Rita Hayworth: A Pin-Up Queen's Flirtation With The French Turf - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Rita Hayworth: A Pin-Up Queen’s Flirtation With The French Turf

Prince Aly Khan and Rita Hayworth at Longchamp in 1949

Longchamp will be a lonely place this weekend. With the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and 10 accompanying group races transferred to Chantilly while a new grandstand is being built at Longchamp, the great racecourse on the western edge of Paris will be left to the ghosts of Arcs past. The spectral post parade at Longchamp on Sunday will be led by Comrade, the first Arc winner in 1920, followed by a roll call of great names like Corrida, Djebel, Sea-Bird, his daughter Allez France, Mill Reef, Alleged and All Along following, with perhaps the greatest Arc champion of them all, Ribot, occupying the place of honor.

The ghostly reunion will include human spirits as well. Multiple Arc winning owners Marcel Boussac, Robert Sangster and Daniel Wildenstein, trainers Francois Mathet, Etienne Pollet and Vincent O'Brien, and jockeys Jacques Doysabere, Charles Semblat and Pat Eddery will return in spirit to the hallowed ground of their greatest triumphs, happy to have the place all to themselves on what will be the quietest first Sunday in October in the Bois de Boulogne since 1939-40 when the Arc was cancelled due to wartime hostilities.

If you are sentimental – or ghoulish – enough to spend this Sunday at the Longchamp construction site rather than at Chantilly, you might also catch a fleeting, ghostly glimpse of a retiring red-headed princess, the one-time Queen of Hollywood who very nearly became the Queen of the French Turf in 1949.

That was the year when a filly named Double Rose finished second to the runaway winner Coronation. Double Rose's American owner was listed as Princesse Aly Khan, the wife of the Ismaeli Muslim Crown Prince Aly Khan. Excuse me, did I say American owner? Well, in some parts of the world, Princesse Aly Khan went by the name of Rita Hayworth, the flame-haired Hollywood star of “Gilda,” “The Lady from Shanghai” and “Cover Girl,” who during the recently ended war had become every GI's perfect pin-up pipedream.

In catching the eye of most of the world's sighted male population, Rita could not help but be noticed by the world's sharpest-eyed man-about-town. Aly Khan, the son of European racing's leading breeder/owner the Aga Khan and a major Thoroughbred owner himself, was also the original A-List jet setter with a stable full of horses, cars and women – all of them fast.

Wherever the big social event was – a race at Ascot, a party in Paris, a dinner in New York, a weekend in St. Moritz, a sale at Newmarket, a premiere in Hollywood – Aly would be there, oozing charm and a wealth of banknotes in the currency of his country of moment. Women fell at his feet, seduced by his dark and dreamy eyes as well as his bottomless pockets. If she was beautiful and famous, Aly would find her. And as Rita Hayworth was beautiful and famous, find her he did.

The occasion was a July 1948 dinner party thrown in the Cote d'Azur resort of Cannes – home of the famous film festival – by gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell. If it wasn't actually love at first sight, it was surely seduction. Rita was on sabbatical from Hollywood and Aly, who was always on sabbatical, seized the opportunity. That they were both married – she to Hollywood wunderkind Orson Welles, he to English socialite Joan Barbara Guinness (the mother of the current Aga Khan) – didn't seem to matter to either of them.

In fact, they could hardly take their eyes – or hands – off each other. A whirlwind courtship followed with stops in Biarritz, Los Angeles (where Rita joined the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and replenished her touring ensemble), Mexico City, Acapulco, Havana, Paris, London and Geneva, after which Rita took up official residence in Reno so she could qualify for a quickie divorce from an irate Welles. His huge ego punctured in full public view, the director and star of “Citizen Kane” groused, “She was marrying the most promiscuous man in Europe, just the worst marriage that ever could have happened.” Providing a reason for her divorce from Welles, Rita quipped, “I got tired of his genius.”

Married in the Cannes town hall on May 27, 1949, and in a Muslim ceremony a day later, the newlyweds made quick work of it. On Dec. 28, Rita gave birth to a daughter, Yasmin. Asked about his new wife's quick turnaround, Aly sheepishly explained, “Seven-month babies are common in the family.”

