Sometimes a horse story is really more of a people story.
This one begins with a chestnut filly that, while she enjoyed some success, was by no means a superstar, either on the race track or later in the breeding shed. In 47 lifetime starts, she won only six times, but ran in the money in nearly half her races, earning a total of $76,654. However, over a period of four months or so, Grecian Princess teetered on the edge of stardom—only to not quite fulfill the tantalizing promise of that oh-so-brief period.
As a juvenile, this daughter of Epsom Derby-winning Hyperion’s son Hesiod, out of an unraced Roman mare named Princess Lisa, was solid but not spectacular, although she did finish third in the 1963 Golden Rod Stakes before settling in for the winter at the Fair Grounds. There, on December 28, she won the six-furlong Sugar Bowl Handicap by one-half length over 13 rivals—at odds of 13-1. A month later, she ran second in an allowance race, solidly defeated by over four lengths, but only seven days later, on February 1, she closed from dead-last to win the six-furlong Thelma Stakes over fellow 3-year-old fillies. Next her trainer twice stretched her out to 8.5 furlongs in open company, where she failed to hit the board, beaten by a combined total of 16 lengths.
Thus, on March 14, it surprised no one when Grecian Princess entered the gate for the nine-furlong Louisiana Derby at odds of 29-1. Breaking well in the nine-horse field, she settled in two-lengths behind the front-running favorite Whit’s Pride and Susan’s Gent. At the half-mile pole, Susan’s Gent broke down, propelling Grecian Princess into second-place, and as the duo neared the wire, she stretched out to win by a head—only the second filly to win the Louisiana Derby, a feat that has not since been replicated.
After three subsequent disappointing efforts in April—twice at Keeneland and once at Churchill Downs—she entered the Kentucky Oaks slightly tarnished and finished seventh—a distant 12 lengths back—behind Blue Norther. Nominated for a number of races in which she didn’t run (including the Illinois Derby), she was a last minute vet scratch from the Cinderella Handicap on May 27. What exactly happened after that is lost to the vagrancies of racing history, but Grecian Princess only won once more in her career, and thus faded into distant memory.
Her owner wasn’t one of those whose racing stables enjoyed tremendous success, to the point where their names resonate through time. He was, it appears, the quintessential rich-boy owner who dabbled in the Sport of Kings. For over three decades, wealthy Detroit scion Theodore De Long Buhl enjoyed what only could be considered moderate success. His colt Air Sailor won the 1944 Breeders’ Futurity before running fourth in the 1945 Kentucky Derby, and twice Buhl runners captured the Clark Handicap—Second Avenue in 1953, and then Lemon Twist in 1964. It was the latter who undoubtedly was his most successful runner. Winner of the 1963 Illinois and Ohio derbies, Lemon Twist was withheld from the Kentucky Derby that year by Buhl after finishing a distant third behind Chateaugay in the Blue Grass Stakes. He would go on to run second to the great Gun Bow in the 1964 Washington Park Handicap, and finished runner-up to Moss Vale in the 1965 Hawthorne Gold Cup. In all, Lemon Twist made 104 starts, winning 17 times, with 23 places and 12 shows, for total earnings of $296,680.
The Buhl family has a long, rich history in Detroit, beginning with two brothers, Frederick and Christian arriving in 1833 from western Pennsylvania; both eventually served as Mayor of Detroit, Frederick in 1848 and Christian from 1860-61. The family’s business interests were many, extending from banking to manufacturing (including their own aircraft company). They even married into the Hiram Walker distillery (Canadian Club whiskey) empire—not to mention having a skyscraper with their name on it.
I’ve always been a genealogy buff, so digging around into the lives of early race horse owners have become a bit of a fascination, and I found several interesting tidbits of note about Buhl. For example, his namesake, his grandfather rather dramatically dropped dead outside the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in 1907, from apoplexy, when young Theodore was a toddler. It also merited notice in Time magazine when Theodore (“heir to $24 million”) married in October 1927 Anastasia Reilly—a New York showgirl famously a member of the Ziegfeld Follies! How scandalous that must have been, as the wedding was performed in New York with nary a mention of his family being present, beyond his uncle Florenz Ziegfeld (yes, the showman himself).
From what I’ve uncovered, the Buhls built a house in the suburb of Grosse Pointe where Anastasia eventually founded the weekly Grosse Pointe News. They also built a home in Palm Beach, Florida where they wintered and entertained, as various newspaper accounts attest. However, in 1939, they decided to winter in California, where their horses ran at Santa Anita, and Mrs. Buhl even momentarily stepped back onto the stage at the Huntington’s big Gay Nineties party where, as the Los Angeles Times society page reported, she did a “strip tease. But modest.” What a howl that must have been!
On December 28, 1961, Anastasia Reilly Buhl died of cancer at age 58 in Grosse Pointe; her husband suffered a fatal heart attack on June 8, 1968, in Sarasota, Florida. What a life they must have had. What a story, still to be told.