DC International bill gallops through the legislature

by | Apr 12, 2016 | Breaking, Business, Maryland, MD Business, Top Stories

Photo of 2015 Commonwealth Cup winner Mr. Speaker by Laurie Asseo.

by Frank Vespe

Legislation that would resurrect and rebrand the DC International — as the Maryland International — sailed through both house of the Maryland with nary a nay — make that a “neigh” — vote yesterday.

“Now it just needs the Governor’s signature,” said Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer Sal Sinatra.

HB 965, introduced by Delegate Jay Walker (D-PG) and cosponsored by Delegates Kevin Hornberger (R-Cecil) and Ric Metzgar (R-Baltimore County), had cruised through the House in mid-March,  It passed the Senate, with amendments, on a 46-0 vote yesterday.  Those amendments, however, required that the House reconsider it, which it did, sending it to the Governor on a 137-0 vote.

If enacted, the legislation will direct $500,000 each year for three years to the Maryland International, a turf race to be contested at Laurel Park.

The bill also would provide $500,000 to the state Racing Commission to create a bonus program “for Maryland-bred or Maryland-sired horses running in the Preakness Stakes.”  It further specifies that the Commission “consult with representatives of the Thoroughbred racing industry prior to establishing the rules and criteria” for the bonus.

But it is the potential return of the International that has the state racing industry most excited.

“I’m tickled to death,” said Sinatra.  “It was a stalwart of Laurel that will help with its renaissance.”

“As I understand it, because of this bill, racing will have the opportunity to bring back one of its great historic events in the International,” said Maryland Racing Commissioner Bruce Quade.  “It’s very positive for the whole state, not just for racing.”

“I think it’s something we’ve dreamed about getting back for years,” echoed Commission chairman John McDaniel.

Inaugurated in 1952, the Washington, DC International quickly became one of Thoroughbred racing’s most important turf tests.  In an era when horses generally didn’t travel abroad, the International, the brainchild of John Schapiro, attracted runners from around the world: France, Britain, and Ireland, of course, but also countries such as Venezuela, Australia, and even the Soviet Union.

The race, however, was a victim of its own success.  It helped to spur the creation of the Breeders’ Cup, and the Breeders’ Cup led to its eventual demise, following the 1994 running.  Yet in its heyday, the International was known not just for terrific grass racing but also for the scene around it: pre-race Embassy parties and the presence of the glitterati.

The race’s demise is taken by many in the sport as something of a retrospective harbinger of the troubles the sport endured in Maryland through the 2000s and until recently.  Its return would be as positive a sign as its demise was negative.

“Laurel will never be completely back until we get the International back,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which owns the Maryland Jockey Club, following the bill’s introduction.

Sinatra said that he envisions the revived International as something of a hybrid between the old International and a Breeders’ Cup prep race.  He said the track would aim to attract the European runners that are staples of the Breeders’ Cup Turf and Mile races but that it would also seek horses from “other countries that aren’t [typically] represented in the Breeders’ Cup.”

“You want to keep that international flair,” he said, “and tie it to Washington.”

McDaniel agreed.

“It just made a lot of sense to access the Washington market,” he said.

The money for the International would come from the State Lottery Fund in what Sinatra termed a “generous offer from the Maryland Lottery.”  In return, the legislation specifies that the Maryland Jockey Club “may make the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Agency a sponsor of the Maryland International.”

Assuming that Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) does sign the legislation — which observers seem to expect — Sinatra’s next challenge will be to create, obtain, or build up a race to be a proper successor to the International.  Sinatra has been working with Virginia’s horsemen on a deal that would give the MJC control over the Grade 2 Commonwealth Cup and a leg up in the track’s efforts to build towards a Grade 1 event; that is perhaps the most likely race to wear the Maryland International moniker, but Sinatra said other options also are on the table.

All of that, however, is tomorrow’s challenge.

For now, Sinatra said, he just wanted to say “a big thank you” to Delegate Walker and the Maryland Lottery.