Propagandists have never been so demanding, as they call for female firemen, governors, Little Leaguers and maybe even equal rights with Paul Newman in the matter of playing opposite Robert Redford. In the midst of this uproar, it may have been overlooked by U.S. people women that two French equine women, Allez France and Dahlia, are not only competing with males, they are better, probably, than all the horses now racing. One longs for Miss Jean Brodie, returned to her prime, to stand in the paddock and speak to Allez France and Dahlia for all the women in the world: "Lit-tel gerrrls, you are the créme de la créme"
An interlocking jumble of circumstances has created this world of ladies first and second. While both of these splendid 4-year-olds were bred in Kentucky, they have been trained and raced in Europe, where young female horses are not coddled as most American fillies are, and where they have little choice but to compete head to head against the colts (which is precisely what feminists argue should happen with young girls and boys). It is miracle enough that a Dahlia and an Allez France should come along together the same spring, but they also have been racing during a period when there have been no class European colts to speak of and when the top U.S. heroes have been withdrawn from competition with indecent haste and sent to the profitable confines of the breeding shed.
Surely, the great irony in the ascension of these two fillies is that they stand supreme at the moment in good part because of, and not despite, their sex. Nature, being inconsiderate in commercial matters, permits a dam to bear only one foal per year, while allowing stallions to sow a score or two of wild colts. As a consequence, while the male's place is in the home, where he can make a fortune making love, the filly is worth much more racing. "Allez France," says her owner, Daniel Wildenstein, the art dealer, "is worth 10 times less than what she would be if she were a colt." It is one of the more beguiling happenstances of sport that two champions who did not compete in 1974 both left for reasons of procreation: Secretariat and Margaret Court. Invoking Mrs. Court's name is apt, for Allez France and Dahlia are reminiscent of tennis players. Allez is the trusty Continental clay-court specialist, requiring soft ground and a familiar Gallic ambience to outmaneuver and wear down her opponents. Her only excursion outside France, and that just across the Channel to England in '73, ended in defeat. Since then she has been kept hard by her Paris nest, where this year in five races she routed all comers, including Dahlia twice, and topped off her season with a victory in the Arc de Triomphe. Allez even looks like a homebody, a rather ungainly bay with a big rear end, a somewhat unfortunate nose and lop ears. "She is ugly," says Maurice Zilber, plainly enough, however ungallantly. Zilber is Dahlia's trainer now, but he had Allez France as a yearling when he worked for Wildenstein.
Ah, but the flower girl, Dahlia. She is the pretty, saucy princess who plays the big game on fast surfaces. "She likes to hear her feet rattling," one of her jockeys has said. While Allez is always faithfully guided by the redoubtable Yves Saint-Martin, Dahlia has suffered a number of riders, none of whom pleases her for long. Ron Turcotte was the latest to get the pink slip, even though he had steered her to victory in the Man o' War at Belmont in mid-October, which Dahlia won only three days after her arrival from France. She thrives on travel and popped up to Toronto last week to run at Woodbine in the Canadian International. A win would give her stakes victories in five different countries, like so many charms on a bracelet.
Owned by the half-billionaire Texan, Nelson Bunker Hunt, Dahlia is a dark chestnut, fashionably trim in the rear, bursting with power in the chest. Down the front of her face is a tapering slash of white, shaped not unlike a dagger, that she tends to brandish. Whether in the middle of a race or merely out for a gallop, Dahlia will suddenly, impetuously, throw her head back, exactly as Paulette Goddard or Rhonda Fleming used to, obliging the handsome villain to mutter: "You spitfire, you're even more beautiful when you're mad."
Britain's horse of the year in 1973, the first filly to win $1 million (just before Allez did it), the first filly to take the Laurel International, Dahlia is expected to go in the International again on Saturday, Nov. 9. If she triumphs she and Bald Eagle will be the only two horses to win the Laurel classic back to back. And yet, for all this breathless, jet-setting accomplishment, Dahlia simply cannot deal with Allez France. Six times they have met; six times Allez has won. For three of the defeats, Dahlia's camp can muster some excuse. The turf, for instance, was patty-cake soft. But as soon as Allez was named for the Arc last month, Dahlia was pulled out and sent across the Atlantic to toss her head at the American boys.
It is an odd situation: the one filly is champion of all the world save one country. The other, absolutely revered in that country, is held somewhat suspect elsewhere, viewed as an especially capable manipulator of the home-court advantage. Just as Dahlia ducked Allez France in the Arc, Allez France ducked Dahlia at Ascot this past summer, withdrawn, as Wildenstein admits, because "my bad humor" about her chances was causing him sleepless nights.
Ultimately, it comes to this: Allez France can never, with assurance, be called the conqueror of Dahlia until she takes her measure outside France—volleying with her on a fast surface, on a road trip, even on a right-hand British track. Equally, whatever Dahlia accomplishes at Ascot, in Ireland, in America, in Timbuktu or Pango Pango, even if she wins the America's Cup and the Indianapolis 500, she can never be called Allez' equal until she beats her somewhere, and she can never be called Allez' better until she beats her in Paris. Lit-tel gerrrls, you are inexorably trapped; neither of you can achieve your proper destiny without the other's proper defeat.
