It All Started With Dahlia

On Saturday, Belmont Park will run two million-dollar races on the grass for 3-year-olds – the Belmont Derby and the Belmont Oaks. Both are expected to attract several top-class horses from Europe. Grass races designed to attract Europeans have spread throughout racetracks all across America, from the lucrative Arlington Million Day to big events at now defunct Hollywood Park, Belmont Park’s summer and fall meet, and, of course, the two Breeders’ Cup days.

Many of the top European horses we’ve seen competing at these events have been fillies, who have stamped their names in the annals of American racing. We have embraced such exciting female invaders in recent years as Goldikova. Ouija Board, The Fugue, and Dank, among others.

We are all aware of the female dominance over the past decade in major international events around the world, especially the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. We now take fillies beating colts for granted, as we see them constantly knock off the best males in the world. But it wasn’t always that way.

There was a time when Europeans, especially fillies, rarely traveled abroad, with the one exception being the Washington D.C. International, and that was for one race in mid-November. Europeans never actually came to America and stayed for a full campaign, and a filly defeating colts in major races in both Europe and America was unheard of.

With the big Belmont weekend coming up and the Arlington Million and Beverly D to follow, I thought this would be a good time to re-address a column I wrote five years ago for those who were not following this blog back then. It is even more appropriate, because this year marks the 40th anniversary of Dahlia’s unprecedented fall campaign of 1974, which changed the face of American grass racing forever.

There was a time, long before the Breeders’ Cup, when foreign horses came to the U.S. for one special event, like the Washington D.C. International, and then returned home.

But, then, along came Dahlia.

Unlike your typical tomboy type, Dahlia was able to compete with and defeat the world’s best males, despite being extremely refined and feminine, and having as kind a disposition as you’ll ever see in a Thoroughbred. Before Dahlia came along in 1973 and ’74, Europeans and other horses from across the globe would ship to America for the D.C. International and that was the last Americans saw of them. But Dahlia, after winning the International in 1973, returned the following year for a fall campaign in North America, the first time a European had attempted that. After returning to her home base in Chantilly and competing in Europe for most of 1975, she was sent back to America for the third time later that year and stayed for good, racing as a 6-year-old and starting 15 times under the care of Charlie Whittingham.

By the time Whittingham took over her training, Dahlia already was the first European horse to win the Man o’ War Stakes (then the championship event for American turf horses), the first European to win the Canadian International Championship, the first filly to win the Washington D.C. International, and the only horse (male or female) to win group or grade I stakes in five different countries – England, France, Ireland, United States, and Canada.

Nelson Bunker Hunt’s remarkable filly most certainly must be regarded as the equine pioneer of international racing. At a time when transatlantic travel was generally limited to a single round-trip flight from Europe to the United States, mostly for the D.C. International, Dahlia logged an incredible 26,000 miles during her career, competing in six different countries. Along the way, she defeated no less than 10 classic-winning colts, including English Derby winners Grundy, Roberto, and Snow Knight; Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winners Rheingold and Star Appeal, plus the winners of the French and Irish Derbys, the Irish St. Leger, Grand Prix de Paris, and Belmont Stakes. And those are just the classic winners.

It was Dahlia’s success in America that paved the way for a massive French invasion, with many of the invaders being fillies – Waya, Flying Water, Nobiliary, April Run, Trillion, All Along, Miesque, Pebbles, Estrapade, Miss Alleged, and Dahlia’s nemesis, the great Allez France, among others. So dominant was All Along, the French filly was voted Horse of the Year in America in 1983.

Following Dahlia’s victory in the 1973 D.C. International, French-trained horses captured seven of the next 10 runnings of the race. The onslaught had begun and grass racing in America would never again be the same.

Before we get into Dahlia herself, let’s look at the origins of modern-day international racing. The roots trace back to 1923 when English Derby winner Papyrus was sent to the U.S. to compete in a match race against Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Zev. The match race was the brainstorm of Joseph E. Widener, with the Westchester Racing Association paying all expenses for shipping Papyrus to America. Advance sales were so high that a special ticket office had to be opened on Broadway to accommodate the demand.

Unfortunately, three days of rain turned the Belmont track into a sea of slop, and, despite the urging of American trainers to use mud caulks, Papyrus’ trainer, Basil Jarvis, insisted on running his colt in his customary smooth plates. Papyrus never got hold of the wet track and was beaten eight lengths by Zev.

What was gratifying to many Americans was that it came just a few years after the British Jockey Club passed what became known as the Jersey Act, which branded a great majority of American-bred Thoroughbreds “impure” and denied their entry into the British Stud Book.

