International Racing Arrives in the United States, 1952

Jul 5th 2014 11:11 am |

Originally published October 15th 2009

With the invasion of the European steeds into Santa Anita for this year’s Breeders Cup, I though it might be interesting to take a look at the history of international racing on American soil over the next few weeks.

Today, we take the idea of shipping horses across oceans and continents for granted. In 1952, the Bloodhorse headline after the inaugural Washington D.C. International read: “Laurel Brings off the Impossible – a Successful International Race.” Impossible indeed, twenty-five years after Charles Lindberg made his historic flight across the Atlantic, horses were being flown across the ocean to compete for a $50,000 purse in a small Maryland town.

The first international race of significance in the U.S. took place in 1923 when the Kentucky Derby champ Zev beat the English Derby winner Papyrus in the First International at Belmont Park. Different styles of racing and the obvious limitations of shipping horses by boat, dashed any hopes that such match-ups would become commonplace. Before the Second World War, instances of shipping horses into the U.S. to race were few and far between. It was only after the war that shipping horses by air became feasible and accepted by horsemen who had owners willing to foot the bill.

Images: Horses arrive by air for the 1952 Washington D.C. International at Laurel Park (Life Magazine)

The second development that made international racing possible was the adoption of flat turf racing in America. While many tracks in the United States had steeplechase courses, few had flat turf courses before 1950 (Hialeah being the notable exception). According to Sports Illustrated, in 1952 only 12 stakes in the country were run over flat turf and most of them were established after 1945.

In 1947, Jim Butler of the Empire City Racing Association created the Empire City Gold Cup in New York and openly campaigned European owners to send their horses to compete. Being run over a dirt surface, very few international horses showed up, and the race disappeared after its 1952 running.

Bringing high-class competition from overseas onto American soil required compromises, an acceptable surface, and a track owner willing to make an investment in the idea. John Shapiro, owner of Laurel Racetrack, put all the pieces together and made international racing in the United States a reality.

John Shapiro (on left with hat) chats with jockey Manny Mercer in the 
winner’s circle after the first D.C. International


On August 1, 1952, the Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich filed this story after attending a press conference at Laurel Park announcing the first Washington D.C. International:

“…(Today) Laurel announced a $50,000 international race for the thoroughbred champions of England, France, Germany, Ireland, Canada, and the United States…

“…Laurel, in addition to posting the 50 grand purse, will pick up the check for the plane transportation of the foreign entries, Former Ambassador [of Ireland George] Garrett announced: ‘The track will probably take a licking on the race financially,’ he said ‘but it will stimulate the breeding industry abroad, as well as in this country’…

“….The date they picked for their big race, which [Washington Post writer] Jack Walsh calls the four footed Olympics, is October 18. The clash with the Maryland U.-Navy football game on that same date at College Park was lightly brushed off. Racing and football fans are worlds apart it was explained and anyway, as one bright reporter pointed out, ‘Laurel has nothing to fear from Maryland-Navy unless they install mutuel machines in Byrd Stadium [University of Maryland’s football stadium].’

“New York tried the same sort of International Cup Race a few years back, for a $50,000 added purse too, and gave it up after a couple of dismal attempts at Jim Butler’s track. The fields were skimpy, the European breeders didn’t respond much, and neither did the customers, and mostly the competition for the United States steeds came from South America.

“The Laurel people think they can do it better. They will embellish the race with the presence of internationally famous bipeds from the embassies and legations, and give it social as well as a horsey aroma. The apex of the Laurel people’s hopes is that the fabulous Aga Kahn himself, personally, the father-in-law of Rita Hayworth, will deign to watch his three-year-old filly Nashua, from England, compete at Laurel…

“…The chief rub could be the absence of the top American stars like Blue Man, or Counterpoint or Sparton Valor who might decline the issue against the invading big shots, because the race will be run on the turf, not the dirt track of America. There are American turf runners, but they are the likes of Pilaster and Vulcanic, solid horses but hardly associated with standouts in the public mind.

“As concessions to the foreign folks, Mr. Garrett pointed our, there will also be the walk-up start, not from the stalls which the Continental steeds are familiar; also the longer distance of a mile and half they prefer. Laurel won’t go so far, however, as to ask the United States entries to race clockwise, which is the wrong way here and the right way in England…

As race day approached, two months later, Povich wrote, “Laurel President John Shapiro deserves a ringing A for effort. He is putting on a refreshing sort of show in a business that all along has had a heavy accent on the dollar sign.”

