By Tobi Lopez Taylor
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the epic duel between the unbeaten “white tornado” Kontiki and *Orzel, the 1967 U.S. National Champion Racehorse. This race took place on March 30, 1968 at Turf Paradise, then a fairly new track on the outskirts of Phoenix, Ariz.
Kontiki, bred by Dr. Lloyd and Doris Rosenvold and owned by Christopher and Valeene Hampton-Wilcox, was a striking white-grey horse of primarily Crabbet, Davenport, and domestic breeding, with a little Polish and Egyptian thrown in. His great-grandsire Ziyadi had been a well-known California racehorse, and another ancestor, Antez, had sired a wartime Polish Derby winner as well as Sartez, touted as the “World’s Fastest Arabian.”
Kontiki himself preferred to fly out of the starting gate and not look back. In his debut at Turf Paradise in December 1967, he went wire to wire, winning by 20 lengths. About three weeks later, he was loaded down with 130 pounds and still cruised to a seven-length victory. In his next start his weight was increased to a hefty 140 pounds, and he still broke first, kept the field at bay, and triumphed by three lengths.
His rival, *Orzel, a flashy chestnut standing nearly 16 hands, had run as a four-year-old in Poland in early 1967, winning two of seven races and finishing in the money in all but one. *Orzel was by *Pietuszok, a Russian-bred stallion known for his ability to sire racehorses, including *Orla, a Polish Triple Crown winner. *Orzel’s dam Ofirka produced five stakes winners.
During his negotiations with the Poles to purchase *Orzel, Ed Tweed was told that the slow-maturing colt was the favorite to win the next year’s Polish Derby. In August 1967, Tweed sent his new horse to Evangeline Downs in Louisiana, where *Orzel learned to run on dirt. There, he easily won two pari-mutuel races and was named the first U.S. National Champion Racehorse. Shipped to Turf Paradise in November, *Orzel suffered his only American defeat in his Arizona debut, finishing second to El Gohari, whom he’d defeated in Louisiana. In *Orzel’s next start, he faced eight rivals and carried 140 pounds (co-high weight), but sailed home six lengths ahead of the field.
On March 30, *Orzel and Kontiki finally met at Turf Paradise in a 1 ½ mile invitational handicap. Although racegoers knew that these two were the ones to beat, the other six horses, all winners, were no slouches. These included the hardy Nusabre (carrying 113 lbs.), a future member of the Arabian Horse Trust Racing Hall of Fame; Ben Hib Ku (113 lbs.), who would later be named 1968 U.S. National Champion Racehorse; Ibn Saka (134 lbs.), Ibn Shara (113 lbs.), Ghami (106 lbs.), and Silki (112 lbs.). *Orzel was assigned high weight of 142 pounds (the highest impost of his career). The betting public made Kontiki the favorite, since he’d won his previous three starts by a combined 30 lengths and carried two fewer pounds than *Orzel.
When the gate opened, Kontiki zoomed to the front, while *Orzel broke slowly and was still next to last at the half-mile mark. Egged on by Nusabre, Kontiki ran the first quarter in :24 4/5 seconds and the half in :51 flat. Kontiki was still a length ahead of Nusabre as they turned for home, but Orzel had been steadily passing horses, and lay in third place at the top of the stretch. When *Orzel finally made his move, the white colt couldn’t fend him off. *Orzel won by a length over Kontiki in a time of 2:49 4/5, about two seconds faster than his previous win at this distance. As the racing chart put it, Kontiki “continued gamely but could not manage winner.” Nusabre hung on for third place.
Although no one knew it at the time, this race was pivotal for two reasons: it would prove to be Kontiki’s only defeat in his nine-race career, and it would be *Orzel’s final start. Like *Orzel, Kontiki went on to be named a U.S. National Champion Racehorse. He also set four track records. Both horses transitioned to successful careers in the show ring and later became notable racing sires.
It’s fitting and proper that in 1995 these two great adversaries were both inducted into the Arabian Horse Trust Racing Hall of Fame. Today, 50 years after they went head to head at Turf Paradise, we still remember and celebrate this clash of the titans.