Publish date:


When a couple of U.S. tracks featured international races—one old, one new—horses from the host country won both. The real winners, however, may be long-neglected devotees of the steeplechase

Horse racing in this country achieved its most spectacular international flourish last week on two widely different American fronts. Happily for the home team, if not for the multitude of foreigners on hand, the two big events—in Laurel, Md. and in Camden, S.C.—were both won by American horses. And the visitors had so much fun that they didn't seem to mind. Well, not too much, anyway.

At Laurel, where the mile-and-a-half Washington, D.C. International was having its 19th go-round, Paul Mellon's gutsy 6-year-old gelding Fort Marcy became a strong candidate for Horse of the Year honors by winning for the second time in three tries. He held off the French filly Miss Dan II by one length, defeating a field of 10 which included runners from Europe and South America. Three days later, in the piney pulp-wood country of South Carolina—where racing down the main street was a sport of sorts in 1734—22 jumpers (nine from abroad) sallied forth in a colorful procession to participate in the richest steeplechase ever held in the United States. The $100,000 Colonial Cup was won by Mrs. Ogden Phipps' favored Top Bid, while her other entry, Jaunty, was third, beaten only a length and a half by Stephen Clark Jr.'s Shadow Brook.

Both races were run in the rain. At Laurel, the crowd of 28,764 simply huddled protectively into the packed stands and dumped damp money into the mutuels. At Mrs. Marion duPont Scott's Springdale Course in Camden things were quite different. There are no covered stands and no bars. Even more frustrating for the dedicated punter is the fact that South Carolina does not permit pari-mutuel betting. But racegoers the world over have a way of packing their traditions along with them. The estimated throng of 18,000 at Camden may have been wet on the outside, but it was careful to bring its own guarantees against internal aridity. And betting was amply available, though of the caliber that made suckers out of most of the customers. The half dozen bookmakers who set up their blackboard betting stands behind the jockeys' tent could not have failed to enjoy themselves.

Laurel's International was less exhilarating than most of its predecessors, but produced a creditable performance by a very fine horse. Fort Marcy has been trained so patiently and efficiently by Elliott Burch that he has managed to race for five seasons. His International victory this time (he upset Damascus in a thriller in 1967) was his fifth triumph of the season, and the $100,000 he won enabled him to join racing's exclusive millionaire's club, which is limited to 10 members. His purses now add up to $1,043,280, good enough to push him past Native Diver and Dr. Fager, into eighth place on the alltime earnings list. If Burch brings him back next season, which seems likely, he could easily move past Citation, Damascus and Carry Back—in that order—and into fifth place.

Laurel's keenest drama was off track. Fort Marcy's jockey, Jorge Velasquez, was delayed on his flight from New York; he checked in just one minute before the Laurel stewards would have decreed a substitute rider. But even with Velasquez safely aboard his bay gelding, Burch was dubious about Fort Marcy's ability to handle the turf made uncomfortably soft by two days of rain. He needn't have worried. After Senador (Venezuela) and the filly Fanfreluche (Canada) set a dismally slow pace, Fort Marcy moved from his fourth position on the far turn, and that just about settled matters. Miss Dan II, who had been third behind Sassafras and Nijinsky in the recent Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, threatened from sixth place in the stretch, but just wasn't good enough to catch the old boy. Fiddle Isle, who finished fourth, was licked from the start by the soft going, and England's Lorenzaccio, who was fifth, could not handle the distance. "I knew he was beat when he came out of the gate," said his rider, Lester Piggott. "And as for the turf, it was the worst I've ever seen—a bloody mud bath." Bill Shoemaker, on Fiddle Isle, didn't think much of the running surface either, but he summed up the race more graciously: "It may have been the worst turf I ever saw, but it was the same for all the horses. And at least I know we got beat by the best. He's something."

It isn't all that easy to get from Laurel to Camden, although few made the pilgrimage and regretted it. But why Camden? Well, it's a horsy sort of place 32 miles from the capital city of Columbia, where Mrs. Marion duPont Scott's training center provides an ideal off-season hideaway in which to freshen thoroughbreds for the next year's grind. The center, managed by former jumping rider and trainer Ray Woolfe, comprises some 1,000 acres, with stalls for nearly 300 horses and enough tracks and schooling courses to satisfy everyone. Flat Trainers Frank Whiteley, Ivor Balding and Tom Waller winter in Camden regularly, while the jumping trainers' list is headed by W. Burling Cocks, Charlie Cushman and Bobby Davis.

