Wildenstein is a third-generation art dealer and horseman. "Wildensteins are bred for this as trotters are bred for trotting," he said last week at his suite of turf offices in Paris. Though perhaps the wealthiest and most influential art dealer in the world, Wildenstein passes impatiently over that subject. That is his business; racing is his passion. "You must understand," he explained once, "that I am not an owner or a breeder in the usual sense. I am a collector. I collect horses and bloodlines in the same way that one collects paintings or sculpture, or even stamps."
Still, while the Wildenstein blue silks have been raced all this century, they did not reach great prominence until the intriguing, slightly mysterious Maurice Zilber arrived in Paris in 1962 with the equivalent of $6 in his pocket. A refugee from Nasser's Egypt, he had been the leading trainer in thoroughbred racing there for a decade.
Zilber (pronounced zeel-bare) was born in Egypt to a Turkish mother and a Hungarian father of French nationality who is now a tea taster residing in Uruguay. Maurice is 48, bald and sallow, with a lit cigarette always protruding from his lips. So as not to disturb the ashes, which hang there at varying lengths, Zilber hardly moves his lips while speaking any of his six languages—rather resembling a ventriloquist. This also leaves his hands free, allowing him to pantomime the holding of reins. "When I take over for Wildenstein," Zilber says, letting the reins out a notch, "I tell him: 'You have very bad horses.' 'What?' he says. He cannot believe this. 'Yes, you do.' " The reins pull in. "But I promised him the top of the list in five years, and we make it in four, flat and steeplechase."
Zilber had recommended that Wildenstein buy Allez France as a yearling for $160,000, but before the filly came to the races he had accepted a new challenge: building up Bunker Hunt's stable. His position with Wildenstein eventually fell to Penna, an Argentine who had left his country for political reasons, much as Zilber had left his. Penna moved first to Venezuela and then to the U.S. before decamping in France in 1972 with his bride, Elinor Kaine, the pro football writer and sometime Nostradamus.
For Wildenstein, Penna is head trainer of an operation that includes 170 racehorses. For Hunt, Zilber is the chief of a stable that numbers about 100 runners, as well as 100 broodmares scattered over France, England, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. "I think racing is a good economic unit," Hunt said in Canada last week, just after he watched Dahlia work out and just before he took off on a jog of his own around the track.
Zilber sees a bit more than economic units. "I think Bunker Hunt will soon have the greatest empire of horses in the world," he says. This revelation may come as a surprise to casual followers of the running horse, since most of Hunt's racing enterprise lies outside the U.S., and since his younger brother Lamar has heretofore held a lien on the family's fame in sports. Bunker, named by his patriotic father, H. L. Hunt, after Boston's hill, is a heartier, stouter version of Lamar, and displays more of his father's acquisitive business talent. Bunker owns three-fourths of the family oil company and is contesting Libya's takeover of his oil fields in the World Court. Unsubstantiated rumors hold that he has accumulated something on the order of 40 million ounces of silver bullion as a hedge against a rainy day. Brokers say this amount could be equal to the combined silver resources of all the Arab nations. Those new business titans may take over your General Motors, your IBM, your Pittsburgh, Pa., but not your Bunker Hunt.
While Allez France has impeccable breeding—she is by the Arc winner Sea-Bird, out of Priceless Gem—Dahlia was from the very first crop of Vaguely Noble, out of a durable but unremarkable dam named Charming Alibi. Now, as a reward for bearing Dahlia, Charming Alibi is in foal to Secretariat.
Secretariat could have challenged Dahlia at Laurel last year but was sent north to Woodbine instead to finish his career in the Canadian International on a dark and rainy day. This year it was cool and clear for Dahlia's visit to Woodbine. The Canadian International is a mile and five-eighths on a turf course that coils like a spiral, rolling slightly downhill and across the main dirt course at one point.
Dahlia broke from the far outside in the nine-horse field and, under her most favored jockey, Lester Piggott, was taken back—as much as 21 lengths back—behind a fairly slow pace. At the top of the stretch she was still fifth and seemed trapped when London Company moved up on her flank. "I knew something would open up," said Piggott later, and it did. In five strides Dahlia darted through an opening, moved from fifth to first and went on to win the race in record time.
Well, Laurel is next. Then a rest. Then the effort to become the first horse ever to win $2 million. And then, somewhere, sometime, Allez France, out there waiting, in the only world Dahlia has not yet conquered.