Already the comparisons are being made among the horsemen on the backstretch and among the fans out front in the stands. Wherever she has raced and won this season—Gulfstream Park, the Fair Grounds, Oaklawn Park, Churchill Downs, Pimlico and now Belmont—Davona Dale has evoked memories of the great filly Ruffian.
And with good reason. Last Saturday afternoon she won the $83,550 Acorn Stakes at Belmont to become the third-leading money earner ($375,475) this year behind Spectacular Bid and Affirmed, and the indications are that she is going to get much better and much richer.
An hour after Davona Dale beat Eloquent, the best 3-year-old filly from the West, trainer John Veitch of Calumet Farm sat in his comfortable cottage on the backstretch at Belmont discussing his filly's potential. "She's the best horse I've ever trained," said the man who also has Alydar, the runner-up in the 1978 Triple Crown races. "She has as much natural ability as you can find in a racehorse."
Because of Davona Dale, Calumet is off to a great start in 1979 with earnings of $564,326.50 and there is no telling how much the strapping bay daughter of Best Turn from the Tim Tam mare Royal Entrance will kick in. While many feel that Davona Dale is already the second-best 3-year-old in the land, she won't run against colts until the fall at the earliest, a possibility both exciting and disturbing, considering Ruffian's tragic breakdown in the 1975 match race with Foolish Pleasure. "I ran her against colts in the Tropical Park Derby in January," Veitch says of Davona Dale, "and I don't second-guess myself for doing it. She drew the outside post position at Calder, the worst position to run out of, and she still finished fourth and was beaten by only five lengths. She had a lot to learn at that time, and maybe if she had a little more experience she might have won."
Between now and June 30, Davona Dale—she is named for a character in a novel written by Admiral Gene Markey, the co-owner of Calumet—will attempt to become the fifth winner of the New York Triple Crown for fillies. The four who have swept the Acorn, Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks are Dark Mirage, Shuvee, Chris Evert and Ruffian, all very good horses. "The most difficult part of the New York Triple," says Veitch, "is going from the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Mother Goose to the 1½ miles of the Coaching Club. That's a huge jump. Colts don't have to do that. They go from 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile races like the Flamingo and the Florida Derby to the Kentucky Derby at 1¼ miles before they go to 1½ miles in the Belmont. But I'm certain that the longer the distances get the better Davona Dale will get. She's so strong, so competitive. When she's in her stall, she's as mild-mannered as can be, but when we take her out on the track to work or race, she's tough. She just wants to run like crazy. Once she gets going she doesn't want to stop."
National attention is hard for a 3-year-old filly to come by in the spring as most fans—and the media—concentrate on the colts preparing for the Triple Crown. On May 4, for example, Davona Dale ran a remarkable race to win the 1[1/16]-mile, $128,100 Kentucky Oaks, an event as old as the Derby, but run the day before it and thus overshadowed. In the Oaks, Davona Dale was carried very wide approaching the stretch curve by Candy Eclair, the co-champion (and undefeated) 2-year-old filly of 1978 with It's In The Air. Forced to run out beyond the middle of the track to get by Candy Eclair, Davona Dale sauntered home an impressive 4½-length winner. Two weeks later Veitch brought Davona Dale to Pimlico for the $111,800 Black-Eyed Susan, also at 1[1/16] miles, and she ran even better than she had at Louisville. In Baltimore she went out to the lead and won by 4¼ lengths, but the Black-Eyed Susan is run on the day before the Preakness, and....
When the Black-Eyed Susan was over, Veitch was asked where he might start Davona Dale next. "She's running so strong and good now," he said, "it might not be a bad idea to start her in the Indianapolis 500."
While Calumet is best known for male runners like Triple Crown winners Citation and Whirlaway as well as Armed, Tim Tam, Coaltown, Ponder, Hill Gail, Iron Liege, Bardstown and Alydar, it has produced a remarkable number of outstanding fillies and mares. In 1944 Calumet's Twilight Tear became the first filly to be named Horse of the Year. And then in 1977 Our Mims was the 3-year-old filly champion. Although renowned for its eight Kentucky Derby and seven Preakness winners, Calumet has also had five winners of both the Kentucky Oaks and the Coaching Club American Oaks. When Davona Dale won the Black-Eyed Susan it was the fifth win in that race for Calumet.
By the middle of August, Davona Dale could attain a most difficult prize. With the Kentucky Oaks and Black-Eyed Susan behind her, she needs to win the June 30 Coaching Club American Oaks to become only the second filly to win all three races in the last 30 years. The only runner ever to do so was Wistful, also owned by Calumet. Veitch's current plans call for Davona Dale to run in the June 10 Mother Goose before the Coaching Club, then to rest before the Alabama at Saratoga. A sweep of all three would give her a grand slam of major filly races, a feat hitherto unaccomplished.
The field of seven that Davona Dale faced in the mile Acorn was the best group she had met thus far. The most notable was Eloquent, owned by Harbor View Farm, which also owns 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed. Eloquent had won four of five stakes starts and replaced Terlingua as the top 3-year-old in the West. Eloquent's last start before the Acorn was a sizzling win in the seven-furlong Railbird at Hollywood Park in which she set a stakes record of 1:20[3/5]. But Eloquent wasn't the only horse to ship to New York to face Davona Dale. Barnegate Bay arrived from New Jersey, while Himalayan and Plankton, who had finished behind Davona Dale in Kentucky and Maryland, respectively, decided to have another go at her. Finally, there was Fall Aspen, a three-time stakes winner over New York tracks, who also figured to give Davona Dale trouble.
Fall Aspen tried to get the lead away from Eloquent in the Acorn, but just wasn't swift enough. Eloquent had a slight lead as the field swept toward the stretch turn, where Davona Dale made her move and poked her head in front. Under the light urging of Jorge Velasquez' whip, Davona Dale gradually drew out to win by 2¼ lengths in 1:36, decent time over a track that had been lashed by rains for two days before the race. As Davona Dale went under the finish line, Eloquent easily beat Plankton by 7¾ lengths for second. And so the devil's-red and blue Calumet Farm colors were in front of the Harbor View flamingo, black and white in a Triple Crown race—even if it was a year late.