Secretariat

Allez France and Dahlia: A Tale of Two Fillies

This week I am looking back at the unforgettable — and parallel — careers of Allez France and Dahlia as an introduction to another powerful European invasion of the Breeders’ Cup. As a reminder from last week’s column featuring the auction of original racing memorabilia, the bidding on the items listed is now live on eBay through Old Friends. In my next column on Thursday, I will break down the Classic field and wagering strategy, make a strong case for one potential overlay, look at a couple of other live longshots to fill out the exotics, and go over the numerous championship ramifications. I will also look for longshots in several of the other Breeders’ Cup races. ~ Steve Haskin

Allez France and Dahlia: A Tale of Two Fillies

By Steve Haskin

 

It is Breeders’ Cup time once again and guess who is returning to America to compete in the Turf? Yes, it is the amazing and resolute mare Magical, who has compiled a remarkable record despite being on the losing end of her rivalry with the great Enable, who had to struggle to narrowly defeat her in the 2018 Turf. But this was not the most one-sided rivalry ever, nor was Affirmed’s dominance over Alydar. The Enable/Magical rivalry brought back memories of the most one-sided, yet one of the most fascinating, rivalries of all time that actually had a profound effect on the sport. Back in the early 1970’s, Daniel Wildenstein’s rough, tough, and brilliant filly Allez France scored a clean sweep over her so-called archrival, the far more feminine Dahlia, owned by Nelson Bunker Hunt.

Both foals of 1970, Allez France and Dahlia faced each other seven times, and not only did Allez France come out on top in all seven meetings, she won six of them and eventually chased Dahlia out of Europe in the fall of 1974 and sent her back to America, where she had dazzled Americans with her spectacular turn of foot in winning the 1973 Washington D.C. International. By escaping the wrath of Allez France, it enabled Dahlia to become the pioneer of international competition by being the first European to have an entire fall campaign in North America, winning the Man o’ War Stakes and Canadian International Championship and finishing a fast-closing third in the Washington D.C. International after being victimized by an unusually slow pace. Allez France would win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe that fall, but Dahlia would change the face of international racing forever.

Allez France had also forced Dahlia’s trainer Maurice Zilber to focus on England and Ireland, where Dahlia won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes twice, including a six-length drubbing of eventual Arc winner Rheingold; the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup twice (now the Juddmonte International), and the Irish Oaks.

Let’s pick up this story in the fall of 1973. Dahlia had been beaten soundly three times by Allez France in the French 1,000 Guineas, French Oaks, and Prix Vermeille. Allez France won those races by three lengths, two lengths, and five lengths, respectively, with Dahlia finishing third, second, and fifth, respectively. Dahlia tried Allez France one more time in the Arc de Triomphe and finished an uncharacteristic 16th, while Allez France finished a good second behind Rheingold. It must be noted, however, that in Dahlia’s four meetings with Allez France the ground was listed as either soft or yielding, which did not suit Dahlia’s lightning turn of foot and she most definitely preferred firm going, which she got in all her victories in England and Ireland.

Ironically, Zilber had Allez France as a yearling when he worked for Wildenstein and was quoted as calling her “ugly,” especially compared the feminine, sleek racing machine that was Dahlia, with her attractive head and elegant thin stripe. Allez France was more coarse-looking with a big hind end and lop ears.

So, here we were following the Arc, with Dahlia ready to head to Laurel for the International. 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 Zilber, who was looking forward to proving that his filly was the best horse in the world. Although Dahlia was unable to handle Allez France over the softer courses in France, and never ran a lick in the Arc, 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.

In the King George, run over 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 (second to Secretariat at Woodbine) 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?”

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 yielding course, she still came home her final quarter in :23 2/5 to win by 3 ¼ lengths.

So, now we move into 1974. It always took Dahlia a few races to reach her peak form and this year was no different. Zilber had the audacity to try Allez France two more times and again Dahlia was crushed by her rival in the Prix d’Harcourt and Prix Ganay, which Allez France won by four and five lengths, respectively. But as summer rolled around, Dahlia again found her best form, beating the boys in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, the King George again, and the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup.

