Some years ago, we wrote of our colourful association with a training legend. Maurice Zilber, trainer of international star Dahlia and four-time winner of the GI Washington D.C. International S., has died at the age of 88. The Egyptian-born horseman had been battling cancer since 2005. Zilber began his career in his country of birth, where he was a leading trainer. He relocated to France in 1956 after Gamal Abdel Nasser ascended to that country’s presidency, and Zilber’s family had been the subject of religious persecution.
After immigrating, Zilber found success with owners Daniel Wildenstein and Nelson Bunker Hunt. Zilber and Wildenstein were innovators in international racing, purchasing unraced prospects in the United States, then shipping them to France to compete, an uncommon tactic at the time. Zilber won the 1967 Prix de Diane (French Oaks) with Gazala and captured the 1969 Poule d’Essai des Poulains (French 2000 Guineas) with Don II. He is believed to be the first trainer to sweep the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) and Epsom Derby in the same year, winning those races in 1976 with Youth and Empery, respectively. No French trainer has won the Epsom Derby since Empery’s success. That year also saw Zilber’s first win in the Washington, D.C. International with Dahlia, who would be selected England’s Horse of the Year that season and again in 1974. Zilber’s other victories in the D.C. International came with Nobiliary (1975), Youth (1976) and Argument (1980). Dahlia and Youth also captured the GI Canadian International S., in 1974 and 1976, respectively. Exceller gave Zilber his third triumph in the Canadian International in four years in 1977. Like Dahlia, Exceller began his career in Europe with Zilber before Hunt moved him to the barn of Charlie Whittingham in California. Other victories for Exceller under Zilber’s tutelage included the Prix Royal-Oak (French St. Leger) and the Grand Prix de Paris. Zilber also campaigned Trillion, who was France’s champion older mare in 1978 and 1979 and was the 1979 Eclipse Award winner as champion grass mare. After cutting back on his training operation in 1995, Zilber maintained a small string of horses in France for Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms until his official retirement in 2005.
Not too many people would think of Egypt as the font of quality horsemen, and even fewer know that Arrowfield’s founder, John Messara, breeder or maker of Danehill, Zabeel, Flying Spur, Redoubte’s Choice and Danzero was himself a fugitive, at age 12, of the same Nasser purge.