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They labeled it with simple, if not poetic, majesty: The Richest Match Race of the Century. There were some who thought it might be a historic event, a significant—perhaps even a classic—addition to the annals of American horse racing. There were many who saw it as a momentary, but still meaningful, boost to the well-being of the sport. Others viewed it merely as an afternoon's handful of hoopla and Stardust, a common everyday Hollywood-style product built from the usual vulgar display of money, movie stars and hard sell. There were even a few people who predicted that it would be a farce.
And everybody was a little bit right. It was some of all those things, well mixed together, when Chris Evert, the magnificent filly from the East, went to California to go head-to-head with Miss Musket, the nearly magnificent filly from the West, last Saturday afternoon at Hollywood Park.
While no one can ever know how much cash may have been put on the barrelhead on those fabled Gatsby afternoons long ago when the very rich matched their very best stock on their own private tracks, Saturday's duel was the biggest public winner-take-all, no-strings-attached purse ever contested for in sports. The $350,000 that Chris Evert won for crushing her rival by an unprecedented 50 lengths works out to a payoff of nearly $2,900 for each second she ran.
The event was decidedly a boon to racing, for it attracted something of the kind of broad national interest that is aroused by the Triple Crown. Not to mention that Hollywood Park drew 47,900 for the race, its biggest crowd of the season. Stars glittered in the Southern California summer afternoon: Greer Garson in a splendid white hat, Walter Matthau in shades, 70-year-old Cary Grant cleverly disguised as a 50-year-old, Henry Mancini, John Forsythe, Don Meredith, Mervyn LeRoy, General Omar Bradley—to say nothing of the fabulous Wimbledon sweethearts, Chris Evert (the girl) and Jimmy Connors (the boy) who were at the track as part of a merchandising campaign to sell a line of tennis clothes put out by Carl Rosen, the owner of Chris Evert (the horse).
Yet, despite the Hollywood hoopla and devastation of the result, there was from the beginning more than a slight touch of class to the affair. It really did have overtones of a classic confrontation, a match race with a quality that seemed likely to produce something memorable. Miss Musket, an oddly gaunt and scrawny-looking animal, had won seven of eight starts at California tracks, earning over $195,000 since she came to the races this January, and was plainly the best 3-year-old filly in the West. And Chris Evert, a powerful filly with a big behind and a potbelly and a dramatic white slash down her nose, had swept to victory in seven of her nine starts over the past two years, winning almost $250,000 plus the prestigious 3-year-old fillies' Triple Crown. She had found no peers racing in the East. Thus there was a clear-cut question of East-West superiority to be answered.
The jockeys, two Panamanians born but a day apart 27 years ago, were, as was fitting, the best. Miss Musket's Laffit Pincay Jr. leads all jockeys in races and money won this year and bids fair to top his '73 mark, when he became the first rider in history whose mounts won over $4 million. Chris Evert's Jorge Velasquez is the top rider this year on the top circuit, New York.
There was greater contrast with the trainers. Miss Musket's was none but the shrewdest, baldest eagle of them all, Charlie Whittingham, 61, who was just elected to the Hall of Fame and has won more money than any trainer for the past four years running. But Joe Trovato, Chris Evert's trainer, was a fresh figure, only 37, a former jockeys' agent with his first big horse who has only been training for three years. The Westerners were quick to scrutinize his methods and his approach to the race—critically, for the most part.
Yet in its way this was more an owners' race than anything else. There is something exceedingly pure, refreshing, even inspiring, about two men stepping forward out of the clutter, protection and anonymity of corporations, bureaucracies and the various societal group-shadows of the day to challenge each other out where everyone can see. They put up their money, laid their pride on the line. It is an old-fashioned thing—as Charlie Whittingham put it, "That's the way people used to act"—and so it was with Aaron U. Jones, 52, the soft-spoken Oregon lumberman who owns Miss Musket, and Rosen, 56, the gravel-voiced dressmaker from Boston. Each anted up one hundred grand in real money to back the beauty of his choice.
Both Jones and Rosen are self-made men of means and neophytes to horse racing who stand well outside the Establishment. Both bought their champions at bargain-basement prices: Rosen got Chris Evert, a Kentucky bred, for $32,000 at the 1972 Keeneland Summer Sale and Jones bought the Florida-bred Miss Musket—selecting her himself with nothing but the knowledge he had gained from "a $10,000 library on thoroughbreds I bought" at the '71 Keeneland Fall Sale for $8,500.
Jones, a friendly, open, cheerful man, was born in Utopia, Texas, grew up in Oregon, became a journeyman carpenter when he was working his way through the University of Oregon and eventually leased a sawmill. He now cuts 100 million board feet of housing lumber a year, and does over $30 million in annual sales. He lives in Eugene, Ore., which is not exactly the pasture of bluegrass blue bloods: his hometown paper, the Eugene Register-Guard, scarcely printed a word about the richest match race of the century because it does not choose to stain its columns with news of the dread sport of horse racing, in which there is gambling involved.