Pardon Me, But It's Lady's First At The Races

On a day of beaten favorites at the Breeders' Cup, the filly Lady's Secret triumphed to become front-runner for Horse of the Year
November 10, 1986

There she was again, out there with her ears pinned back, galloping by herself on the lead and moving along in that quick, rhythmic, fluid stride that has become her hallmark as a racehorse.

From the drop of the flag in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Distaff for fillies and mares, Lady's Secret simply drumrolled to the lead as she pleased, opened up five lengths of sunny daylight between her and Outstandingly and Fran's Valentine down the backstretch, racing through the first three quarters of a mile in a brisk 1:10 flat, and then coasted home to win in a laugher by 2½ lengths. And as she made her final run through the homestretch at Santa Anita Park, the applause from the crowd of 69,000 built gradually to a mild ovation—a warm outpouring of cries and cheers that followed the Lady as she pulled up and was led back to the winner's circle.

Bigger and faster and stronger colts went to the post during the Breeders' Cup series of races on Saturday, but nothing so stirred the affections of the galleries as the sight of this diminutive gray daughter of Secretariat pounding home alone in the final yards of the 1¼-mile Distaff. Jockey Gary Stevens had tried to give chase on Outstandingly, but his filly never got close enough to breathe on Lady's Secret, much less run with her, and after dismounting, Stevens said, "It's like chasing a shadow. Very discouraging. I tried to catch her at the three-eighths pole. I tried at the quarter pole. Every time you try, she lets out another notch. Lady's Secret is just a freak."

"What makes her great," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, "is the same ingredient that's made them all great down through history. It's something you can't put your finger on. As horsemen, we study legs, knees, conformation, but it's the heart that matters. That's what Secretariat had, Seabiscuit had, John Henry had—they all had it. When it comes along, it's truly a gift."

Of course, none of the cheerleaders was more vociferous than the filly's owner, Gene Klein, the former proprietor of the San Diego Chargers. Moments after Lukas had boosted jockey Pat Day aboard the filly, Klein had given Day a thumbs-up sign and called to him, "Go get 'em, Pat!" So Day went and got 'em. Then, heading for the winner's circle, Klein had bellowed to no one special, "To hell with the Chargers!"

Now, his face flushed, Klein yelled to the jockey in the winner's circle, "Way to go, Pat!" Approaching the filly, amid the cheers of bettors draped over the grandstand railing, Klein patted her on the shoulder. "That's my baby!" he said. "We all expected her to win, but anything can happen in a race. You just never know. But a superstar is a superstar is a superstar. She is the horse of the year! There's no question in my mind."

To be sure, there was no question in the minds of many others at Santa Anita that, at year's end, Lady's Secret will be voted America's 1986 Horse of the Year, thereby becoming only the second female in the last 40 years to be honored as the nation's leading racehorse (the French filly, All Along, won in 1983). And so, rightfully, the Lady should be. If there was any doubt about the outcome of that vote, it was all but erased on Saturday afternoon when the two other leading contenders for the title, Turkoman and Precisionist, both got whipped by the long-shot Skywalker in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic. That startling turn of events left Lady's Secret, as she has been in most of her races this year, all alone and on the lead—this time, on the way to winning the most coveted title in the game.

"Who else can it be but the filly?" asked trainer Woody Stephens. "No one, except her. Not after Skywalker just dried those other two horses out."

Lady's Secret's odds-on victory, her 10th in 15 starts this year, was predictable enough and could be seen in the distance as clearly as the San Gabriel Mountains, the backdrop for what had promised to be a day in which the best horses in the world would emerge to dominate their divisions. What developed instead was an afternoon of racing shot through with failures, disappointments and surprises that left chalk-players muttering. In fact. Lady's Secret and her stablemate, Capote, a racy-looking son of Seattle Slew who won the Juvenile for 2-year-old colts, were the only favorites to win any of the seven Breeders' Cup events.

No race was more competitive than the 1[1/16]-mile Juvenile, but Capote confirmed the strong impression he had made when he announced himself, just three weeks earlier, in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita. In that race Capote had shot to the lead in only the third start of his life and outrun the hitherto undefeated Gulch, the star of New York racing, to win by 1¾ lengths. On Saturday, however, there were half a dozen horses deemed capable of winning the Juvenile, including another undefeated New Yorker, Polish Navy. But Capote left the gate like a bird leaving a branch and never let a horse draw next to him. Lukas, Capote's trainer, had told jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. to let the colt bounce out of the gate and dare them to come and get him.

No one dared and Capote won by 1¼ lengths. Thus Pincay found himself on the colt who not only would undoubtedly be named the 1986 juvenile champion but also would become the winter-book favorite to win the 1987 Kentucky Derby. "He's got a tremendous chance in the Derby," Pincay said. "He's a hell of a horse." Gulch ended up fifth, after drawing to within a length of Capote on the turn, but he hit a treadmill in the stretch and drifted out of contention. Polish Navy never got untracked and wound up seventh. A third promising New York 2-year-old, Demon's Begone, ran a listless sixth. So much for three of New York's finest.

