Females Dominate Headlines in New York

Once again we have to find storylines in the face of tragedy, which has plagued the Saratoga meet on its two biggest weekends. Hopefully we can provide a diversion with several iconic names from the past, while saluting the females of the sport, both human and equine. ~ Steve Haskin

Females Dominate Headlines in New York

By Steve Haskin


This week’s column will focus on the females who were in the news this week or made an impact on the racing, highlighted by Jena Antonucci, Mary Hirsch, Ruffian, Secretariat’s daughters, Gallorette, and Better Than Honour.

The more we see of Jena Antonucci the more we are convinced that she is much more than a small-time trainer who simply got lucky by being handed an extremely gifted colt named Arcangelo, who despite being by the brilliant Arrogate, sold for a paltry $35,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale. Following Arcangelo’s victory in the Belmont Stakes, in which Antonucci became the first female trainer to win a classic, she demonstrated her acute knowledge of all aspects of racing and of horses in general, was a great ambassador for the sport, and had enough confidence in herself and her horse to ignore the critics who questioned her decision to run Arcangelo in the Travers off an 11-week layoff.

By winning the Travers, Antonucci brought to light one of the most unsung heroes in the history of racing, Mary Hirsch, the daughter of the great Max Hirsch. Mary not only became the first and only female trainer to win the Travers back in 1938, she fought the system and the prejudice of the times by becoming the first female to take out a trainer’s license in 1934. Three years later she became the first female to saddle a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Hirsch won the Travers with a horse named Thanksgiving, who originally was trained by her father. As a 2-year-old while stabled at Saratoga Thanksgiving was ether struck or jolted by lightning and was found on the ground unconscious, but fortunately survived. His owner Anne Corning then developed s close friendship with Mary and asked her if she would train the colt as a 3-year-old.

If you want to know why Mary Hirsch was never heard from after that, she married racing executive Charles McLennan in 1940 and retired from training to become a housewife and mother.


Looking at several pedigree notes of interest from this past weekend, a salute to the broodmare Better Than Honour, who not only is the third dam of Belmont winner Arcangelo, she produced back-to-back Belmont winners Jazil and Rags to Riches in 2006 and 2007. She most likely would have had three straight if her son, the Japanese invader Casino Drive, hadn’t injured himself Belmont week after romping by almost six lengths in the Peter Pan Stakes in a swift 1:47 4/5 and then having Big Brown eased up in the Belmont with 38-1 shot Da’ Tara winning wire-to-wire.

A shout out also goes to Best in Show, the fifth dam of both Arcangelo and Personal Ensign Stakes winner Idiomatic.

An even bigger shout out goes to the legendary Gallorette, considered the most remarkable filly to ever race in the United States, having run against males, including Hall of Famers, Stymie, Assault, and Armed,  in an amazing 42 stakes, winning the Met Mile, Whitney, and Brooklyn and Carter Handicaps among others. Gallorette is the sixth dam of Gun Runner, who sired Grade 1 Forego winner Gunite, Grade 1 Ballerina winner Echo Zulu, and Grade 1 Travers runner-up Disarm all on Saturday’s Saratoga card and all for owner Ron Winchell, who owned Gun Runner.

Finally, remember Meadow Star, the undefeated 2-year-old filly champion with six graded stakes wins, four of them Grade 1, and victories at 3 in the Grade 1 Acorn and Mother Goose? Well, she is the third dam of Arcangelo’s sire Arrogate who also won the Travers, shattering the 37-year-old track record.


Ruffian Returns to Her Place of Birth

After being interred in the Belmont Park infield for nearly 50 years, the remains of the legendary Ruffian have been removed and relocated to her birthplace at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. She will rest alongside the great fillies and broodmares in Claiborne’s history and a number of male champions in the farm’s Marchmont cemetery. The move was made by the New York Racing Association, which is clearing the way for the construction of a new synthetic racing surface.

It was in the fall of 1973, when Secretariat ruled the racing world, that an imposing almost black yearling filly owned by Stuart Janney was sent from Claiborne Farm to trainer Frank Whiteley at the Camden training center in South Carolina.

Whiteley had already fallen in love with the Reviewer filly when he first saw her as a yearling at Claiborne Farm, shortly before she was sent to him at Camden.

When I visited the training center in June, 2000, it had been deserted for almost two months. Whiteley by then had a 176-acre farm about seven miles outside Camden. The stillness and quiet of the Camden barn area was interrupted by the occasional song of a wood thrush. Whiteley drove up a narrow dirt road and pointed out a barn just ahead and slightly off to the left. In front of it, across the road, was an empty patch of grass where another of his barns once stood before burning down in the late 1970s, killing 10 of his horses.

As Whiteley drove past his old barn that still remained, he pointed his finger toward it and said, “Ruffian stood right there in stall 4. That was her stall when she came to me as a yearling in November until we brought her to the track the following April. And it was her stall when she came back here the following winter after her 2-year-old campaign.

“It’s just an empty stall now, but there are memories, that’s for sure.” That was as nostalgic as Whiteley would get, and even that short comment contradicted his usual crustiness. When I went into his house and saw a VHS tape that was labeled, “Ruffian’s Races” sitting atop his television,  I asked Whiteley about it and he said he hasn’t been able to watch her races for years.

“Is it too tough to watch?” I asked.

