09/22/2011 11:22AM

Havre de Grace, Blind Luck part of another golden era for female runners

Keeneland Library
Busher was part of a deep female division from 1944 to 1946. She beat males four times in her Horse of the Year campaign in 1945, when she was 3.

It began innocently enough, in July 2010, when the West’s best 3-year-old filly traveled across the continent to run for good money in the $250,000 Delaware Oaks. Her opposition included an improving local filly with just four starts and nary a stakes win to her name, but the West Coast filly was spotting her six pounds and the track was a sea of slop, so it was safe to say just about anything could have happened.

As it turned out, the finish came down to the slimmest of noses, a first encounter of the closest kind. Nothing was resolved, at least in terms of their relative merits, but it was a fine show, and fans could only hope that the two would mix it up again. If they didn’t, well, they always had Delaware.

Fourteen months later the two fillies − Blind Luck and Havre de Grace − have met six times, and no one is prepared to claim that either has the edge. They have taken their act to New York, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and back to Delaware, where on July 16, six days to the year after their battle in the Oaks, the result was the same in the Delaware Handicap. Blind Luck won by a nose, and Havre de Grace lost nothing in defeat.

The entanglement of these two 4-year-old fillies has stirred the emotions of fans and media alike. Their ongoing tussles have given rise to claims that theirs is the greatest filly rivalry in the history of the sport. This may be true, and there could be more evidence on the horizon if Havre de Grace and Blind Luck continue toward a possible showdown in a race on one of the Breeders’ Cup programs.

Before that, both have dates Oct. 1, although at opposite ends of the continent. Havre de Grace, fresh from her thumping of the boys in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, is scheduled to run in the Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park, while on the same afternoon Blind Luck will make her first start since Delaware in the Lady’s Secret Stakes at Santa Anita.

Blind Luck’s people, including trainer and part owner Jerry Hollendorfer, have been given high marks for traveling back and forth across the country to take on all Eastern and Midwestern comers. This is true enough, although the pragmatic Hollendorfer will tell you his filly seems to run her best races over conventional dirt tracks − most notably in the Alabama last year at Saratoga − and that Blind Luck rarely turns a hair when asked to sally forth.

“I’m not saying she likes it, leaving home,” Hollendorfer said. “It just bothers her a lot less than other horses. She has the class not to care.”

Havre de Grace campaigned last year for Tony Dutrow before moving in with Larry Jones this season. If she noticed the difference she’s keeping it to herself.

Like Blind Luck, Havre de Grace has never finished worse than third. Her record in 2011 has a bit more pizzazz than Blind Luck’s, especially now that she has a win over the boys, and her forward style always finds her in front of her rival as they turn for home.

Still, the scoreboard to this point reads Blind Luck ahead, 3-2, in races won by one or the other, and Blind Luck finished in front of Havre de Grace when both were beaten by the older Unrivaled Belle in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic at Churchill Downs. They have split two decisions this year, setting up a delectable showdown come November with the possibility of Horse of the Year on the line.

Their rivalry aside, at least for the moment, Blind Luck and Havre de Grace represent an undeniable trend that has turned the last decade into a procession of fabulous females.

Azeri was first from the gate in 2002, when her sterling record against fillies and mares made her Horse of the Year amid a void of noteworthy males. Then came the overlapping eras of Rachel Alexandra, voted Horse of the Year in 2009, and Zenyatta, who was Horse of the Year in 2010 on the heels of her 19-1 career. Both of them beat the boys.

America has not been alone. On the far side of the Pacific, the long-winded mare Makybe Diva became the only three-time winner of the Melbourne Cup (2003, ’04 and ’05) and was twice chosen Australian Horse of the Year. The mare Vodka, winner of the 2009 Japan Cup, was the 2008 and 2009 Japanese Horse of the Year.

Europe has named a consolidated Cartier Horse of the Year since 1991, and until 2004 there had been only two fillies awarded the supreme honor as the best to have raced that season.

However, since 2004 a female has been named Cartier Horse of the Year four times: the globe-trotting Ouija Board in 2004 and 2006, Arc de Triomphe winner Zarkava in 2008, and three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldikova in 2010.

Is there a reason the scales have tipped so dramatically toward females?

“I don’t know,” said Dick Jerardi, the Eclipse Award-winning writer of the Philadelphia Daily News. “But it’s a definite trend right now, maybe because the best colts are retired early or never make it to their 4-year-old season for whatever reason.

“I’ve been there for some of the Blind Luck-Havre de Grace races, and I can tell you they generate as much excitement at the track as I’ve seen,” Jerardi said. “The only reason their rivalry hasn’t gone beyond the world of racing is because they’re not doing it in Triple Crown races.”