Meanwhile in France, Allez France added victories in the Prix d’Ispahan and Prix Foy, establishing herself as the solid favorite for the Arc de Triomphe. That is where yours truly enters the picture. That year, I and my Daily Racing Form colleague Joe Rosen signed up for a charter tour to France for the Arc, headed by DRF cartoonist Peb (Pierre Bellocq). It was my first time out of the United States. Only two other people signed up, so it was pretty much a private tour. As an avid follower of European racing, I was especially excited about seeing Longchamp and my favorite filly at the time, Allez France, who was a daughter of the great Sea-Bird, who I visited frequently at my home away from home, Darby Dan Farm, where I spent all my vacations every year. I was a huge fan of the strikingly beautiful Sea-Bird and his brilliant daughter.

Considered by many the greatest European horse of the modern era, right up there with Ribot, Sea-Bird was a handsome, elegant liver chestnut who exuded class, and his sheer brilliance was unmatched. Allez France’s dam, Priceless Gem, had the distinction of defeating the great Buckpasser in the 1965 Futurity Stakes.

Having spent my life pretty much confined to trips to Saratoga and Kentucky, I now found myself in the South of France, having sole meuniere for lunch in Marseilles and being driven along the Cote d’Azur, or as we know it the French Riviera, which included the opulent towns of Saint-Tropez and Cannes. We also took in racing at several small provincial tracks.

By now, Allez France was a national hero in France, especially being a daughter of their beloved Sea-Bird. As mentioned earlier, unlike the gentle, feminine Dahlia, Allez France was a brute of a filly who could hammer any male into submission. Elinor Penna, wife of Allez France’s trainer Angel Penna, recalled, “She was the most masculine female horse ever; powerful and very proud of it.”

Allez France was such a prima donna, she wouldn’t go anywhere without her pet sheep, ironically named Steve. Even though she would bully poor Steve, when Allez France eventually was sent to the U.S. at the end of her career to compete in the inaugural and short-lived National Championship Handicap at Santa Anita, Steve couldn’t get the proper papers to accompany her, and it was Steve who threw a major tantrum when Allez France left.

Each day, I closely followed the progress of Allez France, eagerly awaiting the race and seeing my favorite filly. Then came the news. About a week before the Arc, Yves Saint-Martin, the legendary rider who had ridden Allez France in all of her starts, fractured his leg in a spill. There seemed no way he could ride, especially in a grueling, competitive race like the Arc. Penna and Wildenstein signed up another all-time great, Lester Piggott, to replace Saint-Martin, even though the French jockey would not give up hope. Piggott remained on call with the understanding that whether he rode the filly or not he would receive the same amount of money as Saint-Martin.

Right up until the morning of the race, no one knew whether Saint-Martin would be able to ride. He was still in pain and had to go a mile and a half against the cream of Europe, and in a 20-horse field.

Among those challenging him and Allez France were stablemate Paulista, an impressive four-length winner of the Prix Vermeille; The Queen’s Highclere, winner of the English Oaks and French One Thousand Guineas; Sagaro, winner of the Grand Prix de Paris and eventual three-time winner of the Ascot Gold Cup; Busiris, winner of the French St. Leger; Margouillat, winner of the Prix Dollar and second to Allez France in the Prix d’Ispahan; and On My Way, runner-up to Dahlia in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud.

Saint-Martin insisted they shoot him up with pain killers some 20 minutes before the race. He announced he would ride Allez France and would be effective as long as he didn’t have to get down and ride her hard. The one thing he needed to avoid was a head-to-head stretch battle. He was confident enough that his filly could win comfortably, and that he could get away with not having any strength in his leg.

Saint-Martin was able to give Allez France a good ground-saving trip with cover. Just before the turn for home, Allez France was eased toward the outside and exploded, making a swift, powerful move, passing horses in a flash and quickly opening a clear advantage. Saint-Martin admitted later he was in so much pain he was unable to hold her and had to let her open up, even though there was still more than two furlongs to go. Saint-Martin, hand-riding his filly, kept pushing hard on her, maintaining the lead over a stubborn Margouillat.

Just when it looked as if he had the race under control and was on his way to a clear victory, from out of the pack came the classy filly Comtesse de Loir, who was under a series of furious right-handed whips.

Comtesse de Loir was gaining with every stride and collared Allez France inside the furlong marker. They came charging right past me, with Saint-Martin still vigorously hand-riding Allez France, and when I saw how far away the finish line still was I felt for sure that Allez France was beaten, as Comtesse de Loir had all the momentum. This was exactly what Saint-Martin was hoping to avoid.

