Dahlia (1970) was from the first crop of Vaguely Noble out of Charming Alibi.
She was American owned and bred and sent by her owner, Texan oil tycoon Nelson Bunker Hunt, to be trained in Chantilly by Maurice Zilber. Her performances on an international stage over five seasons established her as one of the major globetrotting horses of the 20th century.
The race that established Dahlia 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, the 1973 Irish Derby winner Weaver’s Hall, Eclipse winner Scottish Rifle and the 1972 French Derby winner Hard to Beat. Rheingold 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 2ndwhilst Roberto only managed to beat the pacemaker Park Lawn.
The winning margin equalled Mill Reef’s success in the 1971 King George Stakes. Dahlia had become only the second filly to win the race. 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.
Named 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.
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 France, 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
All her performances in 1974 meant she was again named the Racehorse of the Year in England.
After two less fruitful years in 1975 (She was 3rd in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes) and 1976, 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.