The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the Epsom Derby at Epsom Racecourse in England stand out as two of the most prestigious, historic, and influential Thoroughbred horse races anywhere in the world.
Some of the greatest runners on both sides of the Atlantic have prevailed in these fabled tests of speed and stamina.
But with the Kentucky Derby taking place on dirt and the Epsom Derby being conducted on grass, the winners rarely cross paths. Generally they each stay on their own side of the pond and, on the infrequent occasions when an Epsom Derby winners runs in North America (or a Kentucky Derby winner in Europe), it usually happens that the home team rival is targeting a different race or has already been retired.
So it’s all the more remarkable to consider how, in 1923, Kentucky Derby winner Zev and Epsom Derby winner Papyrus squared off at Belmont Park in a highly-publicized international match race. Held at 1 ½ miles on dirt — the distance of the Epsom Derby, but the surface of the Kentucky Derby — the “International Race” pitted the best 3-year-olds from the U.S. and England against each other in a first-of-its-kind battle for international honor.
Zev needed no introduction to local racing fans. Though he’d been a surprise winner of the Kentucky Derby — his owner, Harry F. Sinclair, and his regular trainer, Sam Hildreth, didn’t even bother to attend — Zev had subsequently emerged as a clear-cut division leader, carrying star jockey Earl Sande to victory in the Withers Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Queens County Handicap, and Lawrence Realization during an impressive seven-race win streak.
Papyrus boasted similarly impressive form, having defeated the talented Pharos in a dramatic finish to claim victory in the Epsom Derby. He later placed second in the St. Leger Stakes, the third leg of the British Triple Crown, a gallant effort considering he came back with his hind leg bleeding from cuts suffered during the running. Conditioned by Basil Jarvis for owner Benjamin Irish, Papyrus could also claim the services of England’s ten-time champion jockey Steve Donoghue.
The great race was undoubtedly ahead of its time. International events like the Washington D.C. International and the Breeders’ Cup were still decades away. At the time, horses were still traveling cross-country by railcar (shipping by plane was still a couple of decades away), and Papyrus had to endure a six-day ocean voyage just to reach the United States.
Papyrus’ journey wasn’t uncommon on the surface. Racehorses of the day made their way across the Atlantic with some frequency, but usually during the offseason. To have an Epsom Derby winner embark on such a voyage while in the midst of his 3-year-old racing season was unprecedented, especially since the international match was scheduled for Oct. 20, a little more than a month after the St. Leger and just three weeks after Papyrus’ transatlantic trip.
Conscious of the challenging schedule, Jarvis left no stone unturned in his quest to bring Papyrus to North America in peak condition. He booked passage on the Aquitania, which offered the star colt “a stall arranged in a light and airy D-deck baggage compartment, where the pitch and roll of the ship were less likely to affect him,” as noted by Tom Hall in the Eclipse Press book “Horse Racing’s Top 100 Moments.”
Furthermore, Papyrus was accompanied by a considerable entourage including, but not limited to, jockey Donoghue, stablemate Bargold, and a cat named Tinker. Hall further notes that Papyrus’s groom “could exercise him by walking him around the deck, which had been covered with cork for safety and comfort.”
Extensive supplies of hay, oats, and water were also brought along, which required special permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Zev also had challenges to overcome. A hoof issue surfaced following his victory in the Lawrence Realization, and he also dealt with hives during the lead-up to the match race, causing The Jockey Club to briefly ponder subbing in a different runner to represent the home team instead. But Hildreth brushed off the concerns about Zev’s well-being and convinced The Jockey Club that the Kentucky Derby winner was ready to roll.
In any case, with a total purse of $100,000 — including $20,000 to the runner-up — the race promised to be a financial win-win for the connections of both Zev and Papyrus. Irish and Jarvis in particular had nothing to lose, since all their travel expenses were paid.
Essentially, the race was as much a promotion as a competition; a sporting event rather than a gamble.
Indeed, Papyrus’s arrival in New York was met with extensive media coverage. Joe Hirsch described the scene in his book “The First Century: Daily Racing Form Chronicles 100 Years of Thoroughbred Racing”: “The city boasted a dozen or more newspapers in those days, and each was represented by several staffers and photographers. A police escort accompanied the horse van to Belmont Park ...”
The scope of the media coverage was groundbreaking for the day. The international match race was to be broadcast on radio — a first for horse racing — and film crews recorded the race and its lead-up from multiple angles, even going so far as to secure aerial footage of the track and the massive crowd, estimated at more than 70,000 fans. The fruit of the film crew’s extraordinary effort was a 22-minute silent film that has been made available for viewing on YouTube.
As post time approached, the two horses made very different impressions on journalists in attendance. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Oct. 21, 1923 noted “Papyrus was steady as a rock before and during the race, thoroughly poised, calm, dignified. He evoked no end of admiring comments for his grace, suggestion of power, and general demeanor. Truly a noble animal.”
In contrast, “Zev was a bundle of nerves, all on edge, dancing sidewise, tugging at the bit, trained to the minute.”
The Standard Union of the same date agreed: “Papyrus… walked calmly. In fact, if he was a street horse in front of a street cleaning department wagon, he could not have been more reserved. … Zev was bowing and bowing and prancing like a circus horse. He seemed to realize that the crowd was cheering for him, for he must have bowed his head a thousand times in the parade.”
But though Jarvis had taken every precaution to ensure Papyrus’ good condition, there was one factor he couldn’t control: the weather.
Rain during the preceding 24 hours reduced Belmont Park to a sloppy mess, prompting Hildreth to equip Zev with mud caulks, special shoes designed to better grip the muddy surface. Jarvis was advised to do the same with Papyrus, but the trainer declined, citing Papyrus’ unfamiliarity with the shoes.
In the minds of many racing historians, the shoes made all the difference and produced an anticlimactic result.
Perhaps Joe Palmer summed it up best with a succinct description in The Blood-Horse Silver Anniversary Edition, stating “the race itself was a fiasco. Papyrus was not shod for the sloppy going, and Earl Sande outrode Steve Donoghue, so Zev ran in front all the way and won by five lengths.”
Indeed, hardly any more description is needed to give a full impression of the race. Papyrus broke on top from a standing start, but Zev — under urging from Sande — quickly took command and gradually extended his advantage throughout the race. “When Donoghue asked for more run, all Papyrus could do was slip and slide on the slick surface,” wrote Hall in Horse Racing’s Top 100 Moments.
Once it was clear Zev had conquered the foreign challenger, neither colt was particularly hard-pressed down the homestretch, and the modest final time of 2:35 2/5 was a reflection of both the track condition and the ultimately uncompetitive nature of the race.
“The English in the stands and field, there were many of them, were stunned by the failure of Papyrus to win,” wrote The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Oct. 21, 1923. “They were confident that the great English Derby winner would triumph over the American entry. … The long trip across the Atlantic, the fond hopes based on the apparently poor condition of Zev, and the great record of Papyrus had all ended in disappointment.”
For Zev, the victory meant much more than prestige. The winner’s share of the massive purse propelled his lifetime earnings to $254,908, surpassing the record set by the immortal Man o’ War. Nor was Zev’s career complete, for he would race on as an older horse and eventually push his career earnings to a massive $318,048.
But for all his achievements, Zev’s triumph over Papyrus in racing’s first international showdown is the one that lives on. Together, the two acclaimed Derby winners combined their talents to forge a piece of history, laying a foundation for international competition that would forever change the sport of racing.