About 18 months ago, when South Carolinians were mulling over ways to celebrate 1970 as their state's 300th birthday, Ray Woolfe came up with the idea that ultimately resulted in last week's Colonial Cup. He envisioned an international $100,000 steeplechase, run for 4-year-olds and up at a distance of 2 miles 6½ furlongs and over a special 17-jump course laid out so that no fence would be taken more than once. In order to attract the largest possible number of good horses, he decided to construct a special 4'8" jump of treated pine and pine brush as a compromise obstacle somewhere between the standard hurdle and the larger and more difficult brush fences that make up a typical steeplechase course.

Woolfe took his idea to his patron, Mrs. Scott, who adopted it wholeheartedly, and then to some of his colleagues in the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association. The ruling members of this body are august souls who have never been renowned for grappling with new ideas at lightning speed. "For 40 years we've been looking for ways to popularize jump racing," says owner Mrs. Theo Randolph, an august soul in her own right, "and we are still looking." Nonetheless, when Ray Woolfe needed help most he got the backing of the big names in the sport. South Carolina Governor Robert E. McNair consented to be honorary chairman of what came to be known as the Colonial Cup Executive Committee. He was joined by Mrs. Scott, Raymond Guest, John W. Hanes and Paul Mellon, none of them apprentices at getting things done.

Since South Carolina lies in the Bible Belt, which frowns on pari-mutuel betting, and wouldn't hear of legalizing a special Colonial Cup lottery, the next problem was to find the money to put on a five-race card and still give away $100,000 for one event. Woolfe budgeted the project at $200,000. The committee sent out a call for sponsors willing to underwrite any loss, and 77 were rounded up. They ranged from members of the regular hunt-and-jump fraternity to local merchants and companies (among them duPont, whose orlon and nylon plant in Camden is one of the world's largest). Each was asked to guarantee $3,000 if and when called upon. If the paying crowd on Colonial Cup day would top 25,000, all would be well. (Finally, sponsors will probably be tapped for underwriting fees of close to $1,500 each.)

Camden girded itself for the expected invasion. Houses in the quiet little town of 9,600 were rented for as much as $3,000 for Colonial Cup week. The local chamber of commerce unveiled a special restoration of British Revolutionary fortifications on the eve of the race. At the Holiday Inn the customary roadside stand proudly announced "Welcome, foreign racing correspondents." And Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, a longtime devotee of jump racing, dispatched a personal representative eminently suitable to the occasion: Viscount Cobham, the Lord Steward of England.

Horses and their handlers began arriving weeks before race day. Visitors came a little later, and they included Stewards Fran√ßois de Brignac (France), Lord Oliver Fingal (Ireland) and Brigadier General Roscoe Harvey (England), plus horsemen of all persuasions, from U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team captain Billy Steinkraus to the skilled children of onetime amateur riding champion Pete Bostwick. Camden was ready for them. Mrs. Scott entertained lavishly at her historic mansion. Mrs. Ogden Phipps received daily on the croquet lawn (where she also played regularly) of her rented house. There was a pigeon shoot Friday morning, a practice polo game that afternoon and that night at the Springdale Club, Auctioneer Humphrey Finney, assisted by Clive Graham of the London Daily Express, sold all 22 Colonial Cup starters in a Calcutta pool that reached about $37,000. Mrs. Phipps bought Jaunty for $2,000—but not Top Bid.

Most of the race participants felt the Americans had an edge and that if Top Bid or Shadow Brook were to be beaten by a runner other than an American, it would probably be Raymond Guest's L'Escargot, who had won in America last year but had really made a name for himself by capturing this spring's Gold Cup over the big jumps at Cheltenham in England. "Your jumps are the kind American horses go through," said British Trainer Toby Balding. "If we send over a true steeplechaser, he'd try and jump over them clean. A good hurdler would have a better chance."