Then the surprises started coming in bunches, including Brave Raj's 5½-length victory, at odds of 4-1, in the 1[1/16]-mile race for 2-year-old fillies. That was merely a foreshadowing, for it was followed immediately by the inexplicably dull exertions of Groovy, the colt regarded as the fastest sprinter in America, in the $1 million Sprint. Groovy was Oat outrun from the git-go and never did get his nose in front. Flying wet sails, he finished fourth behind the 11-1 winner, Smile, who scorched through the six furlongs in 1:08[2/5]. "Very, very disappointed," said Groovy's rider, Jose Santos. No more so, however, than the crowd that had sent Groovy off at 2-5 odds.

There were few more crestfallen at Santa Anita on Saturday than the Europeans. For this third Breeders' Cup series, they had shipped to the U.S. their strongest band of horses, including the brilliant winner of the Arc de Triomphe, Dancing Brave, as well as England's Sonic Lady, one of the fastest milers in Europe this year. In the end, all they had to show for it was Last Tycoon's head victory over a fast-closing Palace Music in the $1 million Mile, on the turf. The Irish-bred Last Tycoon paid $73.80 for $2, the longest price of the day. As the 3-year-old colt dashed for the lead through the stretch, Sonic Lady collapsed from first to seventh.

"She's had a wonderful campaign this year," said Sonic Lady's rider, Englishman Walter Swinburn. "I'm just sorry it had to end this way."

So they were all sorry that Dancing Brave's career as a racehorse had to end the way it ended, too. Winner of six of seven races and $1,388,811 this year, the 3-year-old colt came here with the reputation as the finest racehorse ever shipped from Europe to these shores. This was to be Dancing Brave's swan song, his final start before entering the stud next spring. Though gifted with a great closing burst of speed, he never unleashed it in the $2 million Turf at 1½ miles and obviously was not the same colt who had many comparing him with Nijinsky II, Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard, the greatest horses to race in Europe in the last 20 years.

Favored at 50 cents to the dollar, Dancing Brave finished fourth, 6¾ lengths behind the winner, Manila, a 3-year-old colt known now as the best grass horse in America. Dancing Brave raced well to the turn for home but hung in the drive. "Just didn't have it," said jockey Pat Eddery. "He couldn't quicken. He's off to stud now, and they can't take the Arc away from him."

"Of course I'm disappointed, but we did our best," said Dancing Brave's trainer, Guy Harwood. "Our horse wasn't disgraced. He didn't quite find that kick that he normally does. We knew we were taking a chance coming all this way to run; it has been a long season."

One upset just led to another. In the Classic, there was Pincay, on Skywalker, driving up next to Precisionist and pinning him along the rail behind the pacesetting Herat in the most brilliantly executed ride of the day. Skywalker took the lead three furlongs out, and Precisionist could not catch him. Neither could Turkoman, though he was closing the gap in the final yards when the wire flashed past and Pincay stood on the irons, waving his whip in triumph.

"I tell you," said Pincay, after dismounting from Skywalker, "I'm as happy now as the time I won the [1984] Kentucky Derby on Swale."

But the day, if it belonged to any man or beast at all, belonged to Lady's Secret. There was a good deal of huffing and puffing in some quarters at the end of the Breeders' Cup series over the question of who should be named the 1986 American champion of champions. Obviously, two of the chief contenders, Turkoman and Precisionist, removed themselves from the running when they lost on Saturday.

Just as obviously, as her races have proved in the past, Lady's Secret cannot beat the best of the older male horses in this country. Of her five losses this year—she was thrice second and twice third—three of those came at the hands of superior males. Precisionist beat her twice in 1986, including once, definitively, when he ran past her to win the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park by almost five lengths. The argument against the Lady being named Horse of the Year is based on the contention that such a champion ought to be the best horse carrying 126 pounds over a mile and a quarter on the dirt.

In the absence of such a compelling animal—neither Turkoman nor Precisionist has seen fit to settle that argument at the other's expense—many are looking to the little gray filly as a logical choice. No horse in America has been more consistent than Lady's Secret, and she has acquitted herself uncommonly well against the best of the colts whenever she has faced them. She has broken records, run and won at distances from a mile to a mile and a quarter, and carried high weight at high speeds on various surfaces from California to New York.

"She's just a phenomenal individual," says jockey Day. "Early on in her career, I thought she was just a sprinter. They got her to stretch out, beat the boys, beat the best of the girls and get up to a mile and a quarter. She does everything. A pleasure to ride. Lots of speed away from the gate. Just sit on her and let her do the work. A gem to ride."

If the Breeders' Cup demonstrated anything on Saturday, a day in which beaten favorites abounded, it was that the little gray filly they call the Iron Lady is currently the most admirable competitor in American racing—tough, fast, game, classy and generous with her abundant gifts.

As Stephens says, Who else can it be but the filly? No one, except her.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONShooting from the gate like a silver bullet, Lady's Secret led all the way in the Distaff. PHOTOJERRY COOKEPincay began the day by winning the Juvenile with Capote (above) and finished it by sitting pretty aboard Skywalker. PHOTORICHARD MACKSON[See caption above.] PHOTOJERRY COOKEAfter guiding Manila through a perfect trip along the rail, Santos (in red) measured Theatrical in the stