Nobiliary is a 3-year-old and good. Really good—and perhaps far more than that. Last June she finished second in the English Derby at Epsom Downs, the first filly in the money in that classic in nearly 70 years. And what she did last week in the 24th running of the $150,000 Washington, D.C., International at Maryland's Laurel Race Course stamps her as something rare yet enduring, a filly to build dreams on. She is right there with Ruffian, Susan's Girl, Dahlia and Allez France of recent vintage and perhaps eventually she will rank with Gallorette, Twilight Tear, Regret and Top Flight, heroines of the past.
In midstretch of the International, Nobiliary, despite sticky 80° heat and a 10-minute delay at the starting gate, which should have dissipated some of her energy, had been carrying the lead for more than 1¼ miles, blinking her taillights at the best field ever to compete in the race. And then, indomitably, she dug in to win by three-quarters of a length under a fine ride by Sandy Hawley. In the bizarre history of the International only two other horses had raced in front for that long and mustered the resolution required to continue on and win. The first was Bald Eagle in 1960, and by doing so he earned the American handicap championship. Three years later Mongo became the second and was named only the year's champion on grass for it, because the horse Mongo beat that day was Kelso, who had won eight consecutive stakes before the International on the way to the fourth of his five straight Horse of the Year titles.
Behind Nobiliary on Saturday were the first three finishers in this year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the world's most prestigious horse race; the 1974 Epsom Derby winner; Italy's premier runner; America's top grass horse; and the winner's own stablemate, Dahlia, a millionairess and the only 3-year-old filly before Nobiliary to win an International. That was in 1973. When Nobiliary got to the winner's circle she had to sustain a frivolous claim of foul, and she had enough spunk left to break the shank holding her and run off free for something like an eighth of a mile.
Those who do not follow racing closely may have looked upon this year's International as greatly diminished because three of the horses who were supposed to be there—Forego, Wajima and Allez France—never made it. In the fortnight before the race Forego and Allez France were injured, while Wajima's owners just plain decided to duck out of what had been announced as his last race before retiring to stud. All three, though, would have been suspect, for neither Forego nor Wajima had ever raced on grass, and Allez France, despite the excellence of her bloodlines and the heft of her bank account—$1,386,146, tops among female horses—has a gap in her record as wide as the Bois de Boulogne. She has never won a race at any track other than Long-champ and Chantilly.
Nobiliary is a true internationalist. Her sire, Vaguely Noble, raced in France and England and now stands at Gainesway Farm on Paris Pike in Lexington, Ky. Owner Nelson Bunker Hunt is from Texas and races horses in Australia, Ireland, Italy and New Zealand as well as England, France and the United States. Trainer Maurice Zilber was born in Egypt, the son of a Turkish mother and a Hungarian father with a French passport. Hawley is out of Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.
Nevertheless, there were wrinkles on Nobiliary's International invitation. She really wasn't asked in the way the other eight starters were. Dahlia is Hunt's favorite, but he wanted Nobiliary in the International, too, partly because, like Dahlia, she was sired by Vaguely Noble, in whom Hunt has a 50% interest; he also thought she could do well on the Laurel grass.
"I suppose you could say that I forced her into the race a little bit," said Hunt. "I suggested her strongly to John Schapiro [the originator of the International]. John sometimes can use a little advice on who he asks to come and I gave him mine about Nobiliary. I was willing to pay her way just to give her the chance."
Now that she has made the most of it, Hunt can use Nobiliary to try to fulfill a goal he has long coveted. This winter the filly will be shipped to Florida to prepare for a winter campaign in the U.S. The Hialeah meeting is rich in turf races such as the $50,000 Bougainvillea Handicap and the $100,000 Hialeah Turf Cup. Hunt will turn Nobiliary over to Trainer Woody Stephens, who has won more than 150 major stakes races in North America, including two Internationals (with Bald Eagle) and the 1974 Kentucky Derby (Cannonade). After the Florida season Hunt will ship Nobiliary back to Europe.
"One of the major differences between racing in Europe and in this country," Hunt said, "is that there is enough money in filly races in the United States so that fillies don't face colts too often. That isn't so in Europe, so trainers are not afraid to send fillies against colts. It could be a thing American trainers have been wrong about for many years." Nobiliary's winter stint may well support her owner's theory.
Zilber, the man who sends Hunt's fillies against the colts in Europe, is one of the world's finest trainers and poorest sportsmen. At 53 he has no peer among trainers as a "jockey knocker." Had he been tightening girths in the 11th century he would have been the first in the streets of Coventry to find flaws in Ms. Godiva's riding style. Zilber knocks them all, from Lester Piggott to Yves St. Martin to Billy Pyers.
Three weeks ago Zilber criticized Sandy Hawley's ride on Dahlia in the $150,000 Canadian International, asserting that the jockey had waited too long before moving in the stretch. Hawley must be doing something right, though. This year his mounts have earned $3.2 million, up $1 million from his best previous season. At Laurel, Zilber first listed St. Martin to ride Nobiliary and Hawley to ride Dahlia. But he had a pretty good idea that wouldn't work because St. Martin is too heavy to accept the 117 pounds assigned to Nobiliary, the lightweight in the race. Thus, Hawley got to ride her.
"Nobiliary has an extremely sensitive mouth," Hawley said afterward. "You have to use a light touch with her." And he did exactly that.
Zilber was asked what he thought of Hawley's performance. "Some days he rides well," was the response.
More important is the fact that Nobiliary will be running in this country, at least for a while. With the death of Ruffian, the retirement of Wajima and Susan's Girl and the sad prospect that grand old Forego might not be able to return from the latest of his injuries, she is most welcome.