04/07/2017 2:26PM

Hovdey: More plaques needed in Hall for turf mares


There often are complaints regarding the depth of North America’s older-horse division. Similar regrets are sometimes heaped upon the emerging 3-year-olds, or older fillies and mares on the main track, or even sprinters, whose quality seems to rise and fall with the seasons.

There is one division, however, that has been virtually immune to criticism. The level of competition among fillies and mares on the grass has been consistently high since the days of Drumtop, the daughter of three-time turf champ Round Table trained by Roger Laurin whose 10 turf stakes wins included the Canadian International and Hialeah Turf Cup against males. She also gave Horse of the Year Fort Marcy all he could handle in the 1970 Bowling Green at Belmont Park.

The through line from Drumtop to the likes of Tepin, Lady Eli, Miss Temple City – the three Eclipse Award finalists of 2016 – is clean and clear. The intervening decades have been populated by too many outstanding U.S.-based grass mares to mention here (De La Rose, Just a Game, Estrapade, Flawlessly, Toussaud, Kostroma, Possibly Perfect, and Soaring Softly, just for starters), and they all seemed to show up in the right place at the right time, in form and ready to fire.

So compelling was the level of competition that the people in charge of the Eclipse Awards realized their error eight years into the process and added a championship category for female turf horse in 1979. There was understandable backlash the year before when the French filly Waya barreled through New York’s best grass races – winning the Diana and Flower Bowl handicaps, plus the Man o’ War and Turf Classic against males – but was overlooked for a turf championship in favor of Mac Diarmida, who did most of his winning against fellow 3-year-olds and split two decisions with Waya. It made no sense then either.

Waya was odds-on to snag the first Eclipse Award for female turf horse in 1979, but David Whiteley, her new trainer, had other ideas. The trainer turned her into a main-track monster with victories in the Beldame, Ruffian, Top Flight and Saratoga Cup, thereby winning the traditional older-female award. The new division title went to the European mare Trillion, who wandered around North America in the fall, finishing second in four major grass events.

Lady Eli, who lost a heartbreaker to Queen’s Trust in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, will be the first of the Big Three to break cover this season when she appears in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley at Keeneland on April 15. Tepin, the two-time division champ, and Miss Temple City, who beats the boys for fun, have yet to commit to a 2017 return.

When they do, the reception should be strong. Celestine and Catch a Glimpse put on a rousing good show in the Sand Springs at Gulfstream Park last month. Dickinson has blossomed on the grass for Kiaran McLaughlin, winning the Suwannee River at Gulfstream and the Hillsborough at Tampa Bay, while Goodyearforroses has emerged as a filly of consequence out West for Richard Baltas.

Goodyearforroses was sitting out the Grade 2 Royal Heroine Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita in favor of Baltas stablemate Mokat. The one-mile event also drew Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup winner Harmonize from trainer Bill Mott, who has The Very One Stakes winner, Suffused, for the longer races in the division.

Royal Heroine, the champion turf female of 1984, could do it all, from a mile to 1 1/4 miles, in the toughest company imaginable. Her candidacy for a place in the Hall of Fame has been compromised by a prejudice against the division as some kind of subcategory, and it shows with a closer look at the Hall roster. There are 64 mares in the Hall of Fame, but only four of them got there on grass: Miesque, All Along, Flawlessly, and Dahlia.

Goldikova is nominated to the Hall this year, and based on her three victories in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, she could make the grade. Still, there are Hall of Fame voters who prefer their foreign runners to have a more comprehensive North American record. Like this one, perhaps:

Royal Heroine ended her European career with a win in the 1983 running of the Group 2 Prix de l’Opera. Over the next 13 months, she raced 10 times, defeating colts in a division of the Hollywood Derby and the Inglewood Handicap and top fillies and mares in the Beverly Hills and Matriarch. She finished second to John Henry in the 1984 Arlington Million and won the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Mile in course-record time at Hollywood Park.

Royal Heroine also got up off the deck from a terrifying fall in the 1984 Santa Ana Handicap to accomplish most of those things. Her injuries were primarily flesh wounds, but the experience was potentially traumatic. John Gosden calls her the bravest filly he’s ever trained. Her jockey, Fernando Toro, says she’s the best he ever rode.

“The first time I worked her after she fell was on the Hollywood grass,” Toro once recalled. “On the backstretch, she slipped on a wet spot and slid on her belly. I thought, ‘Oh no, this poor filly. She’ll never want to run again.’ But she did, and it took John Henry to beat her in the Million.”

From Drumtop to Royal Heroine to Tepin and company – lucky us, the beat goes on.