Secretariat

The Year of the Phenomenal Fillies

Swiss Skydiver’s dramatic victory in the Preakness Stakes obviously stamped her as a contender for Horse of the Year, but where does that rank her on the popularity scale, especially with so many talented and popular fillies this year that the public can embrace?  Winx and Zenyatta are the only females to win the “Vox Populi” Award for most popular horse. Will we add another female this year? Check out all the candidates. ~ Steve Haskin

The Year of the Phenomenal Fillies

By Steve Haskin

 

You have to love the way racing often moves in strange circles, with events somehow finding a way of eventually catching up to you. In 2007, we witnessed a filly, Rags to Riches, win the Belmont Stakes to become the first female to win a Triple Crown race in 19 years. In doing so, she had to turn in one of gutsiest performances in memory, battling the length of the stretch with an imposing long-striding colt in Curlin. Refusing to be beaten, Rags to Riches, trained by mega-trainer Todd Pletcher, looked Curlin in the eye and prevailed in a photo finish.

Three of the leading characters in that historic event were John Velasquez, who rode Rags to Riches, Robby Albarado, who rode Curlin, and trainer Kenny McPeek, who bought Curlin as a yearling for a bargain price of $57,000 before turning him over to his assistant Helen Pitts when he decided to take a sabbatical from training. When Curlin won the Preakness Stakes in a hard-fought victory, McPeek lost his opportunity to train his second classic winner.

Now, 13 years later, the same three players acted out an eerily similar scene, but with the script reversed. This time it was the Preakness Stakes. This time it was Velasquez who was on the colt that was coming off a hard-fought victory in a Triple Crown race. This time it was McPeek and Albarado who had the filly. And this time it was the mega-trainer (Bob Baffert) who was on the losing end.

The only thing that wasn’t reversed was the outcome, as once again it was the filly, who McPeek bought for a bargain price of $35,000, who battled the length of the stretch with the imposing, long-striding colt (Authentic), looking him in the eye and winning the final leg of the Triple Crown in a photo finish in one of the gutsiest performances in memory. But this time, McPeek got his second classic victory with a horse he picked out at the yearling sale for under $60,000. And in doing so he had the unique distinction of winning the final leg of the Triple Crown twice, but they were two different races.

By winning the Preakness, Swiss Skydiver not only put her name right near the top of the list of Horse of the Year candidates, but also right near the top of the list of candidates for the Secretariat Vox Populi Award, which salutes the most popular horse; the one that endeared himself or herself with the public. That was Penny Chenery’s intention when she started the award in 2010.

Swiss Skydiver, you see, is not your typical horse, male or female. Racing has turned into a conservative sport, with top horses, unlike their predecessors decades ago, running fewer and fewer races each year and with long gaps in between. But Swiss Skydiver has reached a point in her career where you can call her the second coming of “The Iron Lady,” the name bestowed to the indefatigable Lady’s Secret back in 1986. She is a throwback to the days when horses ran often from winter to late fall. But she has separated herself from those horses, who ran mainly in New York and rarely traveled long distances. And like Lady’s Secret, she was not afraid to tackle the boys.

To demonstrate the her toughness and resilience, she has competed in stakes races in January, February, March, May, June, July, August, September, and October, and will conclude her campaign in November. During that time she has won stakes in Florida, Arkansas, California, New York, and Maryland, and placed in stakes in Kentucky and Louisiana. And to show what an easy horse to she is to ride, she won stakes this year with Tyler Gaffalione, Mike Smith, Paco Lopez, Brian Hernandez Jr., and Robby Albarado, who was pretty much brought out of mothballs at the last minute and gave her a sensational ride in the Preakness.

And no one can say she hasn’t beaten top-class opponents. Of the five horses who have finished second to her in stakes this year, two were Grade 1 winners, two were Grade 2 winners, and one was a listed stakes winner. She has faced 22 male horses this year and finished ahead of 21 of them. In the one losing effort McPeek felt she should have won, the Kentucky Oaks, she was dropping back to a mile and eighth from a mile and a quarter, which had to dull her a bit, and she was coming back off that 10-furlong race in only 20 days. The filly that beat her by 1 1/2 lengths in the Kentucky Oaks was Shedaresthedevil, who Swiss Skydiver beat by 13 1/4 lengths the only other time they met in the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn.

From a pedigree standpoint, Swiss Skydiver’s sire, Daredevil, never won or placed over a mile. Her dam, Expo Gold, won two races, both of them sprints. Her paternal grandsire, More Than Ready, won seven races, all of them sprints, and her maternal grandsire, Johannesburg, won or placed in eight races, seven of them sprints. Yet Swiss Skydiver has won Grade 1 stakes going 1 1/4 miles and 1 3/16 miles.

One note about her dam, Expo Gold, who is inbred to the great Damascus, she was a $32,000 RNA as a yearling. Then in 2017, at age 9, she was put in the Keeneland November Bloodstock Sale and sold for a mere $13,000. Two years later, she wound up in the California Breeders’ January sale at Pomona Fairplex Park and sold for only $15,000. Now here she is 21 months later the dam of a classic winner who is on the verge of possibly becoming Horse of the Year. It is only appropriate that Expo Gold was born on April’s Fool’s Day.

Oh, yes, one more thing: Swiss Skydiver’s winning time in the Preakness was one-fifth of a second off Secretariat’s stakes record set 47 years ago.

So you can plainly see why Swiss Skydiver is so special, why she can stake her claim for Horse of the Year, and why she has built up a fan base worthy of a Vox Populi Award.

