John David Schapiro, former owner of Laurel Race Course, died Saturday from heart failure at a hospital in Baltimore, Md. He was 87. In 1952 he introduced the Washington D.C. International, a turf race designed to attract the best horses from around the world. The International at Laurel remained a state, national and international racing fixture until its demise in 1995.
"John brought American horse racing into the jet age," Joe Kelly, a former racing writer in Maryland, told the Baltimore Sun
. "There were lots of serious doubts that he could make the International a success. It meant flying valuable horses on jet aircraft from all over the world, and he footed the bill several years. But it was a great success, and John turned out to be a pioneer, a visionary in the sport."
Schapiro even sent his brother-in-law to the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War to recruit horses for the International.
"The Soviets came here and loved it, all because of the way John Schapiro treated them," Chick Lang, former general manager of Pimlico, told The Sun
. "John had limousines carry the Soviets all around, which they really enjoyed. But what they also delighted in was going to Baltimore and Washington department stores where they bought up all the silk stockings they could find. Their country was out of them."
Said Snowden Carter, former general manager of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association: "[Mr.] Schapiro changed Maryland racing. Not only did he bring an international flavor to racing in this state and across the country, the attention the race attracted was important. The great out-of-town race writers like Red Smith and Joe Palmer covered the International."
As reported in the Sun
, such luminaries as Sir Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II and several presidents of Ireland accepted invitations to the International.
"In those days, when New York racing closed down for the winter, Laurel and Bowie had healthy purses and brought in good horses and jockeys," Carter told the Sun
. "It was the sport's high-water mark in Maryland."
The International brought national recognition to its creator. In 1961, Sports Illustrated named Schapiro "Man of the Year in Thoroughbred Racing."
According to the Sun
, Schapiro was one of two sons of Morris Schapiro, a poor Latvian immigrant who built a fortune in the scrap metal business. John Schapiro served as chairman of the board of Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., and he owned Crown Terminal in Baltimore. At his death he was president of Boston Metals Co., one of the world's largest ship dismantlers.
In 1950, the senior Schapiro bought Laurel and named his son, John, president. The son invested millions of dollars into improving the facility in the 1950s, winterizing it in the 1960s and adding air-conditioning in the early 1980s. In 1984, he sold the track to Frank J. De Francis and his partners, Robert and John "Tommy" Manfuso.
reported that some found the dapper Schapiro haughty at first meeting. But Lang told the Sun
that Schapiro was, "in one word: class."