Strolling from the beautiful walking ring to the Saratoga stands before last week's 44th running of the Whitney Stakes, Trainer MacKenzie Miller tried to sum up the desultory 1971 handicap division. "Outside of Ack Ack, who seems to be in a class by himself—but he's sick now—all the best of the bunch are in this field," he said. "And it sure isn't much to get excited about. My colt Protanto cost $150,000, is beautiful to look at but has been mostly a disappointment. Everyone is taking turns beating everyone else, and maybe—just maybe—if the mare doesn't beat us all today, it could be our turn. That's the sort of year it is."
A few minutes later Mac Miller discovered that it was indeed Protanto's turn. The striking bay 4-year-old son of Native Dancer and the Tom Fool mare Foolish One, who was among the favorites for the 1970 Kentucky Derby before he injured an ankle, won for only the seventh time in a 40-race career, beating long shot Peace Corps (who has won only six races himself) by a head. It was, for that matter, Protanto's sole win in 15 starts this season. The fact that his earnings over three seasons now total an impressive $269,827 is hardly any assurance in this topsy-turvy year that he will win next time out—or ever again—for his owner, the widow of the late Charles Engelhard.
"Even if he kept frustrating us forever, which he does most of the time anyway," Miller said on the way to a victory drink, "you've got to keep faith in this sort of animal because he's so superbly bred. If he can't do us any more good on the track, at least we can always hope that he'll make up for it at stud."
But stud, of course, is the ultimate game of mixed doubles in sports, and most breeders subscribe to the theory that even a colt as well-bred as Protanto—or a Buckpasser, Arts and Letters or Nijinsky—is not going to have as much influence on the offspring as the broodmare will. As the old saying goes: Upon the quality of the mares depends the success of the stud.
Exactly the sort of quality mare he had in mind was the only one in the Whitney. Five-year-old Shuvee is a big (16 hands, two inches), heavy-boned, plain-headed, equine Amazon who will not let the boys push her around. In her most stunning performance she beat an otherwise all-male field in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup last fall—a feat no mare has ever pulled off. She is now 28th on the money-winning list for all horses, with $775,358 in 39 starts, and she will surely pass Cicada, who earned $783,674, and become the top money-winning mare of all time before she retires. Nobody would be the slightest bit surprised to see Shuvee take her second straight Gold Cup this fall.
"That would be the icing on the cake," says 42-year-old Mike Freeman, who trains Shuvee for her Virginia owners, Mr. and Mrs. Whitney Stone. "I never expect to have another mare like her. The only trouble is, now that she's closing out her career, I realize after four years that I've finally just begun to figure her out."
The bettors couldn't figure her out last Saturday. Shuvee, ridden by Ron Turcotte, went off a slight favorite, but she had to break from post position No. 13 and was forced wide most of the way. Still, working gamely as always, she barreled from far back to take third place, beaten only slightly more than three lengths at the mile and an eighth. Those who finished behind Shuvee included the Metropolitan Handicap winner Tunex, the Excelsior Handicap winner Loud, the Widener winner True North, the Suburban Handicap winner Twice Worthy, the Brooklyn Handicap winner Never Bow. The only two horses that did beat Shuvee had four-and seven-pound weight advantages over her on the scales.
Shuvee is far from being the first race mare to put the colts in their place, and she even has company in that class this year. The 5-year-old mare Drum Top may be the best grass runner in the country, Manta is a handicap standout in California and Turkish Trousers may be the best 3-year-old on the Coast. And Ogden Phipps" undefeated Numbered Account could prove to be the best 2-year-old of either sex. Filly Lib is nothing new. Racing has always provided an arena where a female can prove her superiority over the other sex.
The girls may even do better abroad. As Trainer Horatio Luro notes, "Before filly and mare programs were so well established in this country, a good mare had no place to run if she didn't race against a colt. In France this is still often the case, and why female horses run so often against males—and beat them so often even in the classics."
In selecting broodmares, breeders seek the ideal—a mare who has impeccable bloodlines and has won at the races, too. Since the ideal is so seldom found, nearly everyone must settle for a compromise, and there is hardly any agreement about which aspect to value most. The range of theories goes all the way from the Italian Tesio's—who required that his mares have good conformations, good pedigrees and be stakes winners—to the late Aly Khan's, who maintained, in effect, that if a mare is well-bred herself, then breed her, even if she looks like a giraffe.
The exceptions in breeding tend to be the rule, however. Otherwise, a breeder with vast wealth could come along, buy up the best mares and lock up the game. As an example, there was no way anybody could have figured a mare like Hildene, who retired a maiden on the track and then produced stakes winners such as Hill Prince, Third Brother and First Landing.
Generally it is the rule, though, that the best-producing mares were either capable at the track or appeared to have top potential until injured.
"I want a good pedigree and top conformation in my broodmares," says Trainer Johnny Nerud. "Good families tend to keep reproducing, but if you have to compromise, then I go for racing ability instead of pedigree. But basically what we're all looking for is a good individual."
Buyers at this week's Saratoga yearling sales are looking for good individuals—and paying plenty for them—both for future racing and breeding purposes. And no one really knows which way to turn. "Five of my stable's best fillies all beat colts, and none of the five ever produced anything noteworthy," says Owner-Breeder C. V. Whitney. "On the other hand, a lot of my other top mares never beat colts but have turned out to be good producers."
"As far as Shuvee is concerned," says her trainer, Mike Freeman, "she should be ideal from a breeding standpoint. She's got Nasrullah and Princequillo going back two generations, and you can't beat that." But you can't count on it, either. For instance, what about Protanto? His mother is a mare named Foolish One who is a half sister to the late champion Bold Ruler. Oh, and what was Foolish One's career on the racetrack? She never even raced.