But Swiss Skydiver is not the only female this year who has earned a loyal following. How about Starship Jubilee, who did the unthinkable by winning a Grade 1 stakes against the boys at the age of 7?

Starship Jubilee sold as a yearling for a meager $6,500. A pinhook attempt the following year failed when she was unable to meet her reserve at the Ocala 2-year-old sale and was bought back for $34,000.

Her career, racing exclusively at Gulfstream Park, seemed to be going nowhere, especially after being claimed for $16,000 in back-to-back races. But after being claimed by Canadian trainer Tino Attard on February 12, 2017, Starship Jubilee has finished on the board in 27 of her 28 races, winning 12 stakes at Woodbine, Saratoga, Gulfstream Park, and Tampa Bay Downs, and placing in five others, including a second in a Grade 3 stakes at Churchill Downs. She has since won three Sovereign Awards for champion Female Turf Horse and one for Horse of the Year, and she is a sure thing to win both awards this year.

Several races after being claimed, Tino turned her training over to his son Kevin.

When Starship Jubilee began having success, she again went into the sales ring, now with higher expectations, but once again she failed to meet her reserve and was bought back, this time for $425,000. She reached her zenith on Sept. 19 when he defeated males in the $1 million, Grade 1 Woodbine Mile, increasing her lifetime earnings to almost $2.1 million. Not bad considering anyone could have had her for $6,500 and then for $16,000. Even if you had met her reserve in 2017 you would be way ahead, not only financially, but celebrating in all her victories and her championships, and possibly a trip to the Breeders’ Cup.

The popularity of fillies this year obviously spreads all the way to Europe where the amazing Enable ran in her fourth Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at age 6 in an attempt to become the first horse to win three Arcs. The fact that she was unable to handle the heavy, testing ground at Longchamp in no way detracts from her amazing accomplishment of winning two Arcs, three King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the English and Irish Oaks, Eclipse Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Turf, and two Yorkshire Oaks.

Like Zenyatta, Enable’s final race resulting in defeat may only endear her to her fans even more, as she attempted to come back at age 6 and was faced with such harsh course conditions, yet still gave her all. The sporting gesture by her owner, Prince Khalid Abdullah, to bring such an accomplished mare back at that age to try to make history will also add to her already widespread popularity.

Back in the United States, we not only have a number of popular top-class fillies, such as Monomoy Girl and the recently retired Midnight Bisou, but there are others who have developed a growing fan base, most notably Serengeti Empress and the rising star Frank’s Rockette.

We are all aware of Serengeti Empress’ victories in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks and Ballerina Stakes, as well as several other stakes, but we can’t help think of her two heartbreaking defeats. In last year’s Test Stakes she went her half in :44 1/5 and then battled eventual Filly and Mare Sprint champion Covfefe stride for stride to the wire, only to be beaten a half-length. In her most recent start, the Grade I Derby City Distaff, she ran her half in a scorching :43 3/5 and turned back the challenge of dual Grade I winner Ce Ce in the upper stretch. But here came the late-running Belle’s the One, who looked like she was going to run right on by the leg-weary Serengeti Empress, who somehow found more and battled back, losing by the shortest of noses in a blistering 1:21 flat. And she had her nose in front one step past the wire in what has to be one of the gutsiest performances of the year. That was her second straight race in which she ran her half in :43 3/5, the first coming in a victory in the Ballerina, run in 1:21 3/5.

So, not only has Serengeti Empress become a fireball with her ridiculous half-mile fractions, she has shown everyone that she has no quit in her, which is why people are being drawn closer to her now than ever before.

As for Frank’s Rockette, she has emerged as a top-class 3-year-old sprinter, winning her last four starts and five of her last six, and has compiled a record of six victories and four seconds in 10 career starts. In the recent Gallant Bloom Handicap, she demonstrated how improved she is, romping by 7 1/4 lengths while being geared down the final eighth of a mile for her third straight graded stakes victory.

There was no doubting Midnight Bisou’s popularity after she rallied to be beaten a half-length by Maximum Security in the $20 million Saudi Cup earlier in the year. And, of course, there is Monomoy Girl, who had nothing left to prove after nailing down the 2018 3-year-old filly championship with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. But she was brought back this year after an 18-month layoff at age 5 and has won all three of her starts, including the Grade 1 La Troienne Stakes and Grade 2 Ruffian Stakes. So you can be assured that her popularity is trending toward an all-time high as she prepares for another Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

And, finally, you have Uni and Rushing Fall from the Chad Brown barn. Uni, the 6-year-old mare with the lightning turn of foot who blew her opponents away in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1:32 2/5, appeared to have lost her form after two defeats this year. But she bounced back this past weekend to win her second Grade 1 First Lady Stakes at Keeneland, where this year’s Breeders’ Cup will be run. And how can you not love Rushing Fall, who has won Grade 1 stakes at age 2, 3, 4, and 5, winning 11 of her 14 career starts. Also, what if the brilliant Gamine returns to her spectacular form when she drops back to sprints? So, you have females excelling this year who range from age 3 to age 7, on dirt and grass, in sprints and routes.

All these previously mentioned fillies and mares exemplify what the Vox Populi Award stands for, and with several of the talented and popular colts who are targeting the Breeders’ Cup, it should be a battle to the wire to determine who walks away with the award this year. We can all speculate who the deserving Eclipse Award winners will be, but when it comes to popularity and the Vox Populi Award, the voting does not come from statistics and accomplishments, but from the heart.