After an illustrious and colorful 43-year history, the Washington D.C. International horse race, which has declined significantly in importance in the past two decades, has come to a halt.
Laurel Park owner Joe De Francis announced yesterday that he is suspending the race for one year as part of an agreement he has reached with Maryland thoroughbred horsemen, who have complained for years, under various track ownerships, that the race has become a costly boondoggle that has outlived its appeal.
The one-year suspension of the International is part of a three-year contract that management has reached with horsemen.
De Francis and Richard Hoffberger, president of the MarylandThoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said in a joint news release yesterday that the cessation of the International and three other International Turf Festival races -- the All Along Stakes, Laurel Dash and Governor's Cup -- will free up approximately $900,000 in purses that will be used to beef up prize money for overnight, or rank-and-file, daily races.
"The MTHA has long felt that the International Turf Festival was an extremely expensive undertaking, and resulted in a substantial amount of Maryland purse money going to people from out of state," Hoffberger said. "Putting this money into overnight purses will add almost 3 percent to the total funds available for overnights."
De Francis said he felt the horsemen had made a compelling argument.
"After 10 years of doing it our [management's] way, I thought why not do it their way for a year?" he said. "In this era of simulcasting, we need as strong a daily program as we can get in order to export our live product to out-of-state outlets.
"I don't consider this a funeral for the International," De Francis said. "It could have a future in Virginia [at the proposed Colonial Downs near Richmond]. That's something we'll have to assess as time passes."
The Maryland Million will now be Laurel's primary fall event.
As part of the three-year contract, horsemen agreed to remove ** the cap of $215,000 that they currently contribute to the purse of the Preakness and instead will split the cost of the race 50-50 zTC with management. The Preakness carries a $500,000-added purse.
Wayne Wright, executive director of the MTHA, said he informed his board of the decision last night. "I would say they are delighted. This has been an underlying, nagging issue for years and it's finally been resolved."
Last year, more than $4 million was wagered in-state on the two International Turf Festival cards. Of that, about $300,000 was contributed to purses that totaled $1.2 million for the four races.
Snowden Carter, a longtime racing reporter who has seen every International since its inception in 1952, said: "The International has become just another race. At first, it was a brilliant achievement for John Schapiro after he bought Laurel in the early 1950s. Then life changed.
"I'd say the turning point was in the late 1970s when international racing started to become more commonplace. The real death knell occurred in 1984 when the Breeders' Cup took over as the premier fall event."
Schapiro said last night that Laurel management has tried to do the best it could to keep the race alive.
"They have been in a difficult position since the start of the Breeders' Cup. I think they showed a lot of courage to do whatever they could to keep that international feeling going and expand into the Turf Festival races," he said. "Everything is subject to change."
De Francis said that a recent upswing in business, as well as an 8 percent purse cut instituted last fall, has erased a $2 million purse overpayment that occurred at Laurel/Pimlico in 1993-94.
Laurel comptroller Mike Hudson said yesterday that there may now even be a surplus in the purse account when he gets in the most recent reports from last week. As of Jan. 15, the overpayment figure was down to $81,000.
De Francis said a purse increase soon will be instituted.
* 1952: John Schapiro, who had recently acquired Laurel Race Course, conceived of the idea of an international race in Maryland long before transcontinental air transport of horses became commonplace. When an English horse, Wilwyn, won the first running, the race's future was assured.
* 1954: The International received the stamp of approval from Queen Elizabeth II, who sent her colt Landau to Laurel for the third running. Landau finished last. Other international figures, such as the Aly Khan, Winston Churchill, Baron Guy De Rothschild and Paul Mellon, would send horses to run at Laurel.
* 1958: During the Cold War era, the Russians sent two colts, Garnir and Zaryad, to the International, the first time Soviet horses had raced on U.S. soil. A record 40,276 fans watched as Garnir finished fifth and Zaryad 10th.
* 1964: After three consecutive second-place finishes, five-time Horse of the Year Kelso won the International, setting a course and American record for 1 1/2 miles on the grass in 2 minutes, 23 4/5 seconds. The Laurel mark still stands.
* 1984: The first Breeders' Cup was held, and the future of the International, which already had started to lose its luster with the advent of numerous other international races, was in doubt.
* 1985: The lowest attendance and handle figures were recorded, as 16,413 bet $2.1 million.
* 1987: Frank De Francis and the Manfuso brothers bought Laurel from Schapiro and considered dropping the International. Instead, they expanded the format to include what would become a five-race International Turf Festival.
* 1994: U.S. grass champion Paradise Creek won the 43rd running.