It wasn't your typical winner's circle scene on Saturday at the Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont Park. There stood Peter Fuller, 62, the owner and breeder of the winning horse, hugging and kissing his jockey. Repeatedly. On the lips.
Abigail Fuller, 26, kissed her dad right back. By winning the one-mile Acorn, the 1‚⅛-mile Mother Goose and now the grueling 1½-mile Oaks on her father's speedy filly. Mom's Command, she had become the first female jockey to sweep the New York triple Crown for 3-year-old fillies. And Mom's Command became only the sixth filly to accomplish the feat, joining Dark Mirage, Shuvee, Chris Evert, Ruffian and Davona Dale. "I thought she would win today," Abby said. "We all thought she would. I'm not really surprised."
This statement was directed, in part, to certain members of the press who had been shabby to Abby and her filly. Some claimed she was a mediocre jockey who only got the mount because of nepotism; others said Mom's Command was a speed freak who could not go a distance and whose competition was weak.
The fans, however, sent Mom's Command off at 1-2, the prohibitive favorite in a field of nine. And Mom came through for them. She went straight to the lead, which is her style, and ripped off blistering early fractions of 22[4/5] for the first quarter and 46[1/5] for the half mile. Koluctoo's Jill, a 50-1 shot, lay second to Mom until the top of the stretch, where she packed it in, eventually finishing sixth. At that point Bessarabian was second by seven lengths.
But, as is also her style, Mom ran increasingly slower fractions, dawdling through the last half mile in 56 seconds, an extraordinarily slow time. Bessarabian closed some ground and finished second by 2½ lengths to the leg-weary Mom, with Foxy Deen third. Mom's Command's time of 2:32 was the slowest Oaks since it became 1½ miles in 1971. "She may not go down as the fastest finisher." said her ecstatic trainer, Ned Allard, "but she's the first finisher." And that's what counts at the racetrack.
Mom's Command has been called a female Spend A Buck, a reference to the winner of the Kentucky and Jersey derbys, who was labeled a speed freak and a bum until he won a few million dollars and, hence, some respectability. Peter Fuller had challenged Spend A Buck to a match race before Mom won the Oaks, but the Buck people, whose colt would gam little from the match, haven't taken the bait. "I think it would be good for racing," said Fuller, "and from a sporting point of view, it's an exciting angle."
This, of course, raised the specter of the doomed Ruffian, who shattered both sesamoids in her right foreleg in a match race with Foolish Pleasure and had to be destroyed hours later. Coincidentally, that tragedy occurred at Belmont, too, 10 years ago to the very day this year's Oaks was run. "I don't buy that connection to Ruffian," Fuller said. "I wouldn't think of putting a filly in a race and having something happen to her, any more than I would my daughter."
Abby is one of Peter and Joan Fuller's seven daughters (they also have a son called Peeto). Her presence in the winner's circle at Belmont brought tears of joy to her father's eyes during all the hugging and kissing, and though no one spoke of it, the Fullers must have been remembering another winner's circle that helped to form the special bond they have today.
Seventeen years ago, on the first Saturday in May, Fuller, the owner and breeder of Dancer's Image, was at Churchill Downs, clutching the most coveted trophy in all of racing. His colt had just defeated Forward Pass by a length and a half to win the Kentucky Derby. In the midst of the hoopla, Fuller beckoned to his 9-year-old daughter Abby to come join him in the winner's circle. Millions of people watched on TV as the little girl shyly stood beside her father.
Two days later, Dancer's Image was disqualified when traces of the then forbidden analgesic, Butazolidin, were found in the postrace urine sample. Fuller spent the next five years and thousands of dollars fighting the disqualification, to no avail. The Kentucky Derby trophy and the purse money were eventually awarded to Calumet Farm's Forward Pass, and Peter Fuller became a bitter man.
Bitter, yes. Beaten, no. Fuller is the son of former Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller, who brought the first automobiles from France to Boston in 1900, started a Cadillac agency in 1903 and passed the business on to his son. And he is a fighter. He started by fighting for his life. "I was a celiac child," he says. "I couldn't digest any food. I was kept alive by Dr. Richard Smith, who fed me diaprotein muffins, lactic milk, curds and whey and bananas. I was able to stay alive, but basically I was starving to death. It lasted until I was seven years old. That's when I decided I wanted to be the biggest and the toughest guy in the world."
So he exercised ferociously and eventually became a wrestler at Harvard. By the time he was 25, he was an outstanding amateur boxer. In 1949 he was a New England AAU and Golden Gloves boxing champion. A 188-pound heavyweight, he had 50 wins in 55 bouts, 30 by knockout, in an eight-year career.
When the press was putting the knock on Mom and saying Abby couldn't rate the filly, it just ruffled the Fuller feathers. "We read this," says Peter, "and we got stubborn. In our family, if somebody says something's impossible, we say, 'We'll try.' "
Like father, like daughter. Abby competed in horse shows from the age of six until she was 20, and became a professional jockey three years ago, riding primarily at Boston's Suffolk Downs. Last year she finished third among female riders, winning $629,836 in purses. A lot of that money was won by Mom's Command—$273,824. Critics claimed Abby would never have won so much if Daddy hadn't put her on his horse. "Let 'em keep it up," Abby said of her detractors before the Oaks. "And let Mom keep running the same as she has been."
After the race, the sounds of laughter and popped champagne corks accompanied Mom's Command as she was cooled out under the shedrow back at Belmont's Barn One. Abby's real mom, Joan, took a sip of the bubbly and considered the Fuller future. "Well," she said with a mischievous gleam in her eye, "there's always next year's Kentucky Derby...."