Shapiro drew a field from England, Canada, and Germany with three entries from the United States. American runner Greek Ship, ridden by Eddie Arcaro, was sent off as the favorite but the race was won by an English colt, Wilwyn, owned by British bookmaker George Rolls.
[Correction: Wilwyn was owned by Robert Boucher, a hops grower from England. George Rolls owned Zuccero, the English racer who ran third. Many thanks to the anonymous commenter who pointed our this error]

Image: Wilwyn in the winner’s circle. Jockey Manny Mercer being interviewed

The day after the race, Post reporter Jack Walsh wrote: “It’s the best thing that could have happened from Laurel’s standpoint. The finish, like the day itself, was perfect. It would seem to insure the future success of what could develop into a great turf fixture.”

The International did become a ‘turf fixture’ and arguably became one of the most significant races on the American racing calendar.

The final running of the International took place in 1994. By that time, it had lost it’s stature as the Breeder’s Cup became the late season destination for the best of the breed starting in the 1980s.

The D.C. International is widely considered the first successful venture in hosting high class international thoroughbred racing in the United States. The International laid the foundation for the United Nations Handicap, the Arlington Million, and the Breeder’s Cup turf races — all races that have historically drawn horses from overseas to compete in America.

An esteemed group of panelists assembled by the Bloodhorse made the first D.C. International number seventeen in their list of Horse Racing’s Top 100 Moments.

This Morning with Shirley Povich, Washington Post, Aug 1, 1952
This Morning with Shirley Povich, Washington Post, Oct 15, 1952
International Runs Today, Washington Post, Oct 18, 1952
Everybody’s Happy About Laurel Race, Washington Post, Oct 19, 1952

All images from the Life Magazine archives

Image: Wilwyn returns to the barn after winning the 1st D.C. International

Related Articles of Interest:

Steve Haskin provided historical background on international racing in his outstanding article about Dahlia

Quiz about the D.C. International from Sports Illustrated, 1962

Queen Of The Turf — Racing on grass in the U.S. gets a boost from Elizabeth Regina, 1954

Life magazine reports on the first Washington D.C. International, 1952

NEXT WEEK: The Zev-Papyrus Match Race


Filed in International Racing,Laurel Park,Mercer, Manny,Shapiro, Joe,Washington D.C. International,Wilwyn

9 Responses to “International Racing Arrives in the United States, 1952”

  1. Sid Fernando says:

    One of the great international performances in N. America was Phar Lap's win in the prestigious Agua Caliente Handicap in Tijuana, Baja, California, in 1932. Shipped by boat.

  2. Colins Ghost says:

    Hey Sid: Thanks for the comment. Phar Lap definitely worth a mention. Although when he shipped to the U.S. he was here to stay and only raced once before his untimely death. I was thinking about international racing in terms of horses shipping in for specific races – like they did for the first D.C. International and as they do today for the BC. Kevin

  3. The_Knight_Sky says:

    "As concessions to the foreign folks, Mr. Garrett pointed our, there will also be the walk-up start, not from the stalls which the Continental steeds are familiar…


    Wonderful. One of the things European racing did well and that was reflected in the areas of racing safety of that era.

    On the other hand in the modern era we continue to discount the increased dangers and allow horses continue to crash into each other coming out of the starting gates.

    Then after a breakdown we wonder if it was the surface. Hey, perhaps it was the flat tire getting out of the driveway.

    Another solidly done piece, Mr. CG.

  4. Superfecta says:

    Very interesting; I never realized how little flat turf racing there was in the US before the more modern era. Looking forward to next week – I think Zev is long overdue for a retrospective!

  5. The_Knight_Sky says:

    Zev ?

    I think the blogger's name is Kev. 😀

  6. Anonymous says:

    Wilwyn was owned by Robert C. Boucher, a fruit farmer from Kent, England. George Rolls owned the other English runner, Zucchero, who finished third.

  7. joe woods says:

    was there an irish runner in the 1952 larel park international?

  8. joe woods says:

    did farney fox run in the laurel park international ? if so what year?jpw

  9. John Manley says:

    Clearly, John Shapiro deserves to be remembered with a stakes race in his honor. I’m not currently aware of any such race that honors him and it seems that Laurel should get on the ball and do so at the first opportunity. And if I’m mistaken, I apologize.

    For that matter, there should be a race run at Saratoga that memorializes the fact that without the contributions of Gov. Averill Harriman that oval might have gone the way of the Grand Union Hotel in the 1950s.

    Memories tend to be too short.