elevated to first via the disqualification of Tudor Era.
Finishing a troubled third in that 1958 International was Ballymoss, who had dominated Europe's major events for older horses that season winning the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Coronation Cup, and Eclipse. Fans of today who think Arc winners have it tough in the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) should be aware that the International was also a hard nut for them to crack. Besides Ballymoss, Arc winners Puissant Chef (1960), San San (1972), Star Appeal (1975) and Ivanjica (1976) also met defeat at Laurel.
Perhaps the only exception in history when an Arc winner came over and won the U.S.'s leading turf race occurred in 1983, when All Along dominated the International in winning her fourth major stakes in the span of six weeks. Her whirlwind tour of North America, which also encompassed victories in the Canadian International (G1) and Turf Classic (G1), was enough to garner Horse of the Year honors.
Kelso clinched two of his five Horse of the Year titles in the International, finishing second but ahead of rival Beau Purple in 1962, and two years later when he authoritatively drew away from Gun Bow over a hard course in record time of 2:23 4/5.
Fort Marcy cemented DRF Horse of the Year honors winning in 1970, three years after this score in the 1967 edition over that year's Horse of the Year Damascus.
Victory in America's de-facto grass championship was also instrumental in T. V. Lark (1961), Mongo (1963), Run the Gantlet (1971), Youth (1976), Johnny D. (1977), Mac Diarmida (1978), Bowl Game (1979), and April Run (1982) securing divisional honors. Bald Eagle (1960) and Vanlandingham (1985) were two International winners that were named champion older male.
Run the Gantlet slogged through boggy going to win the 1971 International in pedestrian time of 2:50 3/5
Two of the more celebrated European winners in the International's history were Sir Ivor (1968), who added to his earlier success in the 2000 Guineas, Epsom Derby, and Champion Stakes with Lester Piggott in the irons, and the filly Dahlia (1973), a two-time King George VI and Queen Elizabeth winner now enshrined in the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame.
The International was arguably the biggest race casualty of the Breeders' Cup's founding in 1984. Laurel officials tinkered with its date and distance (reducing the race to 1 1/4 miles and, once, to one mile) during the next decade, but could not sustain its previous high standard amongst a glut of major turf races in the fall.
If the NYRA had not created the Turf Classic in the late 1970s (thus becoming that circuit's second major turf event of the fall season after the Man o' War [G1]), perhaps the International could have survived as the country's most important 1 1/2-mile lead-in to the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1). However, the declining fortunes of Maryland racing probably wouldn't have allowed for the race to be adequately funded in such an increasingly competitive environment.
Besides the race's demise, one other disappointing aspect of the International story is that access to the film and video of its history (aside from the few examples above) is publicly hard to come by. In this age of YouTube, it would behoove the Maryland Jockey Club and others to dig into their vaults and expose the latest generation of fans to one of the great racing events of the 20th century.
(Photos courtesy of Jerry Frutkoff and Laurel Race Course)