Even people who don't follow horse racing find themselves mildly entranced each year by the top 3-year-old colts fighting their way through the Triple Crown classics—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Canonero II had the whole nation paying attention a year ago, and Riva Ridge nearly did the same thing this spring. Largely ignored in the meantime are the fillies and mares, who gain recognition only if they race against males and beat them.
"Few racegoers, even regular fans," says Humphrey Finney, the breeding and sales authority, "realize the significance of the classic female races, but they may be more important to the breed than the male classics. Colonel Bradley used to say that the mare was 80% of the mating, and the late Joe Estes proved that the higher the class of the dam, the higher the class of the product. Of top male runners, only one of 10 makes it as an outstanding sire, while six of 10 leading race mares have a good chance to become top broodmares."
Last weekend the fillies and mares had several opportunities to strut their stuff, with the feature events at three important tracks reserved for them. For 2-year-olds, there was the $100,000-added Sorority at Monmouth Park, which was won by Sparkalark, a daughter of Cornish Prince out of a Gallant Man mare. A length behind her was previously unbeaten Juke Joint, by Raise a Native out of a Nasrullah mare. (Absent from that race, but likely to be heard from later on, were the Jacinto filly Bold Liz, who last month beat 10 colts in the $100,000 Hollywood Juvenile, and the Canadian-bred La Prevoyante, a bay filly by Buckpasser out of a full sister to Northern Dancer.)
But the 2-year-olds are really for the future. If it was proven championship ability you were looking for, the place to be last Saturday was Saratoga, where a crowd of 28,382 saw Paul Mellon's 3-year-old Summer Guest win the 92nd running of the Alabama after a thrilling duel with Light Hearted, whose only other loss this season was to Ogden Phipps' Numbered Account. The Alabama, which is the third filly classic won by Summer Guest this year—she had previously taken the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Black-Eyed Susan—lost some of its anticipated luster when Numbered Account and Fred Hooper's impressive Susan's Girl were not entered. Susan's Girl, a rugged daughter of Quadrangle, has raced from coast to coast this year and has not been out of training for more than 14 months. "We just want to give her a rest," explained Hooper. "We expect that she'll be ready to race again next month at Belmont, and she should be all the better for her rest."
Numbered Account, last year's 2-year-old filly champion, skipped the race to avoid the exhausting task of tackling Summer Guest. Even though she had recovered from a popped splint that forced her out of training for much of the summer and had won her first comeback effort in the Test stakes at Saratoga, Numbered Account was shipped away to meet both fillies and mares in the $100,000-added Delaware Handicap at Delaware Park. There was no Summer Guest there, although the opposition did include Chou Croute, Alma North, Grafitti, Sydneys Nurse, Sea Saga and last year's winner, Blessing Angelica. There was another lure, too. Summer Guest's winning purse in the tradition-rich Alabama was a modest $32,640. At Delaware, where Numbered Account finished third behind Blessing Angelica (in faster time at the same distance than Summer Guest had at Saratoga), the less prestigious race was worth $74,000 to the winner. Owner Phipps justified his filly's switch to Delaware by saying, "Numbered Account isn't at her peak, and her last work was too fast. Considering that in the Alabama she would have had to carry 121 pounds and in Delaware only 115 and also considering the opposition, I think we made the right decision."
Meanwhile, at Saratoga, it remained for Paul Mellon and Trainer Elliott Burch to discover whether Summer Guest could spot Light Hearted three pounds and an anticipated big early lead and still win. They discovered she could—and brilliantly. At the start Summer Guest went into the air, as she has done before, and lost a good three lengths. Light Hearted, who is by Cyane out of the Cohoes mare Ho Ho, went to the front under Jockey Eldon Nelson and passed the first quarter-mile in a leisurely 24[3/5] seconds. Summer Guest and her rider, Ron Turcotte, were in last place, but Turcotte showed no sign of panic. He began his move from the half-mile pole, although the real duel was down the stretch. Summer Guest tried to bear out a little during the last 16th, but Turcotte hand-rode her beautifully to overhaul Light Hearted in the final strides. The slow time of 2:03[2/5] was not significant. What really mattered was the display of heart by the high-weight of the field (Summer Guest carried 121 pounds, Light Hearted 118, the other three starters 114).
Summer Guest's classic triumphs this summer raise the broodmare value of this daughter of Native Charger and the Heliopolis mare Cee Zee to $500,000 or more. As a stakes winner herself, her chances of producing stakes winners later on are four times those of a mare who retires to the stud without having won in stakes competition. "I really think that performance is the most important thing in a broodmare," Burch says. "We either try to buy proven mares or develop them ourselves. You want to race the best, and you can't do this if you don't breed or buy the best. This filly was perfect in every way as a yearling and I liked her family. The $40,000 we paid for her was not unreasonable."
Most horsemen agree that performance counts high in a prospective broodmare, but there are other factors that influence their thinking. Arthur (Bull) Hancock of Claiborne Farm says, "My father operated on the theory that you should acquire daughters of great race mares and sisters to great racehorses. If they can run, so much the better, but if your mare has no pedigree she won't produce. If a filly with a poor pedigree wins a stakes like the Alabama, I don't necessarily want her to breed to. I look on her as a freak because I've always considered the strength of the family stronger than the strength of the individual. Of course, if a good mare fails to meet the challenge of the racetrack, I want to get rid of her, although I might keep her if she failed on the track because of an accident or something like that."
Leslie Combs of Spendthrift Farm says much the same thing. "To win the Alabama is fine if the filly is out of a great producing family. But I'd prefer to have a mare that never ran in the Alabama, if she had the pedigree, than a mare who won the Alabama but who was not out of a great family."
Canada's E. P. Taylor says, "No matter what a filly's performance is on the racetrack, I would not keep her for the stud unless she also had the pedigree and the conformation." Taylor and John Gaines, one of Kentucky's leading market breeders, agree that in most foreign countries pedigree is considered more important than performance. But, adds Gaines, "I want my broodmares to perform on the racetrack, too, because it shows they are sound. Soundness, after all, is what we are trying to achieve." Burch seconds that idea. "We are producing the best horses in the world because they have to be sound to withstand our long seasons."
Although Summer Guest may yet fail to win a championship this year or next, she looks to be on the way, no matter what the fillies who ducked her last week do from now on. For one thing, she certainly has the pedigree to go with her performance, what with Native Dancer as one grandsire and Heliopolis and Hyperion on both sides of her family tree. Trainer Johnny Nerud points out, "If you win the Oaks and the Alabama, you've got it made. Bad fillies just don't win those races."