The confrontations of Havre de Grace and Blind Luck have been heightened by the expectations of the time. Spurred on by each other’s excellence, they are rising deliciously close to the seemingly impossible standards set by Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.

Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta never met, leaving a lingering historical itch, but interest in their exploits was rampant all the same. Great rivalries are a joy, and usually they are nurtured by great eras, when context supplies a heightened competitive backdrop, just as Affirmed and Alydar − the gold standard of rivalries − emerged from a period that included Seattle Slew, Exceller and Spectacular Bid.

In the end, the era is the main course, the rivalry the dessert, which places Blind Luck and Havre de Grace in a rare category as two remarkable fillies who have satisfied all possible demands. They don’t come around like this too often, but when they do history is made.

MORE: Breaking down four golden eras of female runners

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It took a 2007 North American foal crop of 37,434 to produce a Havre de Grace and a Blind Luck. This is impressive enough, but in 1942 there were only 6,427 foals, and two of them were Busher, a daughter of War Admiral, and Gallorette, by the unraced Challenger II.

They met only once, in the Selima Stakes at Laurel Park in October 1944, when Busher proved to be the more precocious of the two, winning easily. Gallorette finished third.

Any lingering regrets that they did not generate a robust rivalry disappeared as they spread their wings. In 1945, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer bought Busher for $50,000 from Col. E.R. Bradley and sent her to California. She won the Santa Susana, the San Vicente, and the Santa Margarita, beating colts and older mares along the way, then played the same tune in Chicago, taking the Arlington Handicap and the Washington Park Handicap against males and a match race against the older filly Durazna.

Busher’s victory over handicap champ Armed in Chicago probably was enough to close the deal as 1945 Horse of the Year. But when Hollywood Park was granted fall dates to celebrate the end of the war, Busher took full advantage of the opportunity to win the Hollywood Derby and the Vanity Handicap.

Turf historian John Hervey called Busher the best filly or mare he’d seen in his lifetime, and his was a lifetime dating back to the 19th century. The somewhat younger turf writer Joe Palmer declared, “Busher compiled the finest record a 3-year-old filly has ever achieved in American racing.”

After running once at 4, Busher was retired, effectively passing the torch to Gallorette, who did nothing to dampen the flame. While Busher was tearing up California and Chicago in 1945, Gallorette continued to do her business for trainer Ed Christmas in the East, winning the Acorn, the Delaware Oaks, and the Pimlico Oaks against fillies, and the Empire City against colts at Old Jamaica.

In fact, most of the rest of Gallorette’s 72-race career was spent running against colts, for two very sound reasons: Facing her own kind she was forced to give away considerable weight, and playing with the boys paid better. From the dawn of 1946 through the summer of ’48, Gallorette beat males in the Metropolitan Handicap, the Brooklyn Handicap, the Bay Shore Handicap, the Queens County Handicap, the Carter Handicap, the Whitney Handicap, and two runnings of the Wilson Handicap at Saratoga.

The centerpiece of Gallorette’s career was her 18-race campaign of 1946, and the heart and soul of that season was the Brooklyn Handicap, offered on a June afternoon at Aqueduct. At one point late in the 1 1/4 miles, Gallorette was passed by the onrushing older star Stymie, and yet she came back on to win by a neck. No one recalled ever having seen Stymie lose that way.

The foal crop of 1941, immediately preceding the class of Busher and Gallorette, was dominated by Calumet Farm’s Twilight Tear. Her nickname was “Suzie,” and her 3-year-old season of 1944 was a heady blend of the traditional and the daring.

A daughter of Bull Lea, Twilight Tear began the year sprinting against older males and ended it with a romping score over Devil Diver, the handicap champion, in the Pimlico Special at 1 3/16 miles. At one point Twilight Tear won 11 straight races, including the Acorn, the Pimlico Oaks, and the Coaching Club American Oaks.

With a final scorecard of 14 wins in 17 starts, she outpolled all males for the ultimate honor. But the real verdict came part way through the season when her trainer, Ben Jones, called her “the best horse I’ve ever trained.”

Such statements usually come equipped with their own grain of salt. Jones, however, provided his own daunting context. At the time of his praise for Twilight Tear, he already had trained Kentucky Derby winner Lawrin, Derby and Preakness winner Pensive, and Triple Crown winner Whirlaway.

In January 1973, Santa Anita Park publicity director Dan Smith took a look at the horse population on the backstretch and declared, “Let’s have a parade.”

