07/23/2015 10:48AM

Mom's Command: Abby Fuller's horse of a lifetime

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Banking into an unforgiving homestretch, the jockey crouched low over a wind-whipped mane. For more than a mile, horse and rider had bounded along as a seamless team, the headstrong filly running the only way she knew how – hard, fast, and magnificently alone on an open lead. But with furlongs to go, the drumbeat of approaching hooves could be heard. “C’mon momma,” her rider began to plead: “Listen to me … Let’s go!” Loppy chestnut ears swiveled up and back, another gear was found. The race was over.

On July 6, 1985, Mom’s Command captured the 1 1/2-mile Coaching Club American Oaks by 2 1/2 lengths and with it, New York’s prestigious triple crown for fillies. Moments later in the Belmont Park winner’s enclosure, her exhausted, elated rider swept off a sweaty yellow helmet and set the crowd aroar when a cascade of auburn hair tumbled down over a pair of slender shoulders.

American women at this point had been licensed to race-ride for nearly a generation. No longer did territorial male jockeys stage strikes, nor were sexist cat-calls routinely shrieked from grandstand peanut galleries. But as Abigail Fuller discovered that giddy summer of a lifetime, racing’s road remained far from smooth for a female with the nerve to travel it. Fellow riders continued to bully and intimidate, while a male-dominated press awaited trackside with pens dripping criticism.

***

Thirty years have passed since Abby Fuller and Mom’s Command made racing history. A lifetime ago it seems, “almost inconceivable,” says Fuller, now a grandmother. Time passes, but memories of a very special horse remain with the woman who rode her straight into the Hall of Fame.

“She was feisty,” Abby says, fondly recollecting the spirited, sometimes-troublesome filly her father, Peter Fuller, wrought by mating Bold Ruler’s good son Top Command with homebred Star Mommy—from a female line that had generated the likes of Seabiscuit and Equipoise. Peter Fuller envisioned a runner possessed of quality speed who could carry it far. Mom’s Command was his dream come true.

“He was an old-fashioned breeder,” his daughter reflected. “He didn’t look much at numbers, ‘nicking,’ that kind of thing, but knew pedigrees and claimed mares because he liked their families. When he bred a winner, it was special.”

Distinguished DNA was not restricted to the equine set. Abby herself boasted a remarkable family tree, its branches heavy with lords, warriors, and politicos, among them an eighth great-uncle named Benjamin Franklin.

Sport has been part of Fuller family lore for generations, though Peter Fuller himself was an unlikely athlete, morphing from a sickly child into a Golden Gloves boxing champ. Fearless and fiercely competitive in all aspects of life, even in his 50s, he stepped boldly into a charity ring against no less a rival than Muhammad Ali.

For all his accomplishments in business and sport, Peter, who died at 89 in 2012, might best be remembered for what occurred in May 1968. That spring his unsound but immensely talented homebred Dancer’s Image was a hot classics prospect, his achy ankles holding together through victories in the Wood Memorial and Governor’s Gold Cup. He looked like one to beat come Kentucky Derby Day.

But the world shifted some 48 hours prior to the Gold Cup when Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, and Fuller—without hesitation—donated the entire $77,415 winner’s purse to the slain leader’s cause. Hate mail and death threats ensued.

Security for Dancer’s Image became an issue in Kentucky, one that 9-year-old Abby Fuller paid scant attention to. The horse-loving girl instead spent a blissful week at Churchill Downs shadowing future Hall of Fame jockey Bobby Ussery. “That’s when I said: ‘I’m going to be a jockey,’” she remembers. “Nobody told me there were no female jockeys then.”

Dancer’s Image finished first and reigned as Kentucky Derby champion for all of one day, until the then-illegal analgesic phenylbutazone was detected in his post-race urine sample. Peter Fuller would unsuccessfully battle racing’s most famous disqualification all the way to the Kentucky Supreme Court. He forever wondered if someone had “got” to his colt, or whether the specimen had been mishandled as punishment for his support of civil rights.

“Bute” is today a commonly used regulated medication, but in 1968 miniscule traces of it brought down a Derby winner. The mystery endures a half-century later.

Fuller may have lost the roses but he gained a future jockey. Abby rode show horses and mucked stalls through her teens, with her father occasionally handing her clipped articles about racing trailblazers Barbara Jo Rubin, Diane Crump, Kathy Kusner¬¬. He even got her a photo of Robyn Smith, inscribed: “If you work as hard as I have, you can become a jockey, too.”

“It never occurred to me I wouldn’t do it,” she says now. “And I don’t think it occurred to Dad I shouldn’t be a jockey just because I was a woman. Dad was not afraid of a fight; he was definitely a feminist. He had seven daughters, and Mom held her own with him all those years. He had no choice.”

In 1980, Abby went to work for trainer Ned Allard and by 1983 was a licensed apprentice, enjoying a bit of nepotism aboard some of her father’s homebreds. Her ascent to the top was fast: in 1985, Abby’s 145 wins and $1.5 million in purses edged Patti Cooksey and a young Julie Krone in both categories among female riders.

That same year, Peter Fuller got the horse he’d long been waiting for—a classy speedball with a ton of heart and stamina. Mom’s Command had grown fast (to nearly 16.2 hands at 2) and matured early. But she was an enigmatic handful in a claustrophobic package.

 “Early on, they didn’t know how good she’d be,” Abby said. “She was so big she didn’t fit well in the gate. A lot of our problems were related to that. She’d spread her legs and get a little freezy, then she wouldn’t come out right away.”

Serving a suspension when Mom’s Command debuted on July 17, 1984 in Rockingham’s Faneuil Miss Stakes, Abby watched as the filly froze under jockey Benito Carrasco, broke last, then sprinted to a head victory at odds of 45-1.

“She had her own mind,” Abby notes. “When she finally learned to relax, that had a lot to do with Bob Duncan, then an assistant starter in New York. He’d put his hands on her and she’d go ‘ahhhh,’ then come out of the gate so fast I’d go, “Whoa, Mommy … easy girl,’ to the head of the stretch when they’d start coming to her. Then she’d take off again. You can only take so much hold on a horse and if you go beyond that you take away their energy. We came to an understanding; I could get her to listen, and she’d always give me that little extra.”

As Mom’s Command’s regular rider, Abby developed a simple recipe for success: get the strapping filly out of the gate quickly and let her roll. Her final fractions, especially in longer races, could be unimpressive, leading New York turf writers to scrutinize the pair with hyper-critical eyes even as they scaled the heights. Why so slow? Why didn’t she rate her? Why was Abby on her at all? The term “girl” went unspoken but was certainly inferred, Abby claims.

“The writers not only didn’t believe in her – or us – but felt it necessary to put us down. I’m sure they wouldn’t have been as tough if I’d been male; there was some chauvinism going on. They’d say: ‘She’s only up because it’s her dad’s horse.’ Uh … yeah. Lucky me. That’s why you’re not on her! But hey, I was a year off my bug. Did I make some mistakes? I’m sure I did. The criticism bothered Dad; I don’t think my parents realized how it would be.”

Abby was briefly “fired” after rushing Mom’s Command to a big lead then fading in the Frizette, and observed as jockey Gregg McCarron took over for the Selima with instructions to rate the filly.

“She looked mad,” Abby recalls. “Her head was set high and she seemed to be fighting him – but they got the job done. Afterward, Mom told Dad: ‘You need to ride her back.’”

Mom’s Command’s classic season began auspiciously with a 19-length splash in Pimlico’s sloppy six-furlong Flirtation Stakes. A runner-up finish in the Goldfinch at Garden State was followed by five consecutive victories, beginning with the Cherry Blossom (by four lengths) and Comely (4 1/2 over rising star Lady’s Secret). Through it all, the media continued piling on criticism, harping on final times, slow late fractions, and questionable competition. One would think she was barely hanging on to win by a desperate nostril, rather than coasting home lengths to the good of stakes-winning, even champion rivals. And under chill rides from the jockey who knew and loved her best.

“With Mom’s Command, I never really used the whip until the stretch,” Abby recalls. “And then, it was usually just a couple of taps to keep her straight. I never hit her when I could see nobody was coming. Why did she need to go faster?”

