Her name is Dahlia. Remember it. How good is she? Excellent enough to crush a fine field with one explosive run through the short stretch of the $150,000 Washington D.C. International last Saturday afternoon and do for that race what Regret did for the Kentucky Derby nearly 60 years before: become the only filly ever to win. Since June, Dahlia has blossomed into the Auntie Mame of thoroughbred racing by winning stakes in England, France, Ireland and now the United States, something never before accomplished in one season. Her earnings have swelled to nearly $600,000 for the year, exceptional for a filly. "Today I thought she was about 80% of herself," said her jockey, 40-year-old Billy Pyers, after the International. Dahlia's trainer, Maurice Zilber, lowered the figure seconds later. "Sixty percent probably would be closer to fact," he said.
Only extraordinary horses can win even ordinary races when they are 60% or 70% or 80% of their true selves. In major races, normally nothing less than 95% will get a horse to the winner's circle. Triple Crown winner Secretariat could not get there when he was beaten in the Triple W—the Wood, Whitney and Woodward. For Pyers and Zilber to admit—or brag—that Dahlia beat a field of seven other runners hollow while not at the top of her game is either a remarkable breach of sporting etiquette or a setup for a future difficult to envision.
"Riding her when she is her full self," Pyers says, "is like riding on an airplane. Only once in nine races this year have I struck her with the whip. That time she was on the lead and not really going about her business."
Many horses have traveled to the fascinating lawn party at Laurel over the last 22 years bearing rich credentials and breeding, but none managed to have both these qualities and the all-out mystery of Dahlia. Her coloring is a beautiful chestnut, and she is alert and playful, yet she possesses a genuine regality. Many suspected that also among her possessions was a bad leg that would stop her from recapturing her form of July, when she became the first filly ever to win Ascot's prestigious and demanding King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. She beat 11 others including the winners of three Derbies as well as Rheingold, the ultimate winner of Longchamp's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the world's most important horse race.
In recent years most foreign horses have arrived at Laurel virtually pre-trained. Instead of taking hard workouts over the track they merely blow out or jog around the turf course. This lack of workouts plus an inability on the part of most to run back to past performances on foreign soil is bewildering to handicappers and horseplayers and turns the International into a scene of delightful confusion. This year the race, which has had as many as nine countries represented at one time in the past, came up with only four: the U.S., France, England and Ireland. Not since 1954 have so few flags been on view in the infield. It would have seemed a perfect time to make a foreign entrant the favorite. But this almost never happens. During Laurel's 22 runnings, American horses have been favored 18 times and only five of them won (six other U.S. horses won without being favored). A $2 win bet on every U.S. entrant in the 22 races would have produced half the winners—but also a net loss of $8.
This year's favorite was Tentam, a 4-year-old American grass specialist who had been in the money in all of his nine earlier races this season. Tentam was supposed to shoot to the lead, gather up the $100,000 winner's purse and then go quickly into retirement. Things did not turn out that way, though, mainly because there were three horses representing France. When French horses come to Laurel it is as good a time as any for horseplayers to snap the rubber-bands off their bankrolls. French horses had won five Internationals before last week's running, more than any other country save the U.S. (A $2 win bet on all the French participants would have produced a profit of $49.)
While Dahlia represented France she is about as French as M√®re's Apple Bouillabaisse. Her owner is Nelson Bunker Hunt from that high pile of Texas Hunts who keep going up and down in various sporting enterprises like a troop of berserk acrobats trying out new trampolines. In some areas Hunt is regarded as "the wealthiest racehorse owner in the world." He has 350 horses in training in seven—count 'em—seven different countries. Dahlia's sire is an American, Vaguely Noble, and her dam is Charming Alibi, a mare whose most important victory, just in case you might have missed it, was in the 1967 Milette Handicap at the Detroit Race Course. Jockey Pyers is an Australian by birth, preferring beer to wine, and Trainer Zilber, of French-Turkish parentage, led the trainers in Egypt for 10 years. (Yeah, Egypt!)
Hunt has found quick and striking success in racing. In 1967 he won the Prix de Diane with the good filly Gazala. This season he became the leading money-winning owner in England with earnings of $311,927.50. In December of '67, however, he was the underbidder when Arc winner Vaguely Noble was sold at auction for $342,720. A few days later, fortunately, he was able to buy a half interest in him.
Dahlia has already returned that investment threefold. Her International win was typical of those she earned on the Continent this year, but to see her do it at Laurel, with its tight turns and short, three-sixteenths-of-a-mile stretch run, was a thing of beauty to behold.
London Company, another U.S. entrant, took the early lead in the mile-and-a-half race with Tentam tracking him at close range. At the end of a half mile London Company was still the target, Tentam was a couple of lengths behind and Dahlia was dallying along in last place. Dahlia's last, though, was interesting. She was but eight lengths away from the leader, and the pace was too slow for comfort up front. The mile time, for instance, was 1:42, and a horse race that produces a mile in 1:42 over a hard track resembles nothing more than a group of fat men running uphill.
Pyers sensed what would be ahead. "The pace was almost perfect for Dahlia," he said later. "She had her cover, and I knew that if we did not get into heavy traffic she would do her job. She has one burst of speed and it carries for about three-eighths of a mile. Once she is in that burst I feel there is not a horse in the world that can match her."
Near the top of the stretch Dahlia began her move and one could almost hear her crackle. Tentam took a lead of a length with England's Scottish Rifle and the American Big Spruce a length and a head farther back. But Dahlia had them measured. Her burst drove her by all three as if they were groping in slow motion. Big Spruce ultimately finished second and Scottish Rifle third. "Scottish Rifle couldn't have wished for a better run," Jockey Ron Hutchinson said afterward. "I thought he would win, but once he saw Dahlia's head he realized he had no chance. He gave up, thinking his job was done."
The people who run Laurel had long hoped for a win by a filly (20 others had tried previously without success). They were all smiles over Dahlia's performance, but there was gloom, too, over the size of the crowd. It was only 20,000. Perhaps had Secretariat run, 10,000 more would have turned out. That, of course, was already out of the question when Dahlia flew in. With a waver here and there, Secretariat's connections decided, finally, that the Oct. 28 Canadian Championship at Woodbine would remain his last race. In many regards that is a shame. A win in the International for Secretariat would have proved a much prouder notch on his gun than all the Canadian Championships or Arlington Invitationals ever run.
"I know," Pyers said, "that Dahlia could beat Secretariat in France or England or Ireland and probably even in the United States, too. You can't say that for a certainty, but wouldn't it be one hell of a race if the best 3-year-old filly in the world could meet what is regarded as the best 3-year-old colt?"
Unlike Secretariat, retired to stud because of tax problems, Dahlia will continue racing as a 4-year-old in Europe. Her ultimate goal, for sure, is the 1974 Arc, the race that got away from her this year. Should she march through Europe as she already has while encountering only minor problems, one thing is certain. You won't have much trouble remembering her. No one will.