Merci Monsieur

By Pierre Bellocq

It was Arc de Triomphe Day at Longchamp when I met John D. Schapiro in 1953. I was introduced to him by an English-speaking colleague from Paris-Turf named Albert Neuhut, better known to American horsemen by his nom de plume, Godolphin Darley.

It was just prior to the big race when I met Monsieur John, a rather small-built man with a warm and friendly smile. He had just initiated a totally new event the year before at his newly acquired Laurel Park. A very daring project it was--the concept of an international event, like the Arc, but with the participation of nations around the globe at a time when airborne horse transportation was still tentative and a rather risky business.

John had renamed his track "Laurel Racecourse International, the Home of the Washington, D.C., International." The race immediately captured the imagination of the Europeans, and in 1952 the inaugural running saw the English horse Wilwyn take the trophy and lead the way to a long line of outstanding foreign stars from all corners of the world.

The French, under the guidance of my late friend, "Godolphin," were among the most enthusiastic and contributed fully to the prestige of the International, sending a great number of brilliant winners such as Master Boing, Mahan, Match, Diatome, Behistoun, the great Dahlia, Admetus, and so on.

But besides the Europeans, many other countries were also represented. From Venezuela, El Chama won the 1955 renewal. The Soviets made a major impact with third-place finisher Zabeg in 1960 and Aniline, who was third in 1964 and second in 1966.

While in Paris, John was searching for an artist interested in doing publicity work for his promotional campaign, and I had just produced a series of posters for the French "Societe d'Encouragement." In 1950, this series of posters had been named by the international advertising magazine Gebraucshgrapik as the best of the year.

The Laurel proposal was exciting. A couple of days later, I was in John's suite at Hotel Meurisse with my portfolio. John was delighted with my design (which became the Laurel International trademark for many years), and invited me to "come to the U.S. to sketch his guests." He arranged for me to cross the Atlantic in a cargo plane, where my traveling companions were two European champions, Norman from Belgium and Banassa from France.

Seated comfortably in the straw next to me was my friend "Godolphin," who tried to give me a quick brush at the English language. A rush course at a Paris Berlitz school hadn't been very productive, but John came to the rescue, providing me with an old Belgian translator, nicknamed "The Major."

What an unforgettable day that International was for me. John introduced me to his VIP guests, among them ambassadors and congressmen. I remember sketching a caricature of the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, without realizing what an important political figure he was at the time.

The French filly Banassa finished second to C.V.Whitney's Fisherman, specifically to the finesse of Fisherman's jockey, Eddie Arcaro.

John managed then to keep his French protégé in the United States. I was offered a job at one of the best advertising agencies in Baltimore, and later on, he introduced me to his good friend J. Samuel Perlman, then publisher of Daily Racing Form and The Morning Telegraph.

Perlman was reluctant at first, but finally agreed to give me a chance. In the spring of 1954, I was hired just in time for the opening of New York's Jamaica spring meeting.

Close to half a century has passed, during which my dear Monsieur John has always been in my thoughts, if not next to me. His constant encouragement, his belief in my artistry, and his shared enthusiasm in the development of amateur sport in America have been important factors in my determination.

Racing in America has a new face, so unrecognizable from the sport I discovered when I landed in Baltimore in the '50s. But today, Laurel Park still remains somewhat of a home base, and Monsieur John, the father of the International will always be in my heart as a spiritual father.

I needed you around, John. I already miss you.

PIERRE BELLOCQ, better known as Peb, is famous for his sketches of major racing events, horses, and their connections.