The Churchill Downs match still in doubt after a century

November 15th, 2023

Match racing in the United States has a spotty history, with many ending up farcically one-sided or irredeemably tragic. One of the few that (mostly) lived up to the hype occurred 100 years ago this week at Churchill Downs and featured the three-year-olds Zev and In Memoriam. But even after a century the true result of the spectacle remains shrouded.

Zev, owned by oil magnate Harry Sinclair, was the star of the division throughout 1923. Although he fared poorly as a lukewarm favorite in the Preakness S. early in the season, Zev would win his next nine starts. Among these were wire-to-wire victories in the other two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and Belmont S.

Even more notable was a score over Epsom Derby winner Papyrus in a 1 1/2-mile match at Belmont Park on Oct. 20, an event that attracted worldwide interest. A crowd estimated at 70,000 watched Zev splash to a five-length win in the slop, a condition for which Papyrus was not appropriately shod to handle. As winning owner, Sinclair pocketed the modern equivalent of more than $1.43 million.

Zev (Keeneland Library Cook Collection)

Zev would stay busy over the next four weeks, but unexpectedly saw his 10-race winning streak snapped in another lucrative feature. On Nov. 3 he started as the 2-5 favorite in the Latonia Championship over 1 3/4 miles. However, after showing his customary early foot, Zev weakened in the latter half of the race, losing by six lengths to In Memoriam. In addition to losing the $50,000 winner's share (nearly $900,000 today), Sinclair reportedly lost more than $63,000 in win wagers on Zev.

In Memoriam was no slouch, having won several other stakes that season, including the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. But his $23.60 win mutuel in a four-horse field was proof at how great the upset was judged by the record crowd of 45,000 on a drizzly day.

In Memoriam (Keeneland Library Sutcliffe Collection)

While the relative depth of Zev's accomplishments over the course of the long season spoke for itself, the debate over who was the better three-year-old intensified following In Memoriam's lopsided win at Latonia. Enter Churchill Downs general manager Col. Matt Winn, who was never shy about exploiting a great marketing opportunity.

Acting as broker between In Memoriam's owner, Carl Wiedemann, and Zev's trainer, Sam Hildreth, Winn announced that a 1 1/4-mile match between the two would be held on Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Louisville track.

"I had intended to retire Zev after his victory in the third Pimlico Serial (on Nov. 8), but my attention was called to an interview of Carl Wiedemann in a Louisville paper, in which he said his horse stood ready to meet any three-year-old colt in the world for any amount at any distance from a mile up," Hildreth said. "I interpreted that assertion as a direct slap at Zev."

Sinclair and Wiedemann each put up $10,000, with Churchill Downs adding an additional $10,000 to the purse. The winner was to receive $25,000, the loser $5,000.

"I will impress on him in the match that In Memoriam is his master," jockey Mack Garner cockily said. "Early foot is one of In Memoriam's chief assets, and if anybody thinks that I will allow Zev to steal away from me, they will be badly fooled."

Fortunately, a short movie newsreel of the match and the lead-up to it survives. Unfortunately, the absence of two crucial items we now take for granted, the starting gate and photo-finish camera, were another decade or more away from invention and common usage.

The lack of a starting gate meant that Zev and In Memoriam were lined up behind a tape at the start, a practice still used in jump races worldwide. However, for high-strung and excitable Thoroughbreds like Zev, a weak barrier proved ineffective. A false start by Zev, who ran off approximately 50 yards before jockey Earl Sande was able to rustle him in, delayed the proceedings and increased the already thick tension among a then fall meet record crowd of 40,000-plus in delightful weather.

The actual start was no more ideal. The film shows Zev was slow into stride, seemingly standing a half-length or more behind In Memoriam when the tape was raised. Pacesetting duties thus fell to In Memoriam.

"If Zev had left the barrier on even terms with me, I know that he would have gone to the front, and if he had set the pace I would have beaten him easily," Garner said. "When he broke bad, I had to set the pace, and naturally I took hold of my horse."

A tactical misfire, perhaps, considering the official result. 

Rather than showcase his mount's speed and force the slow-starting Zev to keep up, Garner proceeded to "walk the dog," setting pedestrian fractions of :24 4/5, :50, 1:15 2/5, and 1:41 1/5. Both colts were kept under stout restraint until the final quarter mile.

Zev had steadily narrowed the gap through the opening mile and was virtually on even terms with In Memoriam entering the stretch. Although Zev opened a half-length lead a furlong from home, In Memoriam found new life in the final yards and re-rallied so impressively that a majority of the best-placed observers, except the ones whose opinion counted the most, felt he had won by inches.

"Sande made his run too soon, and after getting in front Zev pulled up," Hildreth said. "If Sande had waited until the sixteenth pole, he would have won by a couple lengths, because when he passed In Memoriam it was like a flash."

Near pandemonium in the stands erupted when the placing judges put up Zev's number on the infield blackboard. Local newsmen reported the decision was still a subject of great debate throughout the city well into the evening and beyond.

Zev-In Memoriam match race 1923 (Photo by N. H. Simes / Courtesy of Louisville Courier-Journal)

Despite a consensus of finish line observers and jockey Mack Garner believing In Memoriam had his nostril in front at the wire, there is simply no hard evidence to confirm the result one way or the other. The existing film of the race does not show the actual finish. Still photographs reprinted in the Louisville Courier-Journal were either taken at an angle beyond the finish line, or a foot or two before it. The latter show In Memoriam with perhaps a slight advantage, or the colts on virtually even terms. Who won the head bob remains a mystery.

Wiedemann graciously conceded defeat to Sinclair after the result was posted. Zev returned $2.80 as a 2-5 favorite, while In Memoriam had been sent away at 1.75-1. The final time of 2:06 3/5 was more than three seconds off the track record.

The $25,000 winner's share elevated Zev to the status of racing's all-time leading money winner. Not as consistent at age four as he was at three, he was retired at the end of 1924 having earned $313,639, more than $5.5 million in today's dollars. Zev was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983, forty years after his death.

In Memoriam, who many felt exited the match with a higher reputation than Zev, failed to place in three starts at ages four and five. He lived until 1945.