Although anticlimactic, the Zev--Payprus match race set the stage the following year for what was a unique series of races. Simply called the International Specials 1, 2, and 3, it lured M.P. Wertheimer’s French-trained and French-bred Epinard. In a period of less than two months, Epinard competed at six furlongs, one mile, and 1 1/4 miles, finishing second to Wise Counsellor in Special 1; second, beaten a nose by Ladkin, in Special 2; and second again in Special 3 behind Sarazen, who broke the track record by more than a second.

Other ideas, most of them outlandish, cropped up over the years in an attempt to lure European horses. But none ever came to fruition until Laurel president John Shapriro came up with the concept of the Washington D.C. International. The race, first run in 1952, became a rousing success and proved to be one of the world’s great races. It received its first major boost in 1958 when European superhorse Ballymoss made the trip, finishing third to Sailor’s Guide. In 1964, the International decided Horse of the Year when Kelso got his revenge on his archrival Gun Bow, shattering the course record. This followed three straight second-place finishes by Kelso, behind T.V. Lark, French-trained Match II, and Mongo. In 1967, Fort Marcy defeated Damascus by a nose in what proved to be a battle of future Horses of the Year.

In 1973, racing in America meant one word – Secretariat. Big Red proved to be a sensational turf horse, winning the Man o’War and Canadian International, but was retired following the Woodbine race, passing up a shot at the D.C. International.

That was disappointing to Dahlia’s trainer, Maurice Zilber, who was looking forward to proving that his filly was the best horse in the world. Although Dahlia was unable to handle her archrival Allez France over the softer courses in France, and never ran a lick in the Arc de Triomphe, Zilber was convinced she could beat Secretariat, based on her spectacular victory in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, as well as her victories in the Irish Oaks and Prix Saint-Alary and another win over the colts in the Prix Niel. Dahlia’s trademark was her brilliant turn of foot, which is why she usually was not at her best over soft and yielding courses.

In the King George, run over good (firm) ground, Dahlia demonstrated an explosion of speed and power rarely seen anywhere. With one electrifying burst, the 3-year-old filly blew away the winners of the English, Irish, and French Derbys and subsequent winner of the Arc de Triomphe, drawing off to a jaw-dropping six-length victory.

When Dahlia arrived at Laurel for the International, that performance was overshadowed by her disasters at Longchamp. But Europeans knew that was not the real Dahlia, and they tried to explain that the filly had wrenched a leg muscle in the Prix Vermeille and should never have come back two weeks later in the Arc.

Dahlia’s jockey Bill Pyers did not want Zilber to run her at Laurel, feeling she was far below her best form. The European press firmly believed Dahlia could beat any horse in the world, but they also weren’t sure whether she’d be at her best. British turf writer Richard Baerlin observed her and said. “She appears to be within 10 percent of herself. That won’t get it.” Even Zilber admitted that Dahlia was “not completely back to her summer form.”

It was hard to make believers out of the Americans, who were just beginning to come down from the Secretariat high that had lifted the entire nation into a state of euphoria. With Big Red scheduled to depart for Claiborne Farm the day after the International, the main hopes of America rested on the tiny shoulders of Tentam, who had won the Metropolitan Handicap on dirt, the United Nations Handicap on grass, and was second to Secretariat in his record-breaking victory in the Man o’ War. Also in the field were the classy American horses Big Spruce and London Company, Champion Stakes winner Hurry Harriet, Irish St. Leger winner Conor Pass, Eclipse Stakes winner Scottish Rifle, Grand Prix de Deauville winner Card King, and Preis von Europa winner Acacio d’Aguilar.

When Dahlia was made 8-1 on the morning line, Irish race caller Michael O’Hehir kept telling anyone who would listen that Dahlia was “truly a great horse,” adding that “if she had skipped the Arc, as she should have done, she’d be 2-1.” When Americans mocked O’Hehir for mentioning Dahlia in the same breath as Secretariat, he asked, “How can you compare Secretariat to Dahlia when you haven’t seen her run?”

Scottish Rifle’s trainer John Dunlop said, “Dahlia is truly a wonderful filly – one of the best I’ve ever seen. If she comes up with her top effort, she’ll win.”

When it was over, Americans had witnessed the greatness of Dahlia. After turning for home, at the three-sixteenths pole, Pyers had Dahlia hopelessly trapped behind horses. All he could do was wait for Big Spruce and Scottish Rifle to clear him, so he could swing Dahlia to the outside. With her explosive acceleration she could get back in the race in a matter of seconds.