In the Triple Crown’s opening salvo, the one-mile Acorn on May 25 at Belmont Park, Mom’s Command blazed the first half in 44.20, then “staggered” home by three in 1:35.80 over then-unbeaten Le L’Argent, leaving champion Outstandingly and a trio of past and future Grade 1 winners strung out 19 lengths behind. That day, Abby Fuller became the third woman to ride a Grade 1 winner.

The Mother Goose two weeks later was at nine furlongs, a distance media wags deemed out of Mom’s Command’s wheelhouse. Bettors thought otherwise. As nearly even-money favorite, Mom blistered off to her customary expansive lead. When a rival began closing, Abby cued the big filly, who opened up 5 1/2 in a blink. The dour New York Times headline? “Mom’s Command hangs on to win.”

The Crown’s culmination came in the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 6. Understandably, pundits doubted the free-styling front-runner’s ability to stay 12 furlongs; she again proved them wrong. At 1-2 over a modest field – who was left to take her on? - Mom’s Command opened up big, then coasted the final half in 56 seconds, unwhipped and unchallenged, winning by 2 1/2 lengths. She had swept the triple by a combined 11 lengths while Abby outrode future Hall of Famers Angel Cordero, Jorge Velasquez, Jerry Bailey, Eddie Maple, and Jacinto Vasquez. But it still wasn’t enough to turn some skeptics into believers.

“The time was painfully slow and the competition was dismal,” wrote Steven Crist for the Times, who then compared her – negatively – to immortal Ruffian.

Journalists, however, were missing sight of a fact in plain view. Mom never had to run like Ruffian; she was so superior to her competition at the time, all she had to do was take off like a rocket, then saunter on home.

Fellow riders, quicker to catch on, were becoming less critical and more admiring.

“I love Mom’s Command and I love Abby,” Cordero quipped to Peter Fuller. “But I’m sick of looking at their rear ends!”

Mom’s victory streak finally ended after four perfect months on Aug. 1 when 10-1 Lady’s Secret outfinished her in Saratoga’s Test Stakes. But the race wasn’t all it seemed, according to Abby.

“That’s the day they shoved us down on the rail, tore my boot, and I had to back her out of there. Then she came running and almost caught Lady’s Secret, who’d cruised along on the outside, free and clear the whole way.”

With that loss came overdue credit from the press, which finally acknowledged the depth of this filly’s extraordinary heart.

Next would be the Alabama, for which the increasingly formidable Lady’s Secret was not nominated. It proved a coronation and validation for Mom’s Command, a four-length victory dance over top California invader Fran’s Valentine, and a performance that all but delivered a divisional title into Fuller’s hands.

That would be it. A bad step while training brought Mom’s Command’s career to an abrupt halt that fall, with 11 wins and three placings from 16 starts and $902,972 in earnings.

Mom’s Command went on to produce 15 foals by sires like Mr. Prospector, Danzig, and Alydar, though ironically her best was Grade 2 winner Jonesboro, a son of little-known Sefapiano. As often happens with great runners, Mom’s offspring could not match her own racing brilliance.

Mom’s Command left the track a champion in 1985 but Abby’s career rolled on, with time off to produce three offspring of her own and recover from injuries (including a broken T2 vertebrae). A stint in Suffolk Downs’s publicity department was followed by a return to the track in the 1990s, when she rode primarily for then-husband/trainer Mike Catalano. In 2001, the family relocated to Florida where Abby again hung up her tack. She returned a decade later for Pimlico’s Lady Legends to benefit breast cancer research, finishing second that day ahead of childhood hero Barbara Jo Rubin. By the fall, she was back riding regularly at age 52 – winning her Calder Race Course debut on Fuller homebred A. J.’s Hot Mambo.

The book is now closed on Abigail Fuller’s racing career after her retirement in 2014. Across 30 intermittent seasons she rode 582 winners, won or placed with 25 percent of her mounts, earned $5.5 million in purses.

These days Abby works as a racing ambassador at Gulfstream Park, greeting patrons and hosting trackside breakfasts where she introduces new fans to racing.

