Up around the clubhouse turn, Davona Dale was making her way at a slow gallop back to the Belmont Park winner's circle, when Jesse Spotts, the filly's groom, turned to trainer John Veitch. The 59-year-old Spotts, a portly veteran of innumerable shedrows, threw back his shoulders and chuckled softly. The 34-year-old Veitch, who had worn a worried look for the last hour or so, during the prelude to and running of the Coaching Club American Oaks, replaced it now with something more suitable to the moment. "Well," said Jesse Spotts, "that was a job well done, son. She made it."
So it was, for indeed she had. Davona Dale had just won the 63rd running of the $132,625 Oaks at a mile and a half, and in doing so, she made some history for herself last Saturday. The leggy bay from Calumet Farm became the fifth horse to sweep the New York Racing Association's Triple Crown for 3-year-old fillies—the one-mile Acorn, the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile Mother Goose and the Oaks—and the first ever to sweep both the "old" and "new" versions of the 3-year-old filly Triple Crowns. Before the New York version supplanted it in 1957, the filly triple consisted of the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, the old Pimlico Oaks at Pimlico—now called the Black-Eyed Susan—and the Coaching Club at Belmont Park. In one important particular, the old filly triple was roughly comparable to the colt Triple Crown in that it was run at three different tracks. The NYRA series is confined to Belmont and Davona Dale has joined Dark Mirage, Shuvee, Chris Evert and Ruffian as the only fillies to win it.
Davona Dale's campaign was particularly ambitious, and her feat compelling for the adaptability and resourcefulness it required of her. Moving from track to track this spring and summer, she won the Kentucky Oaks on the day before the Kentucky Derby and the Black-Eyed Susan on the day before the Preakness, and then came home all full of herself to cake-walk through the New York series. It was, in sum, a prodigious performance, a tour de force the likes of which may not be seen again for many years—five major victories, at distances from a mile to a mile and a half, at three racetracks within a period of eight weeks. Moreover, she came to the May 4 Kentucky Oaks fresh from three stakes victories at three other tracks—Gulfstream, Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park. The Oaks was her eighth straight stakes score, raising her earnings to $519,010 for the year and $562,365 lifetime. She had won her last five by a combined total of 29 lengths, on tracks sloppy and fast, and came to the final and most searching test, the 12-furlong Oaks, still pulling her exercise boy out of his saddle during morning calisthenics.
"The toughest horse I've ever ridden," says Graham Bell, a former flat and steeplechase jockey who rides Davona Dale in the wee hours. "You graze her or give her a bath, she doesn't give a damn about nothing. Just stands there. But you put the tack on her, and she has one thing on her mind. A real professional she is."
July 8, 1979
Her willingness to work—actually, her enthusiasm for working—has caused Veitch some problems. Coming to the Oaks, he was forced to modify the way he trained her.
The difficulty, as Veitch saw it, was to keep the filly mentally and physically fit enough to go 12 furlongs, to keep her relaxed and not to ask too much of her. She had made all the races in a long campaign, as Spectacular Bid had done in coming to the Belmont, and one mistake could ruin it. The first thing that Veitch decided to do was get her out at 5 a.m., when no other horses were on the track racing past her. Knowing that horses are creatures of habit, Veitch also figured that if he varied Davona Dale's daily routine, kept her guessing all the time, he might take her mind off arguing with Bell and trying to run off with him. "If you break the patterns every day," Veitch says, "they don't know what you're going to do, and it keeps their mind on something else."
One day, Veitch would instruct Bell to gallop her clockwise, the next day, counterclockwise. One day, Bell would jog her a mile before breaking her into a gallop, the next day a quarter of a mile. And so on. Still, Bell had all he could do to keep her under control. He whistled and talked to her constantly—about anything, everything, lecturing her on the behavior expected of a female racehorse while admittedly failing to delete an occasional expletive. Furthermore, he sat back and rode her with long lines. "She has a long stride and a big long neck," Bell says, "and if you take a short hold of her, she tends to climb—too much high knee action. Take a long hold of her, she drops her head and relaxes more. No matter what, it takes a quarter mile to pull her up to a walk."
Davona Dale's penchant for galloping not only required Veitch to vary the format of her workouts, but it also dictated the intensity of them. "If she had a more moderate, easier type gallop, I would let her go two miles," he says. "But she doesn't. Every day she goes a mile at a two-minute lick. She's the type of filly who gets so much out of her gallops that I worked her very easily for the Oaks." And the mile and a half of the race, three-eighths of a mile farther than she had ever been before, persuaded him to alter her regular prerace regimen. Instead of sending her through a final major workout five or six days before the race, with a three-furlong speed sharpener the day before she ran, as had been the pattern, Veitch decided to work Davona Dale a mile on Wednesday, three days before she was to run, which eliminated any need for a sharpener.
She worked in 1:38, handy enough. "I didn't want her too sharp," Veitch says. "The element of speed was important in the Acorn and Mother Goose because they are shorter. That kind of sharpness is not as much of an asset in going a mile and a half."
In the Oaks the filly ran to her works. She broke indifferently and strode choppily through the first 100 yards, trailing the field. But by the clubhouse turn she had herself together, striding smoothly into it and around the bend. Down the backside she lay third, stalking the leaders, and moved to them going into the far turn. She left them all coming to the turn for home, opening two lengths on the last bend. Through the lane she ran from Jockey Jorge Velasquez' whip, widening under pressure and winning by eight lengths over Plankton. No horse of distinction opposed her—the second choice, Croquis, had never even run in a stakes—and she beat them easily. But no worse than the bettors beat the track and New York's Off-Track Betting Corporation. Though the Oaks was only a five-horse race, show betting was allowed, and Belmont and OTB together took a U.S. record $97,268.21 bath in the minus pool—the track $46,623.58, off-track $50,644.63.
Davona Dale was not as overwhelming in the Oaks as she was in the Mother Goose, which she won by 10, and the time of 2:30 was moderate. But given what she had done the last few months, and that Veitch purposely worked to dull her speed and that she did win by eight lengths, this is no time to quibble. For now, if she trains well, Veitch is looking to the Travers at Saratoga in August, with an eye toward testing her against the colts. Having dominated her female contemporaries, she has only to prove that she can handle the likes of Spectacular Bid. Veitch, meanwhile, relishes the thought of the history she has made.
"That worked, not getting her all hyped up for the race, didn't it?" he says. "That's a relief. It makes it seem like I know what I'm doing. Well, she's the first filly to win the old and new Triple Crowns. You don't often get an opportunity to do something a 'first time.' You can spend a lifetime on the racetrack and not get the chance to train a horse of this ability. It's a thrill."