01/25/2017 12:46PM

Hovdey: Gilded stakes don't always take flight

Email

The first Marlboro Cup had Secretariat. The first Arlington Million got John Henry, and the first Dubai World Cup landed Cigar. Each time, the star hit his mark, and the race gained an instant credibility upon which a tradition was built.

History tells us it doesn’t always work this way, but that has not stopped Frank Stronach and a group of daring horse owners from taking a $12 million swing in the Pegasus World Cup on Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Where it eventually lives in the racing firmament is up for grabs. But even for an event that appears unique, there is precedent.

In the summer of 1923, August Belmont Jr. – banker, builder, and savior of New York racing – thought it would be a good idea to match the best American horse against the best British horse in a race at Belmont Park. A winning purse of $100,000 was offered, plus $2,000 for the loser.

The best of the Brits was Papyrus, winner of the Epsom Derby. His departure for the States on the Cunard liner RMS Aquitania was celebrated as if the boys were again going off to war. Once at Belmont Park, he was treated like visiting royalty.

Zev, winner of the 1923 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, represented America in what was being referred to as the first running of The International, set for Oct. 20. Admission prices were hiked and the house was packed, with upward of 50,000 fans intent to witness history, and perhaps the dawn of an annual attraction.

Unfortunately, the race did not deliver on the expected drama. The main track was heavy from rain, stacking the deck even higher against Papyrus, who had run only on grass. Zev and Earl Sande grabbed the lead not long after the start and led the rest of the 11 furlongs to win by five lengths.

August Belmont Jr. died the following year, and The International was never renewed. The concept of an all-star event with global ramifications went dormant through a Great Depression and a Second World War until the Washington D.C. International was born in 1952 at Laurel Race Course in Maryland, the brainchild of track chief John D. Schapiro.

This time, it was a European game played on American soil, requiring a mile and a half on grass in a nod toward such major events as the Epsom Derby and Arc de Triomphe. Few expenses were spared getting the race off the ground, and international credibility was assured when five of the first seven winners hailed from England, France, Australia, and Venezuela.

In spite of increasing competition from other major fall turf races, the International continued to be a valued target until the Breeders’ Cup Turf undermined its significance. After being shortened, the International was run for the last time 1995, but at least it was around a whole lot longer than the National Thoroughbred Championship Invitational Handicap.

This mouthful of a race at a mile and a quarter on the main track was worth $350,000 and inaugurated during the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita in 1975 as a definitive late-season event. The following year it was rechristened Champions Invitational Handicap, which save printing costs, but not the race.

“We couldn’t get Forego,” said Alan Balch, who was instrumental in creating the race as head of marketing for Santa Anita. “And without Forego, we couldn’t keep television interested.”

Makes sense. Forego, a three-time Horse of the Year, was the steadfast star of the post-Secretariat era, but his fragile ankles never made it deep enough into a campaign to justify an autumn trip to California.

If nothing else, the Oak Tree race served as a template for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, just as the Washington D.C. International was the model for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. The 1975 version also marked the final start for the great French mare Allez France. Even without Forego, her presence at Santa Anita gave the race the kind of star power that California Chrome and Arrogate are lending to the Pegasus.

“We were lucky to get her, but she was a weaver,” recalled Del Mar president Joe Harper, who was Oak Tree’s executive assistant when the event was hatched. “She needed a sheep in her stall to keep her calm. Couldn’t be a goat. It had to be a sheep.”

Alas, Allez France’s French sheep ran into immigration problems, so a domestic mouton needed to be found. Harper rounded one up, while fending off wisecracks about one of his family’s best racehorses, Try Sheep. Then the hosts added a stylish touch.

“We wanted to get the publicity of presenting the sheep to Allez France,” Harper said. “So I went to Tiffany’s and ordered a large necklace. The woman asked how big, and I said, ‘Big enough for a sheep.’ ”

At which point Harper was ready to be ejected from the shop.

“She didn’t bat an eye,” Harper said. “ ‘Okay, that would be about a 40-incher,’ she said. We included a note that read, ‘To Allez France, from Oak Tree.’ ”

The sheep kept the necklace and Allez France finished last, but that hardly spoils the story. When you break ground on a landmark event – an International, a Million, a Pegasus – you hustle the best possible cast, do whatever it takes to make them happy, and hope it’s enough to kickstart an institution.