Dahlia: The Globe-Trotting Queen of the Turf

May 12, 2020

Dahlia was the Xena: Warrior Princess of 1970’s horse racing, a female who traveled to distant lands and kicked the boys’ butts. A fine-boned chestnut filly with a feminine face cut with a slender stripe, Dahlia lacked the Amazonian qualities of Ruffian, Zenyatta and Winning Colors. Yet in her amazing career, the daughter of Vaguely Noble out of Charming Alibi would go on to beat classic-winning colts in five different countries and become horse racing’s first female millionaire.

Dahlia

Owned and bred by Nelson Bunker Hunt, the American born filly began her racing career in France. Trained by Maurice Zilber she won her first start, the Prix Yacowlef then followed it with two fifth place finishes before ending her two year old season with a second in the Prix des Reservoirs.

Dahlia’s three year old campaign began in France with a victory in the Prix de la Grotte. In her next start she faced Allez France for the first time, finishing third to the filly who would become her nemesis. In the six races in France where they competed against each other, Dahlia never beat her. Yet Allez France was winless outside of her native country. Allez France might have been Queen of the French turf but Dahlia ruled the rest of the world. 

In the summer of 1973, Dahlia set off on her incredible journey. Even with today’s modern accommodations, air travel and quarantine can adversely affect a racehorse’s performance. Many horses have flown overseas to compete in a single race, only to return home a shell of their former selves. Dahlia’s racing schedule read more like a rock band’s tour itinerary, hopping from nation to nation, wowing fans with a huge performance before moving on to the next country.

Dahlia’s first stop was Ireland where she cruised to a three length victory in the Irish Guinness Oaks. A mere seven days later, she was in England, humiliating classic winning colts such as Roberto, Hard to Beat, Rheingold, Parnell and Weavers’ Hall in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes while setting a new stakes record. Her six length victory tied Mill Reef’s as the largest winning margin in the race to date.

Sent back to France, Dahlia scored a win in the Prix Niel but was injured in her next start and finished off the board. Not yet fully recovered, she ran poorly in her next race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. For her final start of 1973, Dahlia was shipped to the U.S. for the Washington D.C. International. After being restrained in the back of the field for much of the race, she swooped past Big Spruce, Scottish Rifle and Tentam in mid-stretch to win by two and a quarter lengths. Maurice Zilber bragged after the race, “She could beat Secretariat any day in any country. I would like to see a match race. I would even put up my money.”

Secretariat’s camp never got back to him.

Voted 1973’s Top-rated Three Year Old Filly in Britain, British Horse of the Year and Champion Three Year old in Ireland, Dahlia started her four year old season once again in France with losses to Allez France. 

Time for another international tour. 

Sent to England, Dahlia finished third in the Coronation Cup then rebounded with a win in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in France. Next she flew back to England where she notched her second win in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes followed by a victory in the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup. Then it was back to France for a third in the Prix du Prince d’Orange. 

Dahlia ended her 1974 racing season with a whirlwind tour of North America, starting with a win in the Man O’ War Stakes at Belmont Park. Fifteen days later, the frequent flying filly came from 21 lengths off the pace to win the Canadian International Championship Stakes at Woodbine. Thirteen days later, she finished third in the Washington D.C. International after a controversial ride by Lester Piggott who many felt had waited too long to make his move. Nevertheless, she was voted 1974’s U.S. Champion Grass Horse at a time when the award included both genders. In addition, she was once again voted British Horse of the Year as well as British Champion Older Mare.

Dahlia continued to race through the age of six. Plagued by injuries, her later career was spotty with occasional glimpses of her former self. She spent her final year racing exclusively in the U.S. under the care of Charlie Whittingham. Finally retired in 1977, she would go on to become as brilliant as a broodmare as she had been as a runner. She produced a total of thirteen foals with eleven runners and six graded stakes winners. Her offspring included Dahar, Rivlia, Delegant, Wajd, Dahlia’s Dreamer and Llandaff. 

In 1988, Nelson Bunker Hunt disbanded his stable and Dahlia was sold for $1.1 million to Allen Paulson. She was induced into the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame and Canadian Racing Hall of Fame. In 2001 the great jet-setting mare passed away at the age of thirty-one and was buried at the Diamond A Farm in Kentucky. 

Contributing Authors

Dawn LeFevre

Dawn LeFevre began working on the backstretch of Atlantic City Racecourse at the age of sixteen. After graduating from Cook College of Rutgers University with...

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Comments

  1. marygraw70@outlook.com May 15, 2020 at 4:18 am

    Well done Dawn.
    What a nice story about a great mare who charmed the Sport of Kings for many years!

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