They labeled it with simple, if not poetic, majesty: The Richest Match Race of the Century. There were some who thought it might be a historic event, a significant—perhaps even a classic—addition to the annals of American horse racing. There were many who saw it as a momentary, but still meaningful, boost to the well-being of the sport. Others viewed it merely as an afternoon's handful of hoopla and Stardust, a common everyday Hollywood-style product built from the usual vulgar display of money, movie stars and hard sell. There were even a few people who predicted that it would be a farce.
And everybody was a little bit right. It was some of all those things, well mixed together, when Chris Evert, the magnificent filly from the East, went to California to go head-to-head with Miss Musket, the nearly magnificent filly from the West, last Saturday afternoon at Hollywood Park.
While no one can ever know how much cash may have been put on the barrelhead on those fabled Gatsby afternoons long ago when the very rich matched their very best stock on their own private tracks, Saturday's duel was the biggest public winner-take-all, no-strings-attached purse ever contested for in sports. The $350,000 that Chris Evert won for crushing her rival by an unprecedented 50 lengths works out to a payoff of nearly $2,900 for each second she ran.
The event was decidedly a boon to racing, for it attracted something of the kind of broad national interest that is aroused by the Triple Crown. Not to mention that Hollywood Park drew 47,900 for the race, its biggest crowd of the season. Stars glittered in the Southern California summer afternoon: Greer Garson in a splendid white hat, Walter Matthau in shades, 70-year-old Cary Grant cleverly disguised as a 50-year-old, Henry Mancini, John Forsythe, Don Meredith, Mervyn LeRoy, General Omar Bradley—to say nothing of the fabulous Wimbledon sweethearts, Chris Evert (the girl) and Jimmy Connors (the boy) who were at the track as part of a merchandising campaign to sell a line of tennis clothes put out by Carl Rosen, the owner of Chris Evert (the horse).
Yet, despite the Hollywood hoopla and devastation of the result, there was from the beginning more than a slight touch of class to the affair. It really did have overtones of a classic confrontation, a match race with a quality that seemed likely to produce something memorable. Miss Musket, an oddly gaunt and scrawny-looking animal, had won seven of eight starts at California tracks, earning over $195,000 since she came to the races this January, and was plainly the best 3-year-old filly in the West. And Chris Evert, a powerful filly with a big behind and a potbelly and a dramatic white slash down her nose, had swept to victory in seven of her nine starts over the past two years, winning almost $250,000 plus the prestigious 3-year-old fillies' Triple Crown. She had found no peers racing in the East. Thus there was a clear-cut question of East-West superiority to be answered.
The jockeys, two Panamanians born but a day apart 27 years ago, were, as was fitting, the best. Miss Musket's Laffit Pincay Jr. leads all jockeys in races and money won this year and bids fair to top his '73 mark, when he became the first rider in history whose mounts won over $4 million. Chris Evert's Jorge Velasquez is the top rider this year on the top circuit, New York.
There was greater contrast with the trainers. Miss Musket's was none but the shrewdest, baldest eagle of them all, Charlie Whittingham, 61, who was just elected to the Hall of Fame and has won more money than any trainer for the past four years running. But Joe Trovato, Chris Evert's trainer, was a fresh figure, only 37, a former jockeys' agent with his first big horse who has only been training for three years. The Westerners were quick to scrutinize his methods and his approach to the race—critically, for the most part.
Yet in its way this was more an owners' race than anything else. There is something exceedingly pure, refreshing, even inspiring, about two men stepping forward out of the clutter, protection and anonymity of corporations, bureaucracies and the various societal group-shadows of the day to challenge each other out where everyone can see. They put up their money, laid their pride on the line. It is an old-fashioned thing—as Charlie Whittingham put it, "That's the way people used to act"—and so it was with Aaron U. Jones, 52, the soft-spoken Oregon lumberman who owns Miss Musket, and Rosen, 56, the gravel-voiced dressmaker from Boston. Each anted up one hundred grand in real money to back the beauty of his choice.
