The beautiful track at Saratoga, where fast horses have been racing for 111 years, has not been called the Graveyard of Favorites for nothing. It was there that Man o' War was beaten for the only time, by Upset in the 1919 Sanford; it was there that long shot Jim Dandy whipped Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in the 1930 Travers; and it was there, just a year ago, that Secretariat came a cropper to Onion in the Whitney.
The track was up to its old tricks again last week as everybody's darling. Triple Crown filly winner Chris Evert, fresh from her astounding 50-length match race triumph over Miss Musket at Hollywood Park, was upset in the mile-and-a-quarter Alabama. A near-record crowd of 28,011 showed up for the 94th Alabama—no filly in Saratoga history had ever brought them out in larger numbers—and after this throng sent Chris Evert off as the odds-on favorite to win her fifth straight stakes this year, it fell into a gloomy, sympathetic near silence when she failed by a narrowing neck to overhaul Fred Hooper's Kentucky Oaks winner Quaze Quilt.
The Alabama was, in effect, another match race, for none of the other six fillies was ever seriously in the hunt. A few hours before the race Quaze Quilt's scheduled jockey, Miguel Rivera, begged off the mount with a stomachache. Hooper himself—not his trainer, Chuck Parke—looked over a list of eight available top riders and settled on veteran Heliodoro Gustines. In the walking ring, where Hooper and Parke huddled with. Gustines and Laffit Pincay, who rode Special Team, the other half of the 5-to-1 Hooper entry, Gustines's orders were simple: set the pace or try to steal it.
He couldn't have carried them out more brilliantly. Taking the lead at the start, Quaze Quilt was a length and a half in front down the backstretch. Jorge Velasquez always had Chris Evert in second, with the others, including second-choice Maude Muller, hopelessly out of it. Few seemed to realize that Gustines was both setting a heady pace and stealing the race. After a first quarter in :23⅘ the half-mile in: 41[4/5] and the six furlongs in 1:11[4/5] he hit the mile in 1:36[3/5]—still with the length-and-a-half lead. But at the head of the stretch the crowd cheered as it saw Velasquez get into Chris Evert and send her off on her typical tail-swishing charge.
Velasquez whipped her, the tail swished, but she couldn't make up ground. Only in the last three strides did she close on Quaze Quilt, but she was a neck too late as the winner crossed the finish in the stakes-record time of 2:02[3/5]. "God, she was game today," Hooper exclaimed of his chestnut.
A special sadness was generated by Chris Evert's defeat because her owner and trainer, Carl Rosen and Joe Trovato, had announced that if she did win the Alabama they would ask her to come right back this Saturday and go another mile and a quarter—against colts in the Travers. Not since 1867 has that race been won by a filly. "I'm not interested in reading past history," said Rosen the day before the Alabama. "I'm only interested in making new history."
Even after her defeat Chris Evert's team still had not ruled out the possibility of her running against the colts, who will be led by Little Current, the Preakness and Belmont winner, and himself a narrow loser in his last race, the Monmouth Invitational. "If we see that she came out all right, we still may run," Rosen said.
But the California adventure may have taken more out of Chris Evert than was imagined. Although she won the match in a romp, Chris Evert blitzed the first three-quarters in 1:08⅘ which may well have removed some of her zip at the Spa. Then too, Saratoga's surface is more tiring than Hollywood Park's, and in preparing for a major Saratoga stakes it is always advisable to get a race over the track. Quaze Quilt won a seven-furlong prep for the Alabama 10 days beforehand.
While Rosen and Trovalo debated the decision to try the Travers, all the evidence suggests that 3-year-old fillies have less chance against colts of a comparable age than do female horses running against males at any other age. Why is this so? The opinion shared by Trainer John Jacobs and veterinarian William Reed is that many fillies at two are like human tomboys of 11 or 12, often stronger and quicker than boys their own age. But a 3-year-old filly compares to a 15- or 16-year-old girl who is maturing through cyclical changes of womanhood. These bodily alterations reduce her effectiveness against males for that year or so, but by the time the filly has turned four or five—and with the advantages given to her on the scale of weights—she can often more than hold her own again against male opposition.
The last filly to start in the Kentucky Derby was Silver Spoon, who finished fifth in 1959, although she had won the Santa Anita Derby earlier that spring. Regret, in 1915, is still the only filly Derby winner, and of the four to win the Preakness, none has triumphed since Nellie Morse in 1924. Two of the 106 Belmont winners have been fillies, Ruthless (also the only female Travers winner) in 1867 and Tanya in 1905.
Nonetheless, there are two outstanding modern exceptions to the rule: Misty Morn won the 1955 Gallant Fox Handicap, and just last November, Dahlia beat colts and horses in the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel. So if Chris Evert does go in the Travers, she has a bit of precedence on her side. Trovato says, "I think the mile and a quarter will suit her better, too, than say, the Marlboro Cup, which is a mile and an eighth and where she'd have to meet older horses like Forego and True Knight."
And if she does go in the Travers Stakes, Chris Evert will get a weight allowance in acknowledgment of her sex. She will also have two other advantages against Little Current: she's the one who has had a race over the track and he's the one who'll be the favorite at the Graveyard.