“Hell no,” he shot back. “I don’t know how to work the goddamn VCR.”

As we continued to drive through the training center, Whiteley did think back to the morning when he worked Ruffian three furlongs from the gate with another promising, fast filly named Lady Portia. Another of Whiteley’s fillies, named Yankee Law, had just concluded her morning exercise. But instead of leaving through the gap, her rider decided to stand by the outside rail and watch the two brilliant young fillies work.

As they came charging down the stretch together, Yankee Law began backing up toward the inside rail, right in the path of the oncoming pair. Lady Portia collided with Yankee Law, sending both their riders crashing to the ground. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt, with Lady Portia the only casualty, suffering a concussion and a bloody nose.

Ruffian, meanwhile, never batted an eye through the entire incident and continued the final eighth of the work on her own. Despite all the turmoil and losing her workmate, she still worked her three furlongs in a blazing :33 flat. Demonstrating that kind of incredible speed and professionalism at such a young age was the first indication that Whiteley had something very special on his hands. She had come within inches of disaster, but instead bounded away unscathed and into history.

Whiteley knew he was about to unleash a running machine, and he would wait until 9:30 or 10 o’clock before taking Ruffian out to the track for training. He wanted to make sure no one was around except his help. This was one horse he was intent on keeping under wraps until it was time to send her up to New York.

“You knew damn well the word would get out on her,” he said.

After bringing her to New York, Whitelely made sure she did not work a half any faster than :50. And he did little talking about her. He didn’t even put a pair of shoes on her until the morning of her first race. She had breezed with nothing on her feet her whole life.

As Whiteley said, “Hell, she came into the world bare-footed. Even though they pick up five or six lengths with shoes on, they stay sound longer without them.”

Rufffian, of course, went on to rattle off one record-breaking or equaling performance after another, winning the majority of her races by huge margins.

Ruffian is still in a lot of people’s hearts, and there she will remain, forever equaling and breaking records; a gust of wind that blew through the Sport of Kings all too briefly. Although her gravesite in the Belmont Park infield no longer will be the hallowed ground it was for almost five decades, racing fans reportedly will now be able to visit her at the Marchmont cemetery that had been generally closed to the public. They can now visit arguably the sport’s two greatest undefeated fillies, Ruffian and Personal Ensign. (On Sunday, November 12, it will be my honor and privilege to lead a special Secretariat Festival expanded tour to Claiborne and the Marchmont cemetery, where you can also see the graves of many other great horses who were born, raised or stood at stud at Claiborne).

But there will only be one Ruffian, who like Secretariat has taken on mythical qualities over the years.  Walter Farley in describing “The Black Stallion,” could easily have been describing Ruffian, so I will change genders for him – “You’ve never in your life seen a horse run so fast! She’s all power…all beauty.”


The Impact of Secretariat’s Daughters in Travers

Whenever I look at Secretariat’s past performances there seems to be a big empty space where the Travers should be. Yes, we are all well aware that Big Red was recovering from a virus and 105-degree fever that no doubt contributed to his shocking defeat in the Whitney Stakes. But is there anyone who wasn’t totally convinced that Secretariat would have crushed the victorious Travers winner Annihilate Em, who he defeated by 15 lengths a month later in the Marlboro Cup, just as he trounced his Whitney conqueror Onion by 12 lengths in the same race.

But no one can say that Secretariat hasn’t had a major impact on the Midsummer Derby, just as he has in most of the other major races around the country. In fact Secretariat’s impact on the breeding industry continues to grow every year thanks mainly to his three remarkable daughters Weekend Surprise, Terlingua, and Secrettame.

This year’s Travers Stakes field has been regarded as one of the strongest and deepest in many years, with seven top-class horses, including the winners of the Kentucky Derby (Mage), Preakness (National Treasure), and Belmont Stakes (Arcangelo), along with Forte, last year’s 2-year-old champion, three-time graded stakes winner at 3, and runner-up in the Belmont. The remaining three horses were Blue Grass Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapit Trice; Matt Winn takes winner Disarm, who was second in the Louiisiana Derby and fourth in the Kentucky Derby; and Curlin Stakes winner Scotland.

If you look at the pedigrees of all seven horses you will see the name Secretariat an amazing 16 times through six of his daughters – Weekend Surprise (five times), Terlingua (five times), Secrettame (three times), and Viva Sec, Six Crowns, and Chosen Lady once each.

Also, Secretariat is in the pedigree of six of the last seven Travers winners.

Secretariat’s first major impact on the Travers came when his son General Assembly won the 1979 running by 15 lengths, setting a new track record that would stand for 37 years. Previous Travers record holders included Hall of Famers, Man o’ War, Buckpasser, Damascus, and Arts and Letters, champion Honest Pleasure, and Belmont Stakes winner Jaipur.

To demonstrate General Assembly’s versatility, he was the only horse to win the 1 1/4-mile Travers and the seven-furlong Vosburgh. And the only horse to run a faster Vosburgh was the legendary Dr. Fager.

So Travers weekend comes to an end. Once again we experienced racing at its extreme highs and its extreme lows, and we were able to tie in the present with the past. The big question as we head into fall and the Breeders’ Cup season is what the future will bring. Perhaps that will depend in whose hands the sport is in.

Photos courtesy of Adam Coglianese, Steve Haskin, and


Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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