But Allez France, even with a struggling Saint-Martin aboard, pinned her ears and dug in tenaciously and refused to let Comtesse de Loir pass her. They matched strides the rest of the way, with Comtesse de Loir, still under extreme whipping, unable to get her head in front of Allez France, who held her head advantage all the way to the wire in one of the gutsiest performances I have ever seen from a horse and rider.

The appreciative crowd, well aware of Saint-Martin’s troubles, gave him and Allez France a rousing ovation. The filly they had come to worship over the past two years had prevailed and they saluted her upon her return. I was so moved by the courage she displayed, and was thrilled to have come all this way to witness such an epic event. And I was going to go home happy having seen a truly great filly put on a memorable show.

But the most profound chapter of this tale of two fillies was still to be played out. Dahlia, wanting no part of Allez France, was on her way back to America for an unprecedented three-race fall campaign.

Dahlia’s trip back to the States in 1974 did not start off very well, as she had a terrible experience in the antiquated and poorly run Clifton, New Jersey. 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. Ridden by none other than Secretariat’s jockey Ron Turcotte, she drew off to win by two lengths in a 13-horse field. 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 and breaking the course record by a full second. 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.

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 1 races and was third in a Grade 1 all in the span of 28 days.

Normally, a 4-year-old filly who had accomplished what Dahlia had 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. Believe it or not, she had actually tried Allez France one last time in 1975 in the Prix Ganay in her first start of the year over good going and once again was soundly beaten.

Dahlia remained in the States with Charlie Whittingham following the Canadian and D.C. Internationals and managed to win the Hollywood Invitational at age 6. I can honestly say I watched my daughter Mandy grow up with Dahlia from the time she was a baby, as we visited her on numerous occasions over the years at Windfields Farm in Maryland and Bluegrass Farm and Brookside Farm in Kentucky, with Mandy always having a kiss for her. I did manage to visit Allez France once at Hagyard Farm in Lexington.

What a legacy these two magnificent fillies left. 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 turf 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, who was France’s 1972 Champion 2-year-old filly, 1973 Champion 3-year-old filly, 1974 Champion older filly and mare, and 1974 Horse of the Year.

Although Allez France always got the best of her, Dahlia 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, competing in six different countries and winning Grade or Group 1 stakes in five 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.

For a filly to have raced so often (48 times) and for so many years, mainly against the boys, while traveling all over the world, there was doubt about Dahlia’s proficiency as a broodmare. Residing at Nelson Bunker Hunt’s Bluegrass Farm and then Allen Paulson’s Brookside Farm, Dahlia remarkably proved as great a producer as she was a racehorse. Of 11 foals to race, Dahlia produced six graded stakes winners — four Grade 1 winners and two Grade 2 winners, as well as a Grade 1-placed horse and a listed stakes-placed horse.

The more masculine Allez France produced only four foals to race and two winners, but one of her foals, Action Francaise, won the Group 3 Prix de Sandringham in France, and her other winner, Air de France, was sent to stud in Australia, where he sired 10 stakes winners and two Group 1 winners. Allez France was so tough and strong-willed she would foal standing up.

It was Dahlia’s success in America that paved the way for a massive French invasion, with many of the European invaders being fillies – Waya, Flying Water, Nobiliary, April Run, Trillion, All Along, Miesque, Pebbles, Estrapade, Miss Alleged, and in more recent years, Goldikova, Ouija Board, and Enable. So dominant was All Along, the French filly, also owned by Wildenstein, was voted Horse of the Year in America in 1983, winning the Arc de Triomphe, Canadian International, Turf Classic, and D.C. International in the span of six weeks. Another French filly, Trillion, trained by Zilber, came to America after finishing fifth in the Arc and finished second in the Canadian International at Woodbiine, second in the Turf Classic at Belmont, second in the Oak Tree Invitational at Santa Anita, and second in the D.C. International at Laurel in the span of 20 days. So impressive was that feat, Trillion was named champion female turf horse in America despite not winning a race in the United States and Canada. Dahlia and her successors had shown Americans just how tough and resilient, and successful, a filly can be, racing often and against males. Dahlia’s feat in 1974 unlocked the floodgates, especially for French invaders.

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.

American Racing Photos by Bob Coglianese