Undoubtedly the most famous match race in the history of Del Mar was also its first, when Seabiscuit and Ligaroti battled the wire noses apart in 1938. But 56 years later, another match race took place “Where the Turf Meets the Surf,” though there was considerably less drama surrounding the outcome.
The date was Aug. 21, 1994. The distance was five-eighths of a mile on the turf course. A crowd of 22,449 turned out to witness a $100,000 match race between the fast female sprinters Soviet Problem and Mamselle Bebetter, a showdown conceived by Del Mar as a way to drum up excitement.
In terms of overall accomplishments, there was no comparing the two competitors. Mamselle Bebette hailed from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who had won thousands of races during his decorated career. Seven of those victories had come courtesy of Mamselle Bebette, who had prevailed in the Grade 3 La Brea Stakes, Grade 3 Monrovia Handicap, Grade 3 Las Flores Breeders’ Cup Handicap, and Grade 3 Las Cienegas Breeders’ Cup Handicap during the winter and spring. Turf or dirt, it didn’t matter to Mamselle Bebette—she was flat-out fast on any surface and a star on the Southern California circuit.
In contrast, Soviet Problem was conditioned by Greg Gilchrist in Northern California, away from the spotlight of California’s more heralded southern racetracks. Whereas Van Berg had won dozens of graded stakes races, Gilchrist counted just a half-dozen to his credit. And while Soviet Problem was a winning machine up north, her lone trip to Southern California for a graded stakes had yielded a seventh-place finish.
On paper, the match race seemed like something of a mismatch, and maybe it was. Originally, Soviet Problem had been scheduled to face Cool Air, a five-time stakes winner who had similarly come up short against graded stakes company. But when Cool Air withdrew due to a throat infection, Mamselle Bebette was recruited as a significantly more accomplished replacement.
But Soviet Problem did have one asset Mamselle Bebette did not — prior experience match racing. Three months before meeting Mamselle Bebette at Del Mar, Soviet Problem had showcased blazing speed in a six-furlong match race at Golden Gate Fields. Pitted against the four-time stakes-winning gelding Lazor, Soviet Problem dueled her rival into submission through quarter-mile fractions of :21.37 and :43.23 before pulling away to score by 4 ½ lengths.
“I love match races,” Gilchrist told Dick Jerardi in the Nov. 2, 1994 edition of the Philadelphia Daily News. “I grew up with them. I was matching horses when I was a kid. But never for $100,000.”
Speed is an asset in any match race, and jockey Chris McCarron — guiding Soviet Problem — followed Gilchrist’s instructions to “get out and go.” When the starting gates opened, Mamselle Bebette came out fast from post-position one and briefly led the way. But Soviet Problem, under urging from McCarron, quickly took command, her strides coming fast and strong as she opened up a one-length lead through an opening quarter-mile in 21.67 seconds.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the race was over. Soviet Problem’s lead continued to grow while Mamselle Bebette struggled to match strides with her free-running rival. After three-eighths of a mile, Soviet Problem was in front by 3 ½ lengths, and it was already clear Mamselle Bebette was beaten.
“I liked my chances at the start and I loved them after a half-mile,” McCarron said in an article by Dave Distel in the Los Angeles Times of Aug. 22, 1994. “At the eighth pole, I could feel my filly flying. I shook the reins and showed her the stick and she gave me a great burst of speed.”
Through the stretch, Soviet Problem powered to a seventh-length lead, a huge advantage in a sprint. She was so dominant down the lane that McCarron felt safe easing her across the finish line.
“When I looked back, took a peek, I didn’t see anything so I did a double take in case I missed something,” McCarron explained. “The other filly wasn’t there, so I just geared my filly down.”
Soviet Problem flew across the finish line in :56.58, and her final margin of victory was an easy 6 ½ lengths. Corey Nakatani, riding Mamselle Bebette, believed his filly didn’t care for the course.
“My mare broke running,” Nakatani told the Los Angeles Times, “and then pinned her ears back after maybe an eighth of a mile and refused to go. I don’t think she liked the surface. The turf was soft, real deep on the inside, and she just didn’t take to it.” It was later discovered that Mamselle Bebette had suffered an incident of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, which surely affected her performance as well.
Following the match race, the two participants went their separate ways. Mamselle Bebette retired to become a broodmare, eventually producing seven winning foals. Soviet Problem raced on, winning the Bay Meadows Budweiser Breeders’ Cup Handicap and Grade 3 Laurel Dash Stakes, both against males, before finishing second by a head in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
Soviet Problem might not be a household name, but 25 years ago she was the queen of match races in California and shone brightest of all on an unforgettable summer day at Del Mar.