Dahlia: A Globetrotting Superstar

24th July 2015

Dahlia a Globetrotting Superstar

With this weekend’s prestigious King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes approaching the Museum’s Stephen Wallis remembers Dahlia, who took the race by storm in 1973 and 1974 to become the first dual winner of the race.

Dahlia, foaled in 1970, was from the outset an international horse. She was American owned and bred and sent by her owner, Texan oil tycoon Nelson Bunker Hunt, to be trained in Chantilly, France by Maurice Zilber.  Her future performances on the racecourses of the world over five seasons established her as one of the major globetrotting horses of the 20th century.

Dahlia was from the first crop of Vaguely Noble, winner of the 1968 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and was also in bred to Hyperion in the fourth generation.  Her dam Charming Alibi, who won 16 of her 71 races, was a tough filly, a trait inherited by her daughter.

As a two year old the chestnut won the Prix Yacowlef, a listed race at Deauville over 5 furlongs in early August, where, with Lester Piggott in the saddle she set an all age course time record over the distance.  However, she failed to win any of her next three juvenile starts, finishing unplaced at Deauville and Longchamp before coming 2nd on the latter course at the end of the season.

Dahlia was given 8st 10lb in the French Free Handicap 7lb less than another American bred, French trained filly Allez France – who was to be her great rival in six encounters.

As a three year old she won the Prix de la Grotte, over 1m at Longchamp in April, before she began her famous rivalry with Allez France in the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches at Longchamp (French 1,000 Guineas).

Now ridden by Australian Bill Pyers she finished third 2 ¬Ω lengths and a neck behind a very impressive Allez France .

The stable thought, however, the distance had proved too short for Dahlia who subsequently won the Prix St Alary over 1m 2f at Longchamp, and they hoped to reverse the form over a similar trip in the Prix Diane at Chantilly (French Oaks).  Although Dahlia stayed on well to finish second in a 25 runner field she was again no match for Allez France, who beat Zilber’s filly by a comfortable 2 ½ lengths in a then record time for the classic.

The race that established Dahlia as a significant horse came at the Curragh, in the Irish Guinness Oaks, where she easily defeated the Noel Murless trained dual 1973 classic winner and odds on favourite, Mysterious (1,000 Guineas, Oaks) by three lengths.

A mere seven days later Zilber sent the filly to Ascot for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.   Newspaper reports of the day stated that Dahlia had come out of the Curragh race so well that Zilber decided to take his chance.

The twelve runners included the 1972 Derby winner Roberto and runner up Rheingold, Parnell 2nd in last year’s Ascot race, the 1973 Irish Derby winner Weaver’s Hall, recent Eclipse winner Scottish Rifle and the 1972 French Derby winner Hard to Beat.  What a line up, especially when you consider the future exploits of Rheingold, who headed the market at 13/8.   Roberto was 3/1 second favourite while Dahlia was joint third favourite at 10/1 with Parnell.

Park Lawn, the pacemaker for Weaver’s Hall, set the early pace, closely followed by his stable companion and Lester Piggott on Roberto.   With five furlongs to go Piggott set off with the aim of stealing the race. The 1972 Derby winner continued to set a hot pace as they entered the straight ahead of Weaver’s Hall, Hard to Beat and Scottish Rifle.  Meanwhile, Bill Pyers was playing a waiting game on the filly who, with half a mile to go, was last.  Three furlongs from home he made his move.  As Roberto weakened Dahlia swept through the field to take the lead, whereupon a rapid burst of speed saw him establish a six length lead over Yves Saint Martin on the favourite Rheingold, who came 2nd whilst Roberto only managed to beat the pacemaker  Park Lawn.

The winning margin equalled Mill Reef’s success in the 1971 “King George”.  Dahlia had become the first filly to win the race since its inception in 1951.  A shot at the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and her chief rival Allez France beckoned.

Disappointing in her prep race for the Longchamp showpiece, the Prix Vermeille, she suffered an injury to her near hind when she was struck into by another horse on entering the straight.  She could only finish 5th behind Allez France.  Although she contested the Arc her interrupted preparations stymied any realistic chance, some thought it was surprising she even lined up, and the filly came 16th of the 27 runners.  Rheingold with Lester Piggott in the saddle snatched the glory ahead of Dahlia’s nemesis Allez France.

Remarkably the durability of Dahlia and the training skills of Zilber came to the fore in early November when she travelled to America and won the Washington International at Laurel Park by three lengths, the first filly to win the race.

Racehorse of the Year in England for 1973 Hunt decided to keep her in training with the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes one of her major objectives. Again she took a while to reach her peak form and she was unplaced in the Group 2 Prix d’Harcourt and Group 1 Prix Ganay, both behind Allez France.  Subsequently 3rd in the Coronation Cup to the Dick Hern trained, Buoy she showed signs of improvement when winning the Grand Prix de St Cloud this time with the French maestro Yves St Martin in the saddle.

