Skip to main content
Original Issue

Now, was that a good way to break the ice?

Angel Penna was coolly received by the French when he moved to Paris to train; now he has won, if not their hearts, their biggest turf prize

After a mile and a quarter of the mile-and-a-half Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Americans John Galbreath and Ogden Phipps were a delighted pair of owners. There in the lead was Roberto, Galbreath's Epsom Derby winner, and barely a head behind was Phipps' Boucher, the St. Leger victor. America's star jockeys Braulio Baeza and Laffit Pincay, aboard the colts, were making those celebrated, high-riding Europeans—Lester Piggott, Yves Saint-Martin and Freddy Head—look like bug boys at Finger Lakes. But in less than 30 seconds the cheering died in the American section at Longchamp and the millionaires from Pittsburgh and New York watched, disappointed, as Freddy Head urged the filly San San, a 19-to-1 shot, home a length and a half in front. Another French filly, Rescousse, was second. Roberto faded to seventh and Boucher finished somewhere in the last bunch of eight.

But it turned out, after all, that America had a share of the victory. San San, a 3-year-old daughter of Bald Eagle and the Princequillo mare Sail Navy, was foaled in the U.S. and purchased as a weanling for $20,000 from the dispersal sale of the late Harry F. Guggenheim. The filly's new owner was a German steel heiress, Countess Margit Batthyàny, whose thoroughbred empire now ranges from central Europe to central Kentucky. She owns studs in West Germany and Normandy, a portion of John Gaines' property in Lexington, and some 200 horses, including 75 mares, 40 horses in training and shares in 17 stallions, including Vaguely Noble, Hail to Reason, Raise a Native, Personality and Bold Bidder. In her determination to become a leading owner and a figure in international racing, the countess has been laying out millions. Just recently she leased the young Bold Ruler stallion, Bold Lad, and he will be shipped to France to stand at her stud with, among others, the Belmont Stakes winner Sword Dancer. Her racing stable is now set up in style in a training yard in the Chantilly suburb of Lamorlaye. A year ago the countess hired Angel Penna, the Argentinean trainer who has had a distinguished career in several countries, most recently in the U.S. where he developed numerous stakes winners, including Bold Reason and Czar Alexander.

Penna arrived in France with his own jockey, Jean Cruguet, who had left Paris several years earlier with little reputation or hope of making it to the top of his profession there. However, after a few seasons in New York, Cruguet returned to his homeland with experience, expertise and grim determination. Penna also brought to Chantilly a new bride, Elinor Kaine. As a member of Kentucky's celebrated Headley family, she has always known a thing or two about horses, but her sporting fame lies more in the fact she is a member of the Professional Football Writers Association of America. She once sued Yale for refusing her a seat in the Yale Bowl press box—and won. Elinor's grit has served her well in Lamorlaye. French horsemen like foreigners to visit but not to move in—and especially not to beat them.

After a while local residents who had been noticeably aloof began dropping by, but their interest was not really so much caused by Elinor or Angel or the horses but by the $1,000 refrigerator with a built-in ice machine that the couple had installed. "There are nice people around here," the Pennas say, "but they make nothing easy for newcomers, especially when the newcomers win races."

On the Monday of Arc Week Jockey Cruguet, who had ridden San San to a dead-heat win with Paysanne in the Prix Vermeille (also run at the mile-and-a-half Arc distance), was asked about the filly's chance in the big race. "She hasn't much, really," he replied. "I think we're probably riding for fourth money. Hard to Beat is a standout, but Roberto might surprise him. But here in France, unlike in the States, you never really can tell how a race will go because everyone takes back and waits to do their running at the end. I won a couple of stakes this year by going to the front, opening up a lead and holding it. And Baeza seemed to fool some riders when he did that with Roberto in England and beat Brigadier Gerard. It can be done. But it is not likely at Longchamp, which is probably the toughest racecourse in the world." Penna wasn't touting San San to visitors from America who dropped in for coffee or cocktails, but he did say that fillies had won seven of the 50 previous Arcs, a high proportion considering the low number of them competing over the years. San San would carry only 118 pounds in the race compared to 121 for 3-year-old colts and 132 pounds for older horses. This was a plus not to be disregarded.

Then came a setback. Four days before the Arc, Cruguet went down in a spill at Saint-Cloud, cracking a bone in his right hand. Youthful Freddy Head was named to take his place. Opinion was divided as to whether this would help or hinder the filly, but long before the Longchamp crowd of 60,000 sent her off unfancied on Sunday she had been dismissed by knowledgeable horsemen because of her racing style. She comes with a rush at the end, from far off the pace. In a crowded Arc held—there were 19 starters—the tardy San San figured to lose an impossible amount of ground.

The U.S. riders were drilled in the intricacies of the Longchamp course, with its hills, right-hand downhill turn and long (three-eighths of a mile) stretch. Baeza on Roberto had been beaten by Hard to Beat at the track some weeks before and he told Cruguet it wouldn't happen again. (So far it hasn't, as this time Roberto was seventh. Hard to Beat eighth.) Mrs. Ogden Phipps put Pincay up on a 2-year-old filly named Snobbishness the day before the Arc to give him a ride over the course. The filly ran a respectable third despite Pincay's cap tumbling over his eyes in the stretch. Later, as he sipped a drink in the paddock bar, Pincay could not find fault with the track. "I was doing fine," he said, "until somebody shut me off coming down the hill." The Panamanian-born jockey was warned not to expect any hospitable treatment in the Arc. "Position all the way is very important here, I know," he said. "They tell me be in the first six down the hill and let the horse do the rest. I know I'll get position with Boucher, but what happens after that is up to him."

When the tapes went up in the Arc, Baeza assured himself of position immediately by sending Roberto flying into the lead. Piggott, on Hard to Beat, was sixth as the field went up the hill behind Le Petit Bois, and Pincay and Boucher were right alongside. Freddy Head and San San had but three horses beaten as the field disappeared from view. At the crest of the hill it was still Roberto, followed by Regal Exception, Sharapour, Parnell. Hard to Beat and then Boucher. Pincay moved into fourth coming down the hill—an ideal spot if the horse would do the rest. Way back, still with only four horses beaten, were San San and Rescousse, looking hopelessly out of contention.

On the turn for home Roberto was finally challenged, first by Homeric and then by Boucher. The former put his head in front briefly, the latter never could quite do it. Now, with just two furlongs to go, the fillies came threading their way neatly through and around the tiring pack. Head moved San San skillfully to the far outside and took the lead with barely a furlong and a half to go. Saint-Martin drove Rescousse in a desperate chase after her. In the rush to overtake Homeric, San San bumped that colt, but not sufficiently to warrant a disqualification. San San's winning time of 2:28.3 tied the track record set last year by Mill Reef, who suffered a near-fatal training injury just two months ago.

It was a great day for American-breds, who finished first, fourth, fifth and seventh. It was an even better day for fillies. The only three in the race finished first, second and fourth.

Countess Batthyàny, who collected 1,415,250 francs ($283,000), exclaimed as she was congratulated by French racing chief Marcel Boussac. "One doesn't have a day like this very often, does one?" Admitted Penna, at last, "Well, let's say I thought all along I had a small chance. Now I'd like to run the filly in the International at Laurel. Besides. I want to see our friends in America." The trainer, who has now won six stakes in France this year, smiled and gave Elinor a big hug. The $1,000 fridge had come in very handy for chilling the victory champagne.