Zev-Papyrus : Horse Racing’s First “World” Championship, 1923

Oct 22nd 2009 12:33 am |

On October 20, 1923 at Belmont Park, the Kentucky Derby winner, Zev, took on the English Derby winner, Papyrus, in a match race. The race – dubbed The International – was the first of its kind and years ahead of its time.  Sixty years before the first Breeder’s Cup, the Westchester Racing Association held a “World” Championship of racing.

In the spirit of big events, promoters made the most of the hype surrounding the race by charging exorbitant prices for tickets.  They also sold rights to produce a motion picture film of the race for American and European audiences

Sports writer N.W. Baxter reported the result of the much anticipated race for the Washington Post:

“Zev, 3-year-old colt owned by Harry F. Sinclair, this afternoon reached the pinnacle from which he may look down upon the long line of illustrious thoroughbreds which have come before him in the history of the American turf.

“He earned the right to be called champion of the world and the greatest money winner that racing in this country has ever known, by taking the international match race in an easy gallop, before between 50,000 and 60,000 persons – said to be the largest crowd which ever witnessed a turf event in the East.

“Five lengths back, straining still, but apparently all run out, was Papyrus.  The race itself was a dull ending to the weeks of interest and enthusiasm which had preceded it…The run through the stretch – where the onlooking thousands had expected to see a duel between the horseflesh of Great Britain and the United States, had hoped for a closely drawn finish and perhaps in their hearts wished furtively for a dead heat – was a parade. The American horse won, as the turf has it, ‘unattended.’ This was a triumph, but it was not the sort of thing to bring men’s hearts into their mouths, not make their spirits rise. The contest lived up to neither expectations nor the occasion.”

As Baxter said, the race itself was anti-climatic, as track conditions and a mistake by Papyrus’s trainer in shoeing his horse ruined the imports chance. Events surrounding the race, covered in detail by the press, emphasized the tremendous amount of hype that had been building since the race was announced in August of that year. While the race itself may have been a let down, the business generated around the event was not. One writer predicted: “…the race between Zev and Papyrus will live in history as a gigantic financial spectacle.”

Image: (Above) Race day program from The First International. Concerns over the condition of Zev, forced promoters to name My Own as an alternate in case Zev was deemed unfit to run. (Below) Photographs of the start printed on the front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle the day after the race (Sunday, October 21, 1923)

Here is how the Washington Post described the crowd who packed into Belmont Park to witness Zev-Papyrus:

“Although the scale of prices may have acted as a deterrent in some cases, the promoters of the race will not face a deficit. There could have been more persons on the lawns and in the grandstand, but not many. Where the expected throng fell off was in the infield. A few eager enthusiasts who could not or would not pay the seven times increased fee demanded for some sections camped in the infield from 10 o’clock on. A few thousand others joined them in the course of the afternoon, but there was a neither the crowd nor the color within the fence that has marked many a Kentucky Derby…”

Those not able to witness the race at Belmont Park, were able to see it in theaters soon after (a relative new and novel concept in 1923).  Exclusive film rights for the First International were sold for a reported $50,000 to Pathe Exchange Inc. Pathe used 30 cameras around the track and shipped an edited film to theaters in time for showings, in some locations, the following day.

Race fans in Niagra Falls, New York were able to watch the race on Sunday evening at the Lumberg Theater (a little over 24 hours later).   The  announcement about the film showing was reported Monday in the Niagra Falls Gazette:

“The first official Fox pictures of the Zev-Papyrus $100,000 race at Belmont Park were shown at the Lumberg last evening.  The film was brought from New York by a special messenger sent to the greater city for that purpose by Manager Marvin Atlas.

“The Lumberg did not advertise the race pictures for yesterday because of the possibility that the film would not arrive in time and the management did not wish to disappoint Lumberg patrons.  However, the messenger arrived in time for the pictures to be shown at the first show last night and the news that the pictures were at the Lumberg soon spread and followers of the sport of kings flocked to the popular amusement place to see the camera record of the great international event.

“The pictures are splendid. To see them is the next best thing to being at the race.”

The full version of the Zev-Papyrus film produced by British Pathe can be viewed on their website. The twenty-two minute film – including some astounding shots of Old Belmont Park – is well worth a look (especially the last seven minutes).

“Racing Enthusiasts Eagerly Await $100,000 Match,” Washington Post, August 26, 1923
“Rialto to Exhibit First Pictures of Zev-Papyrus,” Washington Post, October 14, 1923
“Zev Beats Papyrus in Easy Style for Purse of $100,000,” Washington Post, October 21, 1923
“Scenes at International Race,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 21, 1923
“Zev Won His Easiest Victory, Papyrus Ran His Worst Race in International,” New York Herald, October 21, 1923
“At the Theatres,” Niagra Falls Gazette, October 22, 1923

Thanks to Ron Micetic for scanning his copy of The First International program.

Counting down to Breeders Cup — now just two weeks from Saturday.  As annoyed as I am with some of the changes over the last few years — it is still a day that every race fan looks forward to (yes, I know it is now two days but BC Day is still one day in my book — just as the Distaff will always be the Distaff).

Be sure to keep an eye out for Hello Race Fans — a new site being developed by Dana Byerly of Green But Game.  They are planning a pre-launch during the Breeders Cup.  You can sign up for email alerts and read more about it at http://helloracefans.com/


Filed in Belmont Park,Papyrus,The First International,Zev

6 Responses to “Zev-Papyrus : Horse Racing’s First “World” Championship, 1923”

  1. Erin says:

    Great story and some great original documents to go with it, which makes it all the more rich. With racing in the stressful state it's in today, I really appreciate the opportunity to bury my head in the sands of these golden years for a while. Thanks!

  2. dana says:

    Wow, I love that program.

    And thanks for the shout out about Hello Race Fans! What Kevin doesn't mention is that he and several others including Lisa from Superfecta, Val from Foolish Pleasure/Fillies First, Ernie Munick from TRNY, Teresa from Brooklyn Backstretch, Jessica from Raceday360/Railbird and superstar tweeter o_crunk have been working with me and my biz partner Adam Wiener (aka Swifty!) on the project. Definitely come by and sign up for alerts and we'll let you know when we launch!

  3. hungeryjack says:

    Nice post – horse racing pictures ..Keep Posting

    horse racing pictures

  4. Nola Ross says:

    I named my cat Zev to honor this great pony~~~Zev, the 1923 horse of the year

  5. Typical US ‘sell the sizzle and no sudstance’……Zev could never win because 1.he travelled a long ocean voyage..2.it was a dirt track and very muddy..papyrus had never seen a dirt track he used grass racing shoes Zev had mud spiked shoes…and Papyrus’s jockey was told to let zev run be on terms to straight and make it a sprint home therefore not a true staying test……in other words the whole thing was a total boat race that zev could not loose……put the race on grass in England and Zev would be destroyed by much further than 5 lens……just see now at how many USA horses can live with britsh , french and japaneses horses over distance on turf……very few………….THE US horse in the early 1900s where hacks