It was unlike any parade ever seen at a racetrack before. There they were, nose to tail, five of the eight reigning Thoroughbred champions waltzing in front of a packed Santa Anita grandstand on a Saturday afternoon. Older male champ Autobiography and turf champion Cougar II were joined by older female champion Typecast, 3-year-old filly champion Susan’s Girl, and Chou Croute, the sprint champ of 1972.

This reporter, soaking wet behind the ears at the time, fell head over heels that day for Susan’s Girl. She had the record, no doubt. And she had the look − a blood bay with white stockings trimmed by a black mane and tail. She also sported an air of casual majesty that tolerated approach from the most common of her admirers. Like me.

Little did I realize there were more like Susan’s Girl roaming the land at the time. From the waning reign of Shuvee in 1971 as the long-distance queen of North America, to the noble twilight of the ageless Susan’s Girl, any combination of a dozen or so superior individuals − those others including Desert Vixen, Summer Guest, Numbered Account, Convenience, and Turkish Trousers − could be found mixing it up on a given afternoon.

In October 1971, Nashua’s finest daughter Shuvee ended her four-season, 44-race career with a seven-length victory against males in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. She’d won it the previous year by two, which would have been good enough, since Shuvee remains the only filly or mare to win the Gold Cup even once, let alone twice.

Shuvee also was precocious enough to win the Frizette and Selima at 2 and be dominant at 3, when she swept the Acorn, the Mother Goose, the CCA Oaks, and the Alabama. But it is the Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park that defined the great females of the time, and Shuvee’s victory in the 1970 version over two-time Delaware Handicap winner Obeah served to foreshadow landmark runnings to come.

The field for the 1972 Beldame was led by Summer Guest, fresh off a win in the Alabama; Chou Croute, who had just beaten Icecapade in the Fall Highweight; Numbered Account, game winner last out of the Maskette; versatile Typecast, who had already beaten males three times on grass; and the durable Manta, who was lapped on Numbered Account at the end of the Maskette.

They all took a backseat to Susan’s Girl. On that day the daughter of Quadrangle muscled her way past Chou Croute in the stretch and had enough left to hold off Summer Guest to win by a length, despite − as the Daily Racing Form chart reports − jumping a piece of windblown paper. Susan’s Girl won 29 races, including a second Beldame in 1975, but the ’72 running marked her finest hour.

A year later, the 1973 Beldame found itself on the undercard for the debut of the Marlboro Cup, featuring Secretariat, Riva Ridge, and Cougar II. As such, it figured to be lost in the shuffle.

Not so fast. By then the 3-year-old Florida filly Desert Vixen had established herself as a force of nature. She came into the Beldame, her first stakes try against older mares, on a winning run of seven straight. She had Susan’s Girl to deal with, and Summer Guest, too. But they might as well have tried the Marlboro, helpless as they were against the filly, who won by 8 1/2 lengths and set a track record of 1:46.20 for the nine furlongs. Secretariat, no gentleman, broke that mark an hour later in the Marlboro, but nobody went home from Belmont that day thinking it had been a one-horse show.

Desert Vixen won a second straight Beldame in 1974, this one by a dozen lengths in the slop while defeating the formidable Chilean mare Tizna, a two-time winner of California's Santa Margarita and chronic thorn in the side of Susan's Girl. The victory gave Desert Vixen the championship as the best older filly or mare in the land as she headed for winter quarters. She ran only once more, at the beginning of 1975, and was retired. By then, however, the focus on females had shifted to an unbeaten filly at the dawn of her 3-year-old campaign, and Ruffian turned out to be a golden era all on her own.

If there is one other era that deserves celebration, it is the action-packed half a decade roughly bracketed by the championship seasons of the remarkable Argentine mares Bayakoa (1989 and ’90) and Paseana (1992 and ’93). That both were trained in California by Kentucky boy Ron McAnally made visits to the stables a particular pleasure.

“Come here,” McAnally beckoned one morning, while standing at Bayakoa’s stall. He was stroking her cheek. “Feel this, right here,” he said. “Have you ever felt anything so soft?”

Sure, it was soft, and the feel of that dark brown cheek made you forget for a moment that Bayakoa was as buck-toothed as Mortimer Snerd. Pretty is as pretty does, though, and from all other angles Bayakoa was a treasure, especially if the taste ran to Thoroughbreds of flabbergasting speed.

Over a stretch of 20 months and 19 starts, from her first major U.S. victory in the 1989 Santa Margarita to her last in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, Bayakoa commanded center stage. She won 15 of those starts, ranging far and wide, always fleeing from the starting gate as if a mountain lion were on her tail.