In the final furlong, Big Spruce and Scottish Rifle bore down on Tentam and took over the lead in tandem. Pyers snatched Dahlia to the outside, and in a flash, Nelson Bunker Hunt’s familiar light and dark green silks appeared seemingly out of nowhere. It was as if the horses up front suddenly were moving in slow motion, as Dahlia charged by them so quickly she was three lengths in front in the blink of an eye. Despite the deep, yielding course, she still came home her final quarter in :23 2/5.

The following year, Dahlia, who often needed a few races early in the year before finding her best form, rattled off consecutive victories over the colts in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, another win in the King George, and the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup (now the Juddmonte International Stakes).

Following a third in the Prix du Prince d’Orange at Longchamp, it was decided to send Dahlia back to America for an unprecedented three-race fall campaign, consisting of the Man o’ War, Canadian International, and Washington D.C. International.

Dahlia’s trip back to the States did not start off very well, as she had a terrible experience in the antiquated Clifton, N.J. quarantine facility, prompting Zilber to publicly complain about his filly’s condition after being released from quarantine. Zilber described her experience as “a harrowing mess,” and “a thing of horror.”

Despite the poor conditions and losing weight during her stay, Dahlia still was able to defeat the best turf horses in America in the Man o’War only two days after leaving quarantine. She came right back 15 days later and won the Canadian International Championship, coming from 21 lengths back to defeat Big Spruce by a length. Big Spruce, who had finished second in the Canadian International to Secretariat the year before, had twice knocked off the mighty Forego in ’74 in the Marlboro Cup and Governor Stakes.

Returned to the States, Dahlia was back in action only 13 days later in the D.C. International. This time, she was victimized by a snail-like pace, set by super filly Desert Vixen, who crawled the first three-quarters in 1:17 1/5 on a firm course. Although Dahlia still rallied from far back and closed her final quarter in :22 4/5, she could only finish third, beaten 1 1/2 lengths by fellow French horse Admetus. So, Dahlia had won two grade Is and was third in a grade I all in the span of 28 days.

Normally, a 4-year-old filly who had accomplished what Dahlia had, racing 24 times in five different countries, 16 of those races against colts, would have been retired. But, amazingly, Dahlia’s career was only half over. She would race 24 more times over the next two years, and although she was never as brilliant as she was at 3 and 4, she still managed to win the 1975 Benson & Hedges Gold Cup, defeating that year’s Arc de Triomphe winner Star Appeal, finish second in the Grand Prix de Deauville, and third in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes to Grundy and Bustino, in what was called “The Race of the Century,” inspiring a book of the same name. In her third attempt at the Canadian International, she came from 11 lengths back to finish fourth, beaten two lengths by Snow Knight.

By the time she joined Whittingham’s barn for her 6-year-old campaign she was a shell of her former self. Racing almost exclusively in grade I company against colts, she did win the grade I Hollywood Invitational Handicap, defeating major stakes horses Caucasus and Pass the Glass, and was third in the grade I Century Handicap, and fourth in the grade I Hollywood Gold Cup on the dirt.

Dahlia finally was retired with arguably the most amazing collection of championships ever: Horse of the Year in England in 1973 and ’74; Champion 3-year-old in England in 1973; Champion older mare in England in 1974 and ’75; Champion 3-year-old in Ireland in 1973; and Champion grass horse in America in 1974. And, according to Sports Illustrated and the National Museum of Racing, she was the first filly to earn $1 million, although some say it was Allez France. Either way, it was pretty close between the two; typical of their rivalry.

For a filly to have raced so often (48 times), mainly against the boys, while traveling all over the world, there was doubt about Dahlia’s proficiency as a broodmare. Residing at Hunt’s Bluegrass Farm and then Allen Paulson’s Brookside Farm, Dahlia proved as great a producer as she was a racehorse.

Of 11 foals to race, Dahlia produced six graded stakes winners -- four grade I winners and two grade II winners, as well as a grade I-placed horse and a listed stakes-placed horse.

My daughter virtually grew up with Dahlia, visiting her at Windfields Farm (where she was sent to be bred on a couple of occasions) when she was 11 months old, then again when she was 3, and years later at Brookside. I can fill an album with just the photos I have of Mandy kissing Dahlia, who remained one of the sweetest horses you’ll ever be around. It was hard to believe being around her that she was one of the most feared amazons who ever did battle with the boys.

She was a remarkable racehorse and producer, and lived until the age of 31.

So, from now on, whenever you see top-class European fillies competing in international events, or any European horse sent to America to campaign, just remember the brilliant, durable, and indefatigable chestnut filly with the pretty face and gentle disposition who started it all 40 years ago.

Mandy became close to Dahlia at a very young age at Windfields Farm in Maryland.

Mandy reunited with Dahlia years later at Brookside Farm in Kentucky.

Recent Posts


More Blogs