Both Jones and Rosen are self-made men of means and neophytes to horse racing who stand well outside the Establishment. Both bought their champions at bargain-basement prices: Rosen got Chris Evert, a Kentucky bred, for $32,000 at the 1972 Keeneland Summer Sale and Jones bought the Florida-bred Miss Musket—selecting her himself with nothing but the knowledge he had gained from "a $10,000 library on thoroughbreds I bought" at the '71 Keeneland Fall Sale for $8,500.
Jones, a friendly, open, cheerful man, was born in Utopia, Texas, grew up in Oregon, became a journeyman carpenter when he was working his way through the University of Oregon and eventually leased a sawmill. He now cuts 100 million board feet of housing lumber a year, and does over $30 million in annual sales. He lives in Eugene, Ore., which is not exactly the pasture of bluegrass blue bloods: his hometown paper, the Eugene Register-Guard, scarcely printed a word about the richest match race of the century because it does not choose to stain its columns with news of the dread sport of horse racing, in which there is gambling involved.
Jones has owned race horses for only three years, but he already has some $5 million invested in thoroughbreds and has a 480-acre breeding ranch high in the mountains at Sisters, Ore. "I am used to calculated risks," he says. "The lumber business is a calculated risk. But I am not a gambling man. I put up the $100,000 for this match because I think our filly is the best in the country, and my philosophy has always been that if you can't afford the ride, then you just better get off and walk. And I think this will be good for racing."
Carl Rosen, a stocky, hard-eyed man who grew up in the Roxbury section of Boston, took over his father's garment firm in 1948. Sales were under a million dollars a year then. But in the past 25 years Puritan Fashions multiplied its annual sales volume to $200 million and now employs 12,000 people. The same year that Rosen bought his new yearling at Keeneland he signed up Chris Evert to endorse a line of tennis clothes. He asked her if she minded if he named his new filly after her, and she said, "No, I think it's a super idea."
Rosen has a reputation for being a fairly eager gambler. Yet the $100,000 he put up for last week's match race was not, in his mind, a true mano-a-mano bet with Aaron Jones. "Listen, I wouldn't bet anyone $100,000 on anything. Money doesn't come that easy to me," he says. "The conditions for this race were such that a certain amount of money—a certain large amount of money—was a necessary ingredient to make the match important. The money was necessary. So was the risk of bringing Chris Evert to the West Coast. We could have stayed back East and run the races against the same horses. We could have won with no risk. But I don't get a thrill running in the Delaware Oaks against the same old competition. The pleasure of this, the kick of it, the motivation behind putting up $100,000 way out here in California and running against a really great horse on her own home ground is—well, it's the way I've always lived my life. I don't sit back and enjoy the ride. I look for new frontiers."
Match races are as old as horses, and in early America many a horseman wandered the country with his own version of Chris Evert, arranging matches and winning stakes wherever he could. The match race is the ancestral essence of all horse racing in America, and there is a record of such a contest in 1788, when a thoroughbred named Magnolia owned by one George Washington was beaten at the Alexandria, Va. jockey club by a roan colt owned by a Thomas Jefferson.
In the 19th century match races flourished madly, but since 1900 they have dwindled in importance and in value. Indeed, there have been no more than nine races since 1900 at purses worth $25,000 or more. Man o' War beat Sir Barton for $80,000 1920 dollars, and not long after Zev won one match for $85,000, another for $25,000. Seabiscuit upset War Admiral by four lengths in 1938 at Pimlico in a West-comes-to-East duel that was nearly the mirror image of what Chris Evert-Miss Musket turned out to be. Alsab beat Whirlaway in 1942, Armed ran away from Assault in 1947 and then, in 1955, Nashua trounced Swaps for $100,000 as Eddie Arcaro bested Willie Shoemaker coming out of the gate. There was not another big-money duel until 1972 when Convenience nosed Typecast for $250,000, also at Hollywood Park, but that was pretty much a local affair between two California handicap horses.