Bayakoa’s signature race came in the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Gulfstream Park. Aligned against her was a four-horse entry from the Wayne Lukas stable, with Lukas determined to apply relays of pressure and make Bayakoa wilt. Among the entry were future Hall of Famers Winning Colors and Open Mind.

The result? Bayakoa deferred to one of the Lukas rabbits early and then galloped to the front on the backstretch, having way more fun that should have been allowed. She won by 1 1/2 lengths.

It can’t be helped that Bayakoa also will be remembered for the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Go for Wand was not supposed to break down. Before she did, deep in the Belmont stretch, the race was a classic matchup between the best mare and the best filly in the land, both of them destined for the Hall of Fame.

Go for Wand, out of the same Obeah who could not quite handle Shuvee, already had slapped older mares silly in the Maskette and the Beldame. This was after winning the Ashland, the Mother Goose, the Test, and the Alabama against 3-year-olds.

When Go for Wand’s leg went there was no telling which of the two champions had the upper hand. In the end it is better to recollect the tragedy in those terms, and the message delivered by an emotional McAnally, tasting cold ashes instead of Bayakoa’s victory.

“They give everything for us,” the trainer said. “They give their lives for our pleasure.”

In April 1991 Bayakoa made her final start the same week that Paseana said farewell to her native Argentina and made ready to join McAnally in California. The torch was officially passed, even though Paseana did not make her first U.S. start until the following October.

She was put on the same path as Bayakoa, sweeping through the West, winning the Apple Blossom by 4 1/2 lengths and then the ’92 Breeders’ Cup Distaff by four. In 1993, after another stellar campaign, Paseana dropped the Breeders’ Cup Distaff by a nose to the younger Hollywood Wildcat but lost nothing in defeat. Chris McCarron was the only man to ride her in 28 U.S. starts.

“What a sweet mare she was,” McCarron said. “The complete professional.”

McCarron also rode Bayakoa twice, substituting for Laffit Pincay under what Chris describes as awkward circumstances.
“In my role with the Don MacBeth Fund, I was the guy who hustled riders for a charity event at Los Alamitos, driving sulkies,” McCarron said. “I had to kind of talk Laffit into doing it, but there he was, doing his part, and wouldn’t you know he ends up coming out of the bike and breaking his collarbone.”

By February 1990 Bayakoa was in a steady groove, requiring not much more than proper steering. Super-sub McCarron won the Santa Maria and Santa Margarita handicaps aboard the champ, then tossed the reins back to a recovered Pincay.

“You couldn’t really rate her,” McCarron said. “It was more a matter of her learning to rate herself. Bayakoa was all fire, as fast as you can imagine.”

The early 1990’s did produce one brief but genuinely entertaining matchup that had the potential to rise to the level attained by Havre de Grace and Blind Luck. One of today’s key players was at the center of the action.

Jerry Hollendorfer began training Lite Light in March 1991 after she had established her considerable value with four major stakes wins at age 2 and 3. Hollendorfer’s client was pop star MC Hammer, who could handle the $1.2 million price tag and who delighted in the immediate return on investment when the filly won the Fantasy and the Kentucky Oaks.

At the same time, 2-year-old filly champ Meadow Star had evolved into a dashing 3-year-old for LeRoy Jolley and owner Carl Icahn, who could have bought as many pop stars as he wanted and still run TWA. While Lite Light was doing her thing in Arkansas and Kentucky, Meadow Star won the Comely and the Acorn in New York, setting up a showdown in the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park on June 9, 1991.

The two fillies rocked the house with a magnificent duel that came down to a bob and a nose at the end of nine furlongs, very much echoed by similar encounters between Blind Luck and Havre de Grace. Hollendorfer to this day thinks it could have been called a dead heat. Hammer pulled out his money clip and made good on a $35,000 side bet with Icahn. An awestruck Jolley dubbed the encounter “the mother of all gooses.”

Four weeks after the Mother Goose, Lite Light returned to New York from Hollendorfer’s Northern California base to meet Meadow Star in the Coaching Club American Oaks. Anticipation was high, but those who hoped for another thriller were disappointed when Lite Light assumed command halfway through the race and went on to beat her rival by seven lengths. They never met again.

“After the Coaching Club Oaks, Jolley came out onto the racetrack to shake my hand,” said Hollendorfer, who joined Jolley in the Hall of Fame this summer. “Somebody snapped that picture and sent it to me. It’s one of my favorite photos I’ve ever had in horse racing. I had it framed, and it’s still hanging in my home.”