Updated: May 27
It is human nature to want to know who is the best of the best. This innate wish has even extended over into the animals we owned. It is why we have competitions to see who has the most obedient dog, the best bred cat, and the fastest horse. Horse racing was born from the competitive spirit of people and the heart and drive of the racehorse.
Match races have long been a part of horse racing history. We all know of the meet up of War Admiral and Seabiscuit, of Man o’ War and Sir Barton, of Nashua and Swaps. In 1923, the world stopped for a battle of two Derby winners: the British Papyrus and the American Zev.
Papyrus: Papyrus’ life began in 1920 in Nottinghamshire, England. Sir John Robinson of Manor Stud had bred his non-winning mare Miss Matty to Tracery. Tracery was an American-bred racehorse, born from the mind of the great August Belmont Jr. Tracery's sire, Rock Sand, had won the British Triple Crown in 1903 and was sent to America for stud duties in 1906.
August Belmont sent Tracery to race in England where in 1912 he won the St. Leger and he was soon thought to be one of the greatest horses in the world. Expectations were high when he went to stud and he rewarded his believers with many great progeny, including Papyrus.
Papyrus was a medium-sized racehorse with a brown coat and a gorgeous star between his eyes. His pedigree certainly suggested greatness, which he hastily got to living up to by winning six of his eight races as a two-year old in 1922. The following year he won the 1923 Epsom Derby by one length before a crowd of 250,000.
[Video: Watch Papyrus win The Derby]
Zev too was born to great bloodlines in 1920. John E. Madden of Hamburg Place paired his St. Simon inbred mare Miss Kearney to The Finn. The British St. Simon was considered to be one of the most successful Thoroughbred sires to ever live. He had won the Ascot Gold Cup, Goodwood Cup, and Epsom Gold Cup in 1884. The Finn had been a successful racehorse too. In 1915 he won the Belmont Stakes, Withers Stakes, Hamilton Derby, and other major races. Clearly, Zev’s pedigree was full of potential.
Zev, like Papyrus, quickly proved himself to be a successful racehorse. He won the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and Albany Handicap in 1922 and hit the board in many other important two-year old races. As a three-year old he finished 12th in the Preakness after a troubled run, but rebounded to become an easy (but surprising winner) of the Kentucky Derby.
[Video: Watch Zev win the 1923 Kentucky Derby]
The Great International Match Race - October 20th, 1923
Shortly after Papyrus’ win in the Epsom Derby, his connections were offered a challenge: a match race with Kentucky Derby winner Zev at Belmont Park. The race would be held at the distance of the Epsom Derby, 1 ½ miles, on the same surface as the Kentucky Derby, dirt.
It was extremely rare that the winners of the two races ever competed against one another. The surfaces and distances were different. It takes two different types of horses to win each race (a horse has to be special to win at the highest level of competition on more than one surface). Plus, transportation methods were much different in those days. If a horse was to cross the ocean, it had to do so by boat rather than by plane.
Despite all of this, Papyrus’ connections accepted the challenge. Whoever won the race would be entitled to $100,000, the biggest purse in horse racing at that point in time. They would also have bragging rights of being considered the “Best Horse in the World”.
Papyrus, as well as his entourage that included his stablemate and a cat named Tinker, were loaded onto the best space on the boat that money could buy and started on their six day journey across the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, the race was being promoted as “The Great International Match Race”. Tickets were being sold for outrageous prices and the rights to produce a film were sold. Members of the media from every news publication in the city followed the two horses around like paparazzi, filming and reporting their every move.
The movie that was produced compared everything from the horse’s weights to the distance between their eyes to help viewers decide who they thought could win. It was a promotion of the sport of horse racing in the truest sense of the term. Everyone in America and beyond were excited for this race.
Neither horses, it seemed, were adequately prepared. Zev has been dealing with a hoof issue after the Lawrence Realization. His connections also had to deal with a breakout of hives in the days leading up to the match race. His condition made the promoters list another horse, My Own, as a possible replacement.
Papyrus wasn’t on his A-game either. The journey across the Atlantic had taken a toll on him and rains that day turned Belmont’s dirt track into a slop. Papyrus’s connections feared that he would cut himself with the studs on mud caulk shoes, so they kept him in regular shoes. Zev, on the other hand, had been outfitted with the shoes that would give him better grip and traction in the mud.
Nevertheless, 70,000 people flooded Belmont Park in their best dress. Attendees crowded around the rail to get the best glimpse of the horses as possible. 30 cameras were placed throughout the racetrack, including cameras that could get aerial views of the horses and the crowds.
Papyrus led the parade to the starting line, walking in a calm manner. Zev was full of energy and excitement, throwing his head and bouncing around behind his rival. When the bell rang, Papyrus flew to the lead. However, Zev quickly bounded out to steal it from him. A half-mile in, Zev was leading with Papyrus looming at his flank. As they rounded the far turn, Zev’s jockey Earl Sande urged his mount forward and Zev responded tremendously.
Papyrus ran his heart out, putting all of his effort into every breath and stride, but was no match for Zev. The American colt crossed the wire five lengths ahead of his rival. The crowd waved their hats around in pure joy and excitement. The Kentucky Derby winner reigned supreme.
[Video: Zev after winning The Great International Race]
After the Race
Both horses raced as four-year olds. Zev was successful, winning races like the Kings County Handicap. Papyrus, on the other hand, failed to win any of the four races he ran in.
At the end of 1924, both horses retired to stud. Zev sired 47 winners from 95 named foals, but only two were good enough to win minor stakes races. Papyrus was also not extremely successful at stud, but did have some good accomplishments. He was the damsire of Princequillo, who in turn was the grandsire of the great Secretariat.
All in all, The Great International Race was a precursor to today’s Breeders’ Cup and other races of the sort. Though many say it wasn’t a fair match because of Papyrus’ shoes preventing him from running well in the mud, it still got people across the world excited about a horse race. It was a promotional and marketing win for Belmont Park and the sport of horse racing as a whole.
[Video: Watch the entire 22 minute film of Papyrus vs. Zev]
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Sources: American Classic Pedigrees (Zev)