On race day two English bookmakers, Wilfred Sherman and Douggie Wilson, were wandering through the stately pines, eyeing the crowd as it picnicked from the backs of cars. Were they perhaps looking for a bit of action? "Not me," said Douggie Wilson. "I went to study the situation, and a chap comes up to me and says, 'If you get caught, you'll do five years on the inside.' That was enough for me. So I go to have a look at what your American bookmakers are doing with their figures, and it makes me blush. Why, every bloody one of them is 200 or more points over-round [meaning that the bookie has set up at least a 100% profit for himself by manipulating the odds, instead of a reasonable profit of about 15%]. I says to a friend of mine, says I, 'I'll break your leg if I catch you taking any of those prices.' " Camden's visiting American bookmakers were indeed playing the sucker game to the hilt. One of their blackboards on the big race totaled 420 points.

So, after 18 months of preparation, the moment arrived. And with it the rain. Up went the gaudy umbrellas. As the 22 horses went to the post, Jaunty lunged away from his lead pony, losing his bridle and delaying the start 10 minutes. And then off they went—all but Ireland's Herring Gull, that is. He wheeled at the break and refused to run. Peach 2nd and Australia's Crisp led the way over the first few fences, while veteran Jockey Joe Aitcheson Jr. kept Top Bid back in the second group. At the seventh fence Wustenchef became the first and only horse to fall, bothering L'Escargot.

Shadow Brook took the lead when the first pair tired, and the real race began when he was challenged by Jaunty with only three jumps remaining. The two were nearly even over the last fence, but Top Bid came on in the last 16th of a mile and pulled away from Shadow Brook. His length-and-a-half margin was the same as that held by the latter over Jaunty. Six lengths back came L'Escargot, first of the foreigners to finish; he was two lengths ahead of Encarnado. France's Ermitage was sixth, then Crisp and Scotland's Young Ash Leaf. Because of the width of the fences and the skill with which riders handled their mounts, there was no real trouble in the race.

The sporting (if not financial) success of the first Colonial Cup surely emphasizes that jump racing is worth preserving in America. It is beautiful to watch, and it adds variety to any race card. And yet some of jump racing's most fervent partisans are fearful for its existence. "We are the black sheep of the racing fraternity," says young Turney McKnight, amateur rider, grandson of John W. Hanes and one of 15 members of a committee whose purpose is to pump new life into the old sport. "Something has got to be done. We must change the public impression that jump racing is just for the station-wagon set."

On the face of it, there seems no reason why the sport should not be as successful here as in England or France.

One big obstacle is the fact that many flat-race trainers feel they must disassociate themselves from the jumpers to be accepted at most tracks. Yet many of our finest horsemen came up through the hunt meetings. Mike Smithwick, who trained Top Bid and Jaunty and was himself a superior jump rider, also trains this year's stakes winner on the flat, Princess Pout. Sidney Watters Jr., trainer of Shadow Brook, handles the leading 2-year-old colt, Hoist The Flag. Other top flat trainers who once rode jumpers are Jim Maloney, Bowes Bond, Allen Jerkens, Scotty Schulhofer and Evan Jackson. Finally, the horses themselves can be outstanding in both fields: Top Bid and Shadow Brook won stakes on the flat before their achievements in Camden.

Another obstacle is that the betting handle falls off anywhere between 20% and 50% every time a jumping race takes the place of a flat race on a U.S. track. This domestic diffidence ignores the fact that jump racing produces a much higher percentage of winning favorites than flat racing. It has been suggested that fans stay away from the windows before a jump race either because they don't want to try to beat a short-priced favorite or because they want nothing to do with a horse who might not even get around the course.

This is a prejudice that could be overcome if the sponsors of the sport would agree to make the effort. The success of the Colonial Cup is there to provide encouragement and incentive.



At the Colonial's Calcutta auction, winner Top Bid sold for $3,600.



Hostesses in Camden included Mrs. Marion Scott (top), on whose estate the race was run, and Mrs. Ogden Phipps, who entertained on her croquet lawn. The race also attracted some pretty sights and some strange ones, like bookmakers who brought along their blackboards.



Nearly three miles and 17 specially built fences after the start, the Colonial Cup comes down to Top Bid (above, nearest crowd), Shadow Brook and Jaunty (far right). Later, winning owner Mrs. Phipps congratulated her mud-spattered rider, Joe Aitcheson Jr.



The French flag was at half mast for Charles de Gaulle at Laurel as Fort Marcy led in the homestretch and won under Jorge Velasquez.