01/21/2011 6:09PM

Memories of Miesque


The death of Miesque on Thursday has triggered a flood of memories of the great filly and broodmare. Along with Urban Sea she rates as the most accomplished female Thoroughbred based on accomplishment on both the racecourse and the breeding shed in the modern era. The winner of ten Group or Grade 1 races from 16 starts, she was the first horse to win two Breeders' Cup races of any sort, they being the Mile, as well as the first horse to win the Prix Jacques Le Marois twice. It was her first Marois victory at Deauville on August 16, 1987 when I had the pleasure of seeing her run for the first time.

I was a relatively novice foreign traveler at the time, only having made my first trip to England in 1983 and my first to France two years later. In 1987 I decided to spend the month of August in Paris. In the back of my mind I knew that Miesque was preparing for a summer campaign in Deauville, but that was not the first thing on my mind. At least not yet.

Lacking very much in the way of funds, I ensconced at the Hotel Esmeralda. Around the corner from the famous English-language Shakespeare Bookshop and just across the Seine form Notre Dame Cathedral, the Esmeralda lies in the very heart of Paris. More importantly, I was being charged just a hundred francs per night, or about $11 at the time, for a single room with a bunk bed, bathroom around the bend in the corner of a winding staircase lined with prints depicting the fictional lives of Esmeralda, Quasimodo and other characters from Victor Hugo's novel Notre Dame de Paris, aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Of course there is no racing in Paris during August as the entire Thoroughbred community hightails it up to Deauville on the Normandy coast for the entire month, and who can blame them? The beach, the casinos, the racetrack and the restaurants combine to make Deauville the most heavenly summer holiday on earth...apologies to Saratoga.

After a week of loving Paris in the summer when it sizzles, I decided it was time to make a day trip up to Deauville. The occasion would be the meeting's annual mid-month highlight, the Prix Jacques Le Marois, France's best one-mile race.

The train ride commences from the Gare Saint-Lazare, made famous by Monet's painting of the same name and by Zola's novel, La Bete Humaine, depicting life on the train line between Paris and Le Havre. It is a 2 1/2-hour journey to Deauville with a brief stop at Lisieux, the town for which the race in which Miesque had broken her maiden a year earlier, Deauville's Prix de Lisieux, is named.

As the train chugs into Deauville station, it offers a quick view of the chute from which one-mile straight races like the Jacques Le Marois are started. The activity at the station conjurs up La Belle Epoque, the late 19th Century period during which French culture flowered as beautifully as it ever has. People rush about in search of a taxi, or make directly for the beach or the racetrack, depending on their tastes.

I arrived on an early morning train, so there was time to walk the three or four blocks to the beach for a quick dip. The sun was shining blindingly, the brightly colored beach umbrellas looking like cherry, raspberry and strawberry flavored ices. The sea is mild at Deauville. At low tide you can walk out 200 yards and the water barely comes up to your knees. I got in up to my waste and decided to find a likely spot for lunch.

Although by this time I was nearly as close to England as I was to France, I decided to remain on the French side of the Channel, which Frenchman call La Manche.

A few blocks form the beach halfway to the track lie dozens of restaurants and cafes suitable for a quick pre-race pick-me-up. Ultimately restored by a ham-and-cheese sandwich and a carafe of Bordeaux, it was on to the more serious business of the day.

I had used the long train ride to study the form in Paris-Turf, the French racing daily. Try as I might, it was impossible to find anything that might beat Miesque in the Jacques Le Marois, which would be her first try against older horses. In the paddock she looked impeccable, possessed of a strong, muscular neck, so important in providing air to the lungs, something along the lines of a fuel-injector system in a Formula 1 racecar. She was also very strong in the withers. Had she been a human being, one would have called her a most handsome woman.

The public sent her off as the 7-10 favorite. Freddie Head pulled her back to the rear of the 9-runner field, putting her in gear just inside the quarter-pole. She struck the front at the furlong marker and strode clear for a 3-length victory over an outclassed Nashmeel, giving nothing in the field the least chance.

