Standing outside the quarantine barn at Belmont Park a week prior to the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, Nick Clarke, retired head of the International Racing Bureau, was reflecting on the foreign participation over the history of the event.
That so many European-based stars had ventured across the pond for the 21 previous Breeders' Cups was a testament to one man, Clarke said. A man whose foresight set the stage more than 30 years before the late John Gaines first announced the Breeders' Cup.
Like Gaines, John D. Schapiro had vision. He saw the need for global competition among horses...and among horsemen. He created the Washington, D.C., International in 1952 and saw it become something truly special.
Schapiro didn't just announce he wanted to host a race at Laurel Park with foreign participants and then sit back and watch it happen. Things don't work that way. He would spend up to six weeks traveling the globe talking to owners and trainers, wooing them with purse money, subsidized shipping costs, and the chance to show the world how good their horse was.
As Schapiro knew, bragging rights need no translator. First to the finish line is the same in any language.
"John Schapiro really deserves a great deal of credit for the success of the Breeders' Cup," Clarke said. "His race was the stimulus for today. He showed people that you could ship and run off the plane and run well. John would get two, or three, or four horses a year. Today, 200 to 300 horses a year get on a plane, ship, and run."
In 1952, Schapiro had a field of seven for the inaugural International, which was won by England's Wilwyn. He ran the 1 1/2 miles in course record time (2:30 4/5) before a crowd of 26,014. Ruhe, a domestic runner, was second, followed by Zucchero from England and Niederlander from Germany. The purse to the winner was $32,500.
For the Breeders' Cup to work, its organizers also realized how important it would be to have foreign participants. And, for the most part, that has happened. While the shippers feel more comfortable running at some venues than others, planes each year have ferried horses from the major training yards in England, Ireland, and France, as well as the occasional runner from such locales as Japan, Germany, and Australia.
The impact was immediate. The first two Turf (gr. IT) winners, Lashkari and Pebbles, were from the stables of two of the sport's leading foreign owners, the Aga Khan and Sheikh Mohammed, respectively. Lashkari shipped from France and upset Horse of the Year All Along, while Pebbles came from England and proved you can win an Eclipse Award with just one win, provided it is in the Breeders' Cup.
The next year, Clarke recalled, he experienced his biggest disappointment in 21 Breeders' Cups, when Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) winner Dancing Brave ran fourth in the Turf at 1-2 odds. "He had a heck of a season, but his owner, Khalid Abdullah, was so supportive of the Breeders' Cup. He wanted him to come and run."
Abdullah, the owner of one of the world's leading breeding farms, Juddmonte, has started 43 horses in Breeders' Cup races (and one other in partnership). His victory this year with Intercontinental in the Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) was his second, the other coming four years ago at Belmont when her full sister, Banks Hill, won the same race.
Adding more international flavor this year was John Deere Turf winner Shirocco, the first German-bred to win a Breeders' Cup race, and Starcraft, bred in New Zealand, a group I winner in Australia, New Zealand, and England, and supplemented to the Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) for a hefty $800,000.
In another twist on foreign-breds, five of the eight 2005 Breeders' Cup races were won by jockeys foaled outside the U.S. Edgar Prado and Rafael Bejarano were both born in Peru, Cornelio Velasquez is a native of Panama, and Christophe Soumillon hails from Belgium.
Retired jockey Chris McCarron, a winner of nine Breeders' Cup races, is busy establishing the North American Racing Academy in Lexington. Seeing skilled jockeys like Prado and Bejarano, from countries with national riding academies, perform so well on racing's biggest day should only confirm his belief that his project is a needed addition to the racing landscape in this country.