Thus, it is cheering to note that the two will almost surely face off again in 1975. The domestic life can wait. "We need victories, not babies," Wildenstein says, and Bunker Hunt is of the same sporting mind. Allez France's present trainer, Angel Penna, appears somewhat sensitive to the criticism that his filly is high-strung, a timid, sissy girl, particularly when she has to travel. Since Penna took charge of her last December, she is not only undefeated but more composed. Perhaps now she will travel.
Female horses are more difficult to keep at top form than males. In the spring, when their sex cycle peaks, they tend to soften up, break down, lose their racing edge. In the autumn they may suffer what are called "false heat" periods. But they do remain more themselves in the fall, and they also get an advantage in weight handicapping. This is a special bounty in Europe, Wildenstein points out, since the colts there tend to be raced harder earlier in the year, which means the fillies are fresher later on.
Wildenstein is a third-generation art dealer and horseman. "Wildensteins are bred for this as trotters are bred for trotting," he said last week at his suite of turf offices in Paris. Though perhaps the wealthiest and most influential art dealer in the world, Wildenstein passes impatiently over that subject. That is his business; racing is his passion. "You must understand," he explained once, "that I am not an owner or a breeder in the usual sense. I am a collector. I collect horses and bloodlines in the same way that one collects paintings or sculpture, or even stamps."
Still, while the Wildenstein blue silks have been raced all this century, they did not reach great prominence until the intriguing, slightly mysterious Maurice Zilber arrived in Paris in 1962 with the equivalent of $6 in his pocket. A refugee from Nasser's Egypt, he had been the leading trainer in thoroughbred racing there for a decade.
Zilber (pronounced zeel-bare) was born in Egypt to a Turkish mother and a Hungarian father of French nationality who is now a tea taster residing in Uruguay. Maurice is 48, bald and sallow, with a lit cigarette always protruding from his lips. So as not to disturb the ashes, which hang there at varying lengths, Zilber hardly moves his lips while speaking any of his six languages—rather resembling a ventriloquist. This also leaves his hands free, allowing him to pantomime the holding of reins. "When I take over for Wildenstein," Zilber says, letting the reins out a notch, "I tell him: 'You have very bad horses.' 'What?' he says. He cannot believe this. 'Yes, you do.' " The reins pull in. "But I promised him the top of the list in five years, and we make it in four, flat and steeplechase."
Zilber had recommended that Wildenstein buy Allez France as a yearling for $160,000, but before the filly came to the races he had accepted a new challenge: building up Bunker Hunt's stable. His position with Wildenstein eventually fell to Penna, an Argentine who had left his country for political reasons, much as Zilber had left his. Penna moved first to Venezuela and then to the U.S. before decamping in France in 1972 with his bride, Elinor Kaine, the pro football writer and sometime Nostradamus.
For Wildenstein, Penna is head trainer of an operation that includes 170 racehorses. For Hunt, Zilber is the chief of a stable that numbers about 100 runners, as well as 100 broodmares scattered over France, England, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. "I think racing is a good economic unit," Hunt said in Canada last week, just after he watched Dahlia work out and just before he took off on a jog of his own around the track.
Zilber sees a bit more than economic units. "I think Bunker Hunt will soon have the greatest empire of horses in the world," he says. This revelation may come as a surprise to casual followers of the running horse, since most of Hunt's racing enterprise lies outside the U.S., and since his younger brother Lamar has heretofore held a lien on the family's fame in sports. Bunker, named by his patriotic father, H. L. Hunt, after Boston's hill, is a heartier, stouter version of Lamar, and displays more of his father's acquisitive business talent. Bunker owns three-fourths of the family oil company and is contesting Libya's takeover of his oil fields in the World Court. Unsubstantiated rumors hold that he has accumulated something on the order of 40 million ounces of silver bullion as a hedge against a rainy day. Brokers say this amount could be equal to the combined silver resources of all the Arab nations. Those new business titans may take over your General Motors, your IBM, your Pittsburgh, Pa., but not your Bunker Hunt.
While Allez France has impeccable breeding—she is by the Arc winner Sea-Bird, out of Priceless Gem—Dahlia was from the very first crop of Vaguely Noble, out of a durable but unremarkable dam named Charming Alibi. Now, as a reward for bearing Dahlia, Charming Alibi is in foal to Secretariat.
Secretariat could have challenged Dahlia at Laurel last year but was sent north to Woodbine instead to finish his career in the Canadian International on a dark and rainy day. This year it was cool and clear for Dahlia's visit to Woodbine. The Canadian International is a mile and five-eighths on a turf course that coils like a spiral, rolling slightly downhill and across the main dirt course at one point.
Dahlia broke from the far outside in the nine-horse field and, under her most favored jockey, Lester Piggott, was taken back—as much as 21 lengths back—behind a fairly slow pace. At the top of the stretch she was still fifth and seemed trapped when London Company moved up on her flank. "I knew something would open up," said Piggott later, and it did. In five strides Dahlia darted through an opening, moved from fifth to first and went on to win the race in record time.
Well, Laurel is next. Then a rest. Then the effort to become the first horse ever to win $2 million. And then, somewhere, sometime, Allez France, out there waiting, in the only world Dahlia has not yet conquered.