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The Holy Grails

From the America's Cup to Olympic Medals, Sports Trophies Have Been Kissed, Caressed, Stolen, Smashed, Buried, But Above All, Coveted
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

(continued from page 1)

The America's Cup was awaiting 2000's competition when it nearly was destroyed by the sledgehammer-wielding Nathan. Evidently it was the hoopla and the cup-related real estate development near native fishing grounds around Auckland's harbor that enraged Nathan, a 27-year-old activist for New Zealand's impoverished Maori tribe.

Astonishingly, for a $250,000 trophy whose 1983 loss prompted editorials nationwide--and whose recapture earned a ticker-tape parade in New York--the near-destruction of the America's Cup elicited extraordinarily scant coverage in the United States. (The New York Times, for instance, buried a five-paragraph Associated Press story about the incident on the bottom of page 15 of its sports section.) "We attribute that to sour grapes," Ewen Campbell, sports editor of the New Zealand Herald in Auckland, says with a chuckle.

The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron contacted R. & G. Garrard (now Asprey & Garrard), the London silver company that had created the cup 149 years earlier. The cup was flown to London, where master silversmith Rod Hingston spent three months restoring it. "Not only were the splits and gouges repaired, but old dents and poor maintenance work were cleaned up--so the cup returned to New Zealand...looking better than when it first arrived," wrote Suzanne McFadden, a sports reporter for the New Zealand Herald. Garrard did not charge for the repairs. (They do offer a 17-inch-high replica for about $28,000.)

Nathan, who had a record as a failed bank robber and successful armed bandit, was sentenced to two years and 10 months in prison, but he appealed and was freed after only a year in jail. It is hard to say whether he will be among the estimated 100 million television viewers who are expected to watch at least part of the best-of-nine series of races, beginning February 26, that will determine which country will have the honor of hosting--and protecting--the America's Cup.

Yet the cup is not the only trophy associated with these races. The crush of challengers led to the development in 1983 of a special round-robin series designed to determine which group gets the right to race the defender for the cup. Paris-based Louis Vuitton, maker of luxury luggage, handbags and other accessories, underwrote the creation of the Louis Vuitton Cup, awarded to the winning challenger. An 18-inch-high, cone-shaped vase with four supporting buttresses, the Vuitton Cup was made of sterling silver by the celebrated French jeweler Puiforcat.

Like yachting, horse racing--"the sport of kings"--long has offered splendid trophies to those whose well-bred ponies outshine all others.

The Kentucky Derby Trophy, the Preakness's Woodlawn Vase and the Belmont Cup get trotted out and presented each year. Of the three, the Woodlawn Vase is the oldest, most storied and most valuable--although its claim to be the "most valuable trophy in American sports" may not withstand an insurance adjuster's scrutiny. The Maryland Jockey Club, owner of the Woodlawn, had it assessed at $1 million in 1983, but at least two other sports trophies may be worth more. The Indianapolis 500's organizers say their Borg-Warner Trophy--80 pounds of sterling silver compared with the Woodlawn's 29 pounds, 12 ounces of sterling--is worth $1.5 million. And the Hockey Hall of Fame says the Stanley Cup is insured for the same amount.

Nevertheless, you can't put a price on history, and the Woodlawn Vase--made in 1860, first awarded in 1861--has a 32-year head start on the Stanley Cup and 76-year lead on the Borg-Warner. It certainly can justifiably claim (as it does) to be "the oldest continuously contended trophy in the United States."

The vase was among the first sports trophies created by Tiffany & Co., whose artisans wrought it for R. Aitcheson Alexander, organizer of a challenge cup race for the now-defunct Woodlawn Racing Association in Louisville, Kentucky. Its original cost was $1,500--a staggering sum in 1860. A masterpiece of mid-Victorian craftsmanship, it features silver work that would be difficult if not impossible to reproduce today.

The vase was first won by Capt. T. G. Moore's mare, Mollie Jackson, in 1861. Competition for the trophy was suspended during the Civil War, and the Moores, Kentucky natives, buried it with the rest of their family silver to protect it from marauding soldiers, be they the Blue or the Gray. The Moores dug up their silver at war's end and racing for the vase resumed in 1866.

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