01/05/2012 1:08PM

2011 Eclipse Awards: Sassy Image

Churchill Downs

The highlights for Sassy Image in 2011 were packed in a two-month window – spring-summer victories in the Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs and Princess Rooney Handicap at Calder made her the only filly or mare to win two Grade 1 sprints during the season.

Those wins were sandwiched around a Grade 3 victory and elevated Sassy Image from long-forgotten 2009 juvenile to Eclipse Award finalist as outstanding female sprinter of 2011. For the 4-year-old filly, it was a long road back. Dale Romans trains Sassy Image for his brother, Jerry Romans. Both were eager for the filly’s 2011 campaign. A graded stakes winner in 2009, she raced only twice in 2010 due to a bruised cannon bone.

“We ended up giving her more time than expected, but it paid off,” Dale Romans said.

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

The comeback was rocky. Sassy Image returned Jan. 14 in a Gulfstream allowance, her first start in 10 months. A respectable runner-up finish set up her season, or so it seemed.

But in her next start six weeks later, Sassy Image finished last. She had an excuse. Romans said Sassy Image had a breathing problem that required corrective throat surgery. It worked, and Sassy Image began training superbly.

“We knew she had the talent, and in training she put it all together,” Romans said. She was working over a Churchill Downs surface on which she had won her three previous starts. Romans figured she was ready for a peak effort first start back.

“We wanted her to have a big race, in a big race,” Romans said, explaining the decision to bring her back as a 16-1 longshot in the seven-furlong Humana Distaff on Kentucky Derby Day. Sassy Image, ridden by Robby Albarado, did not merely win, she crushed.

Sassy Image rallied six wide into the stretch, ran past odds-on favorite Hilda’s Passion inside the furlong pole, and pulled away by three lengths with a career-best 105 Beyer Speed Figure.

Sassy Image followed with a neck victory in the Grade 3 Winning Colors at Churchill Downs, the first time since she was a 2-year-old she had strung together two consecutive good races. Could she make it three? Romans sent her to Calder for the six-furlong Princess Rooney, and for the first five furlongs, Sassy Image trailed the field. At the furlong pole she was last of 10.

Romans said, “I was thinking what a tough place Calder was to ship into.” Then Sassy Image kicked in under jockey Mike Smith, uncorked a wicked late burst, passed all nine rivals in the final furlong, and defeated Musical Romance by a neck even though Smith later told Romans, “She did not handle the track at all.”

Sassy Image made her final start of 2011 in the Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga, finishing last. An ankle chip was later diagnosed, requiring surgery for it to be removed.

Bred in Kentucky by J C Davis Farm, Sassy Image was sired by Broken Vow and produced by the Hennessy mare Ideal Image. Plans call for Sassy Image to race in 2012; her goal is the Humana Distaff.