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Monday’s 64th running of the Grade 1 Prioress Stakes at Belmont Park will likely be viewed by most racing fans across the country as just another race with multiple exotic-betting opportunities.
Only a handful of these fans will know or care who or what Prioress is, and not one sportswriter is likely to do what his or her predecessors once did – add a paragraph or two, or sometimes write an entire column, about the derivation of the name and historical significance of the stakes.
Nor is the Belmont Park program likely to include – and it once did – information about the name and history of the Grade 1 race.
Until the latter half of the 20th century, when Thoroughbred racing was one of the nation’s most popular sports, writers around the country frequently penned columns about racing’s glorious past. Sadly, most of those sportswriters and many of the newspapers for which they wrote are gone now.
For the record, Prioress was a bay filly foaled in 1853. She was a celebrity both in this country and Great Britain, when she became the first American-bred and owned horse to cross the Atlantic Ocean and win a race in England.
Test your knowledge of five other mostly forgotten females, each of whom was a national champion in more than one season.
1. Each year when Triple Crown season rolls around, the name of Sir Barton – first to capture the three classic races in 1919 – comes up frequently.
But at the beginning of 1919, Sir Barton’s owner, Commander John K.L. Ross, was far more interested in two other 3-year-olds in his barn. One was the co-champion 2-year-old of 1918, Billy Kelly, who had beaten Sir Barton by a combined 50-plus lengths the three times they met. The other was a beautiful, perfectly conformed filly who would go on to be acclaimed champion of her sex that season and champion older female the following year. Name her.
2. A somewhat perplexing absence from racing’s Hall of Fame is this three-time champion from the 1920s.
A nearly coal-black daughter of the prolific sire Black Toney, she was often described as “Amazonian,” standing more than 16 hands.
At age 3, she beat not only both sexes of her own generation, but older females and males as well. When she retired at the end of the 1928 season, she stood among the top five money-winning females of all time, with earnings of $110,350. Name her.
3. The year 1938 belonged to Seabiscuit and War Admiral and their historic match race at Pimlico.
But during their careers, the two champions faced an iron-willed mare who gave them all they could handle.
In the 1937 Bowie Handicap, the 5-year-old chestnut mare battled the length of the stretch and beat Seabiscuit by a nostril.
The following season, this mare finished second to War Admiral in three straight races, losing by a neck in the Saratoga Handicap, one length in the Whitney Stakes, and four lengths in the 1 3/4-mile Saratoga Cup. Name her.
4. This Calumet star was by the stable’s foundation sire, Bull Lea, out of Two Bob, winner of the 1936 Kentucky Oaks.
Oddly, her best season on the track was at age 6, but she was not voted champion that year. That was 1952 – a season that featured two other strong females, Next Move and future Hall of Fame inductee Real Delight.
She was voted co-champion 3-year-old filly of 1949 and champion handicap mare of 1950. Name her.
5. Nashua and Swaps were garnering most of the headlines during 1955 and 1956 – so much so that this champion filly in both those seasons is often forgotten.
Bred and owned by Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, this bay filly was so highly thought of that she made her initial two starts as a 2-year-old against males – the first, the Hialeah Juvenile Stakes.
Winner of five of six lifetime starts at Keeneland, this filly is recognized annually with a stakes in her name at the Lexington track. Name her.
1. In the summer of 1918, Commander John K.L. Ross purchased two horses from legendary trainer and breeder John Madden, an inductee in racing’s Hall of Fame.
One was Sir Barton, who would remain a maiden until the 1919 Kentucky Derby, when he trounced his supposedly superior stablemate Billy Kelly by five lengths in the Louisville classic.
The other was the filly Milkmaid. In the biography of his father, “Boots and Saddles,” John K.M. Ross said, “Without equivocation, Milkmaid was the most beautiful filly I had ever seen. She was perfection.”
Champion at ages 3 and 4, Milkmaid was entered against Sir Barton in the Preakness Stakes, but in the era before the starting gate, her primary job was to make sure Sir Barton got away cleanly at the start. She finished eighth in the classic.
Three days later, Milkmaid won the inaugural running of the Pimlico Oaks (now called the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes).
Milkmaid frequently beat colts, including victories in the Kenner Stakes and Galway Handicap at Saratoga, the latter in track-record time.
In 1920, Milkmaid captured the 50th running of the historic Ladies Handicap at Belmont Park.
2. Black Maria was champion 3-year-old filly of 1926 and champion older female the following two seasons.
At age 3, she won eight stakes in 17 starts. These included the Kentucky Oaks against her peers, the Ladies Handicap against older females, and the Aqueduct Handicap against older males.
The following season, Black Maria won both the Ladies and Aqueduct handicaps again. She also captured the Metropolitan Handicap, among others.
A victory in the inaugural running of the Whitney Stakes (then run at 1 1/4 miles) at Saratoga secured her a third consecutive championship in 1928.
Black Maria retired with a record of 18 wins from 52 starts.
3. Esposa was one of the gamest racemares of the 20th century, starting 96 times from 1934-1938 – mostly against males. She met and beat two future Hall of Fame male members – Discovery and Seabiscuit – and came within a neck of beating another – War Admiral.
Her strong efforts against War Admiral “were valiant ones and reflected as much credit upon her as any of her victories,” wrote John Hervey of Daily Racing Form.
Among Esposa’s 19 lifetime wins were 15 stakes races, including the Remsen Stakes at age 2, the Empire City Handicap at age 4, the Bowie Handicap at age 5, and the Hawthorne Gold Cup at age 6.
She was generally acclaimed champion handicap female of 1937 and co-champion handicap female of 1938, retiring with lifetime earnings of $132,050. That made her the third richest female racehorse in history to that time.
4. Two Lea failed in her attempt in 1950 to become the first filly or mare to win the Santa Anita Handicap, when she finished third to two titans, Noor and Citation. (All three are today in the Hall of Fame.)
But she succeeded in 1952 at age 6 in becoming the second of her sex to win the rich Hollywood Gold Cup.
Despite winning only three stakes at age 3 in 1949, it was enough to earn her a co-championship with her stablemate, Wistful.
The following season, she won only one stakes – the Santa Margarita Handicap – but a second to males in both the Santa Anita Maturity (now the Strub Stakes) and a third in the Big Cap were enough to earn her the title of champion handicap mare.
In addition to the Gold Cup, Two Lea won four other stakes at age 6.
5. In 1953, Seth Hancock, 4-year-old son of Arthur Hancock Jr., owner of Claiborne Farm, had three degrees of intensity for the verb, “to dare” – dare, double-dare, and double-dog-dare.
Thus, a Double Jay filly foaled that year was named Doubledogdare.
After victories at age 2 in the Colleen, National Stallion, Matron, and Alcibiades stakes, she was voted champion of her sex in 1955.
The following year, Doubledogdare won the Ashland Stakes, Kentucky Oaks Prep, Spinster Stakes, Coronet Stakes, and Falls City Handicap and was voted champion 3-year-old filly.