Hyperion: Dahlia descends from this great horse, who won the 1933 Derby

Ascot was set to witness a clash between the two great fillies of their age with Allez France declared in the four day acceptors.  Sadly two days before, her owner Daniel Wildenstein pulled her out of the race as he believed her a nervous traveller.

Ten horses went to post on 26 July 1974 with Dahlia heading the betting at 15/8, this time reunited with Lester Piggott.  On paper the field was not regarded as strong as the previous year.  Her main rivals were Her Majesty the Queen’s highly rated filly Highclere, who had recently won the English 1,000 Guineas and Prix Diane, surprise Derby winner Snow Knight, Buoy and the Marcel Bousacc owned Dankaro 2nd in the French Derby.

Fresh from winning the two races prior to the big race Piggott rode a masterful race on the filly.  After Dahlia’s pacemaker, Hippodamia (2nd in 1974 Poule d’Essai des Pouliches) faded as they turned for home, the filly lay 4th before Piggott took up the running with a furlong to go cruising past Snow Knight and Buoy.  The final margin of victory was 2 ½ lengths although Piggott had plenty in hand as the duo crossed the line ahead of Highclere with Dankaro a further length back in third. Snow Knight was sixth.

Bunker Hunt, who had missed the race in 1973, had flown to Ascot for the day and after the race was already planning another American assault.  Before the autumn campaign the filly proved a class above the colts Snow Knight and Imperial Prince (2nd in the Derby) as well as the Queen’s Highclere when waltzing to victory by 2 ½ lengths  in the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup (now Juddmonte International) at York.

After she only managed third in her next run, in the Prix du Prince d’Orange when Piggott said she lacked her usual zest for racing, Bunker Hunt changed the plans.  The Arc was bypassed and the filly crossed the Atlantic.  Victories followed in the Man o’War Stakes at Belmont Park and the Canadian International at Woodbine Park, Toronto, where she broke the course record.  She failed, however, to retain her Washington International title coming only third, beaten ¾ length and the same by another French raider, Admetus.   Some American reporters thought that Piggott had held her back too long before making his move, but she had been able to do so the previous year.  In response Piggott famously remarked afterwards ‘They can’t win all the time, they’re not machines you know’.

All her performances in 1974 meant she was again named the Racehorse of the Year in England.

Dahlia remained in training in 1975 and a similar programme was mapped out for her.  As usual she took until July before she showed her true form.  She was noticeably bigger and stronger, but at times she became difficult at the start, she had to be dismounted before going into the stalls in Canada a trick she repeated during 1975. Although unplaced in her first four starts, all in France, she was still considered to have a good chance in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes as it was now known.  July, Ascot, a trip of 1m 4 furlongs and sunshine was the perfect recipe for Dahlia.

On firm going, Dahlia looking for her third triumph in the mid summer prize was a mere sideshow to the two main protagonists, Derby winner Grundy and the previous year’s St Leger victor Bustino.  In what was regarded as the ‘Race of the Century’ Dahlia and Lester Piggott came third beaten a ½ length and 5 lengths by Grundy.  Remarkably whilst Grundy broke the course record by 2.36 seconds Dahlia’s time was better than when winning in 1973 and 1974.

Dahlia did gain her revenge on Grundy at York in the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup in mid August although the Ascot race had taken its toll on the Derby winner, who came home a very tired 4th.  It was to be her last win in England and in fact on European turf.

In all Dahlia won only one race from eleven starts in 1975 which ended with unplaced runs in both the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Canadian International (4th) and Washington International.

In 1976 Dahlia was switched across the Atlantic to be trained by Charlie Whittingham in California.  In a busy season the six year old ran thirteen times winning twice, the most notable being the Hollywood Turf International over her favourite trip 1m 4f ridden by the legendary American Bill Shoemaker.

In a five season career Dahlia had won 15 of her 48 starts amassing prize money of approximately $1.5 million. She had beaten classic winning colts across the world and in 1981 was inducted into the American Horse Racing Hall of Fame

She retired to her owner's stud in Kentucky where she produced group 1 winning colts Dahar and Rivlia (1987 Hollywood Turf International) in addition to group 1 winning filly Dahlia's Dreamer.  She retired as a broodmare in 1996 and was humanely put to sleep on 6 April 2001 aged 31.

Nowadays it is common practice for the top European thoroughbreds to travel round the globe in pursuit of Group 1 prizes.  Back in the 1970’s Dahlia was an exception.  She was an extraordinary filly with an amazing constitution who won in five different countries.  Throughout her career the question always asked was who was the best filly, Allez France or Dahlia?

Allez France won all six personal battles which many would say settles the argument.  But the 1973 Arc apart, when Dahlia wasn’t fully fit, all of those races were not over Dahlia’s preferred 1 mile        4 furlong trip.  Furthermore, Wildenstein’s great filly never won outside France.  Whatever your own personal opinion Dahlia’s globetrotting exploits, thanks to the support of her enthusiastic owner Nelson Bunker Hunt, will live long in the memory.

If only Allez France had travelled over to Ascot in 1973 for the King George?  Perhaps if she had, we would be nearer to the real answer to my question.