Given the infrequency of match races, it was all the more astonishing that the Jones-Rosen clash was arranged with almost no friction at all. Somehow the ground rules, logistics and economics of the largest public match-racing prize in history seemed to be arranged about as easily as the purchase of a bag of feed. The basic middleman was Jimmy Kilroe, the venerable and incomparable director of racing at Hollywood Park, who received the suggestion for such a race from a Los Angeles friend of Carl Rosen. Kilroe contacted Charlie Whittingham, who called Aaron Jones, who took "less than 30 seconds" to give his approval. Rosen agreed, too, in a matter of minutes. The owners coughed up their $ 100,000 apiece, and the track contributed $150,000 to complete the purse. The only major point of contention was the length of the race, whether it should be a mile and a half (hard-finishing Chris Evert's best distance and her last start) or a mile and an eighth (speedy Miss Musket's best and her last start). The compromise, logically, was at a mile and a quarter, which also happens to be the Kentucky Derby distance.
The day of the race gentlemen Jones and Rosen met for the first time, shook hands and huddled in an empty stall in the paddock to wish each other good luck. The two fillies paraded about the paddock and Chris Evert (the girl) got her first look at her namesake. She and her fiancé/fellow champion Jimmy Connors held hands constantly and seemed dazzled by each other's presence. When someone rather foolishly asked Connors if he saw any resemblance between his fiancée and the horse, he looked at the horse and said, "Well, she's temperamental, too." Then he looked at the girl and said, "But I like the way my Chrissie's built better."
The race itself was, almost perforce, an anticlimax, proving what many people had been preaching for days: in match races, no matter how rich, the horse who takes the lead takes the race. Both fillies broke together from the gate but Miss Musket, the slight favorite, starting on the inside, veered, losing a few yards and the lead to Chris Evert. Velasquez was then able to open up enough of a lead—a length and a half—so that he could come over and take the rail, denying Miss Musket the edge that the luck of the draw had granted her.
The two thundered together past the grandstand doing the first quarter in :21⅘ with Chris Evert holding a narrower edge—at most half a length. Miss Musket, stretched out as thin and sinewy as a greyhound, held her own around the first turn and into the backstretch. But she was always just behind Chris Evert—a head, a half length, a neck, a head, even back to three-quarters of a length. Then coming into the long straightaway, Pincay moved Miss Musket once again, and she drew closer, closer, finally to less than a neck. She could almost, but not quite, get up and look Chris Evert in the eye. Chris Evert stoutly held the lead and the rail under a strong and intelligent ride by Velasquez. He still had plenty of horse (six furlongs in a dandy 1:08[4/5]), and finally Miss Musket drifted out a bit, a bit more and—stunningly—midway down the backstretch she faltered and finally just gave up. The effort to pass the powerful filly from the East had been too much for her.
All the while, Chris Evert's long tail switched gloriously. With most horses, if a tail starts flying it indicates that the horse is through running, but Chris Evert raises hers like a pointer that just spotted a covey, and speeds up. She drove alone down the stretch that way, breezing past the finish in the fine time of 2:02. Meanwhile, Pincay stood up in the irons with a full furlong to go, sparing his game mount further, letting her finish at her leisure, cantering in. While Rosen got a check for $350,000 and a lot of neat publicity for Puritan Fashions, perhaps the happiest winner was the trainer, Trovato. "If we had lost, I would have been made to look like a dummy," he said of the pre-race criticism, revealing the tension he had felt about his personal stake. "I was criticized for bringing her here loo soon, for training her too slow and for being too young."
Later when someone asked Chris Evert (the girl) how she felt about the race, she said, "Well, I can't compare it to Wimbledon." She paused, then added, "I guess I can't really compare it to anything because it's the first race I've ever been to."
Maybe Chris Evert (the horse) would like to spend a day at Forest Hills.