On her own time, Abby has nearly completed Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship certification and is involved with programs like Equine Assisted Therapies of South Florida and Stable Place, which use horses in therapy with at-risk youth, veterans, and those with physical or mental disabilities.

“There’s amazing stuff being done with horses as co-facilitators for learning, change, self-awareness, and healing,” she says. “They were my partners in racing, giving me all they’ve got, but this is different. I’ve developed a new appreciation for them, an awareness of their intuitive wisdom.”

***

Mom’s Command was euthanized on Feb. 3, 2007, just short of her 25th birthday. She died draped in laurels richly deserved, an Eclipse Award champion and member of both the Racing and New England Sports Halls of Fame. Abby and Ned Allard traveled to be with her on that cold winter day at Peter Fuller’s Runnymede Farm in New Hampshire to say goodbye.

“It was neat she got to spend her final years at the farm,” Abby said. “She had friends there, including Gander, a well-known New York-bred. They were buddies. But she was absolutely the queen. Nobody messed with her.

“Toward the end she was struggling to get around, having trouble getting up and down. There were navicular changes in her feet. Dad stayed at the house that day; he just couldn’t do it, but he knew she’d be in good hands with us.

Abby and Allard coaxed Mom out of her stall one last time. They fed her carrots; stroked her graceful neck, thick with winter’s heavy coat; scratched those distinctively loose-hinged ears, and lavished affection on the champion in her final earthly moments. Mom’s Command departed this world with peace, grace, and dignity and surrounded by love.

“She was absolutely my horse of a lifetime,” Abby said. “If you’re lucky enough to have one of those, she was it. And I was lucky.”

Jack Armstead More than 1 year ago
This was an inspiring article about a great horse, her jockey, and her amazing fans. I wasn't involved in racing at that time, but; I remember Fran's Valentine in her later years, after tasting defeat from Mom's Command. These horses give us "everything" they have each day... and some like Mom's Command; deliver the unexpected. For MC to win that Triple Crown (with two of the 3 races from the 9 Hole or further out) was amazing. Great article, thanks again Mary Simon.
Capo Capo More than 1 year ago
Wonderful article. Thank you.
Patricia Punt More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully written, smiling through my tears. What a great horse, family rider. These are the kinds of stories that need to come from this spot. An inspiration to any reader whether a horse racing enthusiast or not. Sharing with everyone who loves a great story.
Sandy Bocko More than 1 year ago
WOWZA !! ..... Channeled From PF .... thru Sandy :) GREAT Writing ...Wonder Fully Told :) !!!
Cgriff1973 More than 1 year ago
Wonderful story, grand girls - the both of them!
Charlotte Fuller More than 1 year ago
Awesome article !
Abby Fuller More than 1 year ago
Thankyou Mary it was great to talk with you about Mom she was truly special and you brought that forth! I want to give a shout out to My Man Ned Allard, who from the beginning to the end helped Moms Command be all that she could be ; from her groom Ken Johnson of course no lasix, no snake oil concoctions, no drilling her to stretch her speed for 11/2 miles just good old school horsemanship in the best sense of the word. It was my honor& pleasure to be part of such a team. Thank you again Mary I look forward to meeting up again in the future!p.s. the videos were fantastic to watch again! Abby
Kathleen O'Leary More than 1 year ago
Congrats Abby on an inspiring career. What a wonderful horse she was. As a thoroughbred horse owner I have a ton of respect for ALL riders.
Meryl Tanz More than 1 year ago
I was honored to present the trophy to this great filly after The Mother Goose. Wonderful family the Fullers.
Lynne Snierson More than 1 year ago
Mom's Command was graced with that rare combination of speed and stamina and Abby fit her like a gloved hand. We New Englanders have always loved them both and many thanks to Mary for writing their story so beautfiully and reminding us what an extarordinary and perfect pair they were. Thankfully the new owners of Peter's Runnymeade Farm have restored and still display the roadside billboard honoroing Mom and Dancer's Image.
Ann Taylor More than 1 year ago
What a rich & wonderful history written with well deserved class! The Fuller's & Mom;s Command represent the very finest qualities in racing - absolutely. Thank you, Mary Simon, for telling their story -- so enjoyed!!