Fortunately, I had timed my stay in Paris to end after the first weekend of September, and Miesque was scheduled to run just three weeks later at Longchamp in the one-mile Prix du Moulin de Longchamp. The weather was just as brilliant on the day, September 6, as it had been at Deauville, not quite as warm, but delightful still.

Miesque's competition this day was a bit more formidable than it had been at Deauville, for challenging that day was the Andre Fabre-trained Soviet Star. Like Miesque, his sire was Nureyev. Back in May he had won the French 2000 Guineas exactly a week prior to Miesque's own victory in the French 1000 Guineas. Since then Soviet Star had traveled to Goodwood in England, where he had beaten older horses in the one-mile Sussex Stakes.

There wasn't much to choose between them on paper, but the betting public had no trouble deciding upon their favorite. It was Miesque, and she went off at an unbackable 1-10, yet never gave her backers an unquiet moment. Kept a little closer than usual this time by Head in fourth, she skipped to the lead at the quarter-pole and held Soviet Star safe by 2 1/2 comfortable lengths. There was nothing in Europe that could stay with her at a mile, or so everyone thought.

It was time for me to return to New York, so I missed her second trip to England for the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on September 26 at Ascot. There she met defeat on the testing, almost entirely uphill, right-handed mile course, not quite staying the distance as she was beaten into second by Milligram.

Ironically, the QEII was just what was needed to prepare Miesque for her first try in the Breeders' Cup Mile, which was run that year at sunny Hollywood Park. Having lost her previous race, American bettors were not convinced that she could handle the long journey from Chantilly and win the Mile. Her QEII conqueror Milligram was there to harass her again., as was Sonic Lady, who had finished an unlucky third in the QEII.

The Ascot race proved key in the betting. Sonic Lady, trained by Michael Stoute for Sheikh Mohammed, was sent off as the 2.90-1 favorite. Miesque was the second choice at 3.60-1 and Milligram the fifth choice at 7.30-1, behind the American coupling of Temperate Sil and Le Belvedere at 11-2 and Double Feint at 4.90-1.

But few if any of those players who made those odds had had the opportunity to see Miesque at her best. At better than 7-2, she rated one of the better overlays in Breeders' Cup history. Kept close to the pace by Head in fifth, she loomed large on the turn for home, swept to the lead with a brilliant rail move shortly after entering the stretch, and cruised to a handy 3 1/2-length victory over longshot Show Dancer, getting the mile on firm ground in a very swift 1:32.80.

A year later at Churchill Downs it would be more of the same. Although the turf course was officially labeled good, it was probably closer to soft, but it made no difference to Miesque. She galloped clear for a 4-length victory over Steinlen as part of the favored 2-1 entry with Blushing John, the likes of Ravinella, Bet Twice and Mill Native left toiling in her wake.

That second Mile triumph marked the end of her racing career. Her legendary trainer Francois Boutin bid her goodbye as she took up residence at Lane's End Farm in Kentucky, where she would produce classic winners Kingmambo and East of the Moon among other group race winners.

Greatness has a way of following one around, even one as far removed from greatness as this observor. In 1999, there were shades of Miesque at Belmont Park as a son of Kingmambo, Lemon Drop Kid, won the Belmont Stakes. Even in Japan, it was difficult to to escape her influence. On a busman's holiday in 2004, there was another son of Kingmambo, King Kamehameha, winning the Japanese Derby.

Nearly 25 years after Miesque's heyday, Freddie Head has had the pleasure of training a fitting successor to the great filly in Goldikova. She made the Frenchman the first man to both ride and train a Breeders' Cup winner when she won her first Mile title in 2008. In November, Goldikova broke Miesque's Breeders' Cup record by winning her third Mile, yet Head will not be drawn into a comparison as to which of the two distaffers is better.

"It is impossible to compare them," he said diplomatically on Friday. "There are nearly 25 years separating them and the horses they were running against are so different."

Suffice it to say that Goldikova is the best horse Head has trained, but that Miesque is the best horse he ever rode.