Among the many wedding gifts he lavished on his bride were a few of the talented Thoroughbreds he had in training at Chantilly with Richard Carver, who one year earlier had engineered an Epsom Derby one-two with My Love and Royal Drake. The best of them was a promising 3-year-old filly named Double Rose. Shortly before their marriage the dazzling couple was thrilled by her victory over Bagheera in Longchamp's Prix Vanteaux. A key prep for the Prix de Diane (French Oaks), the Vanteaux pointed Double Rose out as one of the leading French distaffers of her generation.

Not that Rita noticed. Horses all looked the same to her. She had only become a member of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club to please hubby Aly. In fact, she didn't even like horses. “I rode on horseback,” she once said, “although I was terrified of them. That was when I was doing Westerns (the eminently forgettable “Hit the Saddle” and “Trouble in Texas”). They were something else again.”

Aly had only given his bride a few of his horses in an effort to focus her attention on his lifestyle. One of the clauses in their marriage contract was that she – Rita Hayworth, the biggest drawing actress in Hollywood at the time – would not make any movies for the duration of the union. But afternoons at the track chatting with impossibly boring social aristocrats, plus a never-ending round of parties and dinners, was not the sort of lifestyle that Rita could ever get used to.

And then there was Aly, the playboy of the Western, Eastern, Northern and Southern worlds. If there was racing business at Newmarket, Deauville, Saratoga, Keeneland, Santa Anita or San Isidro, Aly would be there, and like any sailor worth his salt, he had a girl in every port. At heart a homebody, Rita looked the other way, but all was not well in what appeared to the outside world as a marriage made in heaven. She put in an appearance at Royal Ascot, smiling obligingly for the cameras while keeping one eye on Aly and another on her father-in-law's colt Palestine, who won the Coventry Stakes on his way to becoming European 2-year-old champion.

Although Rita Hayworth, officially known as La Princesse Aly Khan, was listed as the owner of Double Rose, all of the training and racing decisions were being made by Aly and trainer Carver. They decided that Double Rose would go next in the Prix de Diane, the ultra-elegant Chantilly fillies classic. But her previous form failed her and she came home eighth behind Prix Vanteaux runner-up Bagheera. There followed the almost de rigeuer summer vacation for leading French 3-year-olds, while Rita and Aly spent much of August taking the sun at Deauville, where Carver warmed up for the autumn with victories in the Prix Jacques le Marois with Amour Drake and the Prix Morny with Ksarinor. That made him the hottest trainer in France, and he had a plan for Double Rose.

Her grandsire Chateau Bouscaut, winner of the 1 1/2-mile Prix du Jockey-Club and an unlucky second in the 1 7/8-mile Grand Prix de Paris, had been making a name for himself as a source of stamina. Carver felt Double Rose would improve over longer distances than the Vanteaux's 1 ¼ miles and the Diane's 1 5/16's. She lived up to expectations when winning Deauville's Prix de la Municipalite at 1 9/16 miles, and so was entered in the Prix Vermeille, Longchamp's course and distance Arc prep for 3-year-old fillies. Although Double Rose could finish only fifth in that race behind Bagheera, she was beaten less than three lengths, an effort good enough to earn her a place in the Arc three weeks later.

Her and 27 others as the 1949 running was the largest Arc field up to that point. The reason was money. A Societe d'Encouragement deal with the Loterie Nationale established a sweepstakes on the Arc raising its value from $21,000 to $110,000. The overflow field included two of Double Rose's Richard Carver-trained stablemates, Jacques le Marois winner Amour Drake and Val Drake, who started as the 7-2 co-favored entry, the same price as Double Rose's nemesis Bagheera, who, between her Diane and Vermeille triumphs had landed the Grand Prix de Paris. The Marcel Boussac-owned entry of Coronation, runner-up in both the English and Irish Oaks, Eclipse Stakes winner Djeddah and their pacemaker Norval were sent off at 3.70-1. Double Rose, on the other hand, attracted a good deal less attention from the betting public than her owner was getting in the members' enclosure. All afternoon all eyes were on Rita as Double Rose drifted to 60-1.

But you could shoot holes in all of the favorites save Bagheera. Amour Drake was a miler, Val Drake had finished only third in the 1 7/8-mile Prix Royal-Oak, Djeddah was suspect beyond 10 furlongs, and Poule d'Essai des Pouliches dead-heater Coronation had failed twice at the Arc distance against her own age and sex. Could there be a Tinseltown, “National Velvet”-like upset in the making? If so, Double Rose had Bagheera to beat.

