01/06/2012 10:28AM

2011 Eclipse Awards: Perfect Shirl

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Coglianese Photos

Of all the story lines to emerge from the Breeders’ Cup, few if any were more heart warming than Perfect Shirl’s victory in the Emirates Airline Filly and Mare Turf, a stirring example of persistence and patience rewarded for breeder-owner Charles Fipke and trainer Roger Attfield.

Perfect Shirl was destined to do great things. Her sire, Perfect Soul, was a multiple graded stakes winner and the first major horse bred by Fipke, a diamond prospector in the Northwest Territories – Canada’s version of the Old West. Her dam, Lady Shirl, counted the Grade 1 Flower Bowl among her nine stakes victories and had long since recouped Fipke’s $485,000 investment by producing the likes of Shakespeare, a dual Grade 1 winner of nearly $1.3 million; Lady Shakespeare, a dual graded stakes-winning earner of nearly $500,000; and Fantastic Shirl, winner of the De La Rose Stakes at Saratoga. Despite some nervous habits in the paddock and around the gate, Perfect Shirl advanced quickly through the ranks at age 3, winning maiden and first-level allowance conditions at her Woodbine base, and then capturing the Grade 2 Lake George Stakes early at Saratoga’s 2010 meet for her third straight win. But circumstances conspired against the homebred filly as her 4-year-old campaign unfolded. She disliked a yielding turf course in her seasonal bow at Keeneland; hit the side of the gate at Churchill Downs three weeks later; and was then hung out impossibly wide on the final turn of the Robert G. Dick Memorial at Delaware Park.

[MORE: Complete list of 2011 Eclipse Awards finalists | Vote for Horse of the Year and win]

After a pair of rallying third-place finishes in mid-summer, Perfect Shirl was lightly regarded at almost 25-1 in the Grade 2 Canadian Stakes on Sept. 18 and finished full of run to finish a close second despite a bumping incident. That effort signaled a return to form for Perfect Shirl and put her under consideration for the E.P. Taylor Stakes on home turf. However, she was withheld when the ground came up soft and pointed to the Breeders’ Cup. As fate would have it, Kentucky endured a rainy fall – so much so, that Attfield considered scratching her on the morning of the race.

“I knew she was coming to the race well, but the weather bothered me considerably,” recalled Attfield, an eight-time Sovereign Award winner as Canada’s top trainer. “Any time I had run her on a course that was good to soft, she never did well. She had started to put it all together, and saddled for the race better than she ever had at any time, even with the big crowd. As soon as I saw her come down the straight the first time, I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got a chance.’ ”

Under a masterful ride from John Velazquez, Perfect Shirl settled beautifully in the early going, then rallied strongly on the outside to edge Nahrain by three-parts of a length. She returned $57.60 to her scattered backers and provided Fipke and Attfield with their first Breeders’ Cup trophy. “It was a whole team effort,” said an ecstatic Fipke, who intends to race Perfect Shirl as a 5-year-old. “She comes from very good stock, but when it comes down to it, it’s the heart of the horse, and that filly has a lot of heart.”