Carver brought Bill Rickaby over from England to ride Double Rose, who received a pre-race kiss from Rita in the paddock. The sun was shining brilliantly that Oct. 9 Sunday afternoon as the Boussac rabbit Norval sped to the lead with his entrymate Djeddah close up in fifth. Coronation was being rated in 11th by French ace Roger Poincelet, while Double Rose, breaking from the middle of the field, was a few places further back. Halfway down the hill on the long, sloping turn with five furlongs to go, Amour Drake was eating up ground on the rail as Norval gave up the lead to the 30-1 Coast Guard with Amour Drake fifth and Double Rose and Coronation together in 10th. Bagheera had been swung wide by Charles Bouillon and was making progress through the false straight with three furlongs to run.

At the head of the 2 ½-furlong stretch, Amour Drake assumed command with British hope Beau Sabreur alongside. Double Rose and Coronation were running as a team further out. Djeddah was fading and Bagheera's wide run had petered out. Inside the quarter-pole Double Rose and Amour Drake engaged in a duel for the lead. Could 'Rose' get the job done against a rival whose stamina was suspect? For a few seconds it seemed possible, but Coronation was right behind them and traveling best of all. When Poincelet pushed the button the response was immediate and devastating. The daughter of 1942 Arc winner Djebel swept to the lead and drew off to a four-length victory as Double Rose ran on for second, a length ahead of Amour Drake.

At least Double Rose had had the satisfaction of finishing ahead of Bagheera, who weakened to sixteenth. Moreover, she had been beaten by a filly who, by any rational criteria, should never have been conceived or foaled, Coronation being incestuously inbred 2×2 to the stallion Tourbillon.

A year later Double Rose would try the Arc again for Rita. She prepped with a second-place finish behind Alizier in the Grand Prix de Deauville but showed nothing at 32-1 on Arc Day, never threatening while finishing 11th of 12 behind the redoubtable Tantieme, who was collecting the first of his two consecutive Arc trophies in defeating Alizier by 1 ½ lengths. Rita and Aly could take little consolation in Double Rose finishing just a half-length behind Coronation this time.

Thus ended Rita Hayworth's career as a racehorse owner as her marriage was rapidly unraveling. Always attracted by Hollywood glitz, Aly had been rumored to have had affairs with Yvonne de Carlo and Zsa Zsa Gabor. When Rita caught him in a public clinch one night with Joan Fontaine, she threw a tantrum and filed for divorce on Sept. 2, 1951. She returned to Hollywood with baby Yasmin, and, after a brief reconciliation, the split was formalized in 1953.

But Aly never changed his ways. The ink on the divorce papers was hardly dry when he announced that he was engaged to be married to Gene Tierney, the sultry star of “Laura” and “Leave Her to Heaven.” But this time Papa Aga Khan put his foot down and said “No!” only to have Aly try it on shortly afterwards with Kim Novak. Later the Aga would lament, rather ungraciously, “Ah, if Aly would only choose his women as well as he does his horses!”

After five more unsuccessful tries Prince Aly Khan would finally win his Arc with Saint Crespin in 1959. Seven months later his life would end tragically when he was killed in an automobile accident while driving to a dinner party after a day of racing at Longchamp. Two decades later he would be memorialized by Calumet Farm owner Lucille Wright Markey, who named one of her colts Alydar, short for “Aly darling”, the pet name by which the Prince was known in American racing and social circles.

Having freed herself from the velvet clutches of the world's most eligible husband, Rita returned to Hollywood to make the tropical noir “Affair in Trinidad,” which grossed a million dollars more than the vastly superior “Gilda,” so hungry were moviegoers to see their favorite glamour girl on screen again. There followed “Salome,” “Miss Sadie Thompson,” “Pal Joey” and “Separate Tables,” interspersed with disastrous marriages to actor/crooner Dick Haymes and producer James Hill, but the luster was dimming. Diagnosed in the late 1970s with Alzheimer's disease, Rita Hayworth slowly faded from view, spending her last years with daughter Yasmin in an apartment on Manhattan's Central Park West.

Rita Hayworth would return to Deauville one last time, in a sense. The occasion was the American Film Festival, a celebration of American cinema held every September after the racing crowd has abandoned the seaside resort. In 1987, a few months after her death, she was feted on the same beach where she had once frolicked with Aly and his friends. Hollywood's brief but glittering affair with the elegant world of French racing had come full circle.

Alan Shuback is a former columnist and foreign correspondent at Daily Racing Form and The Sporting Life who is working on a book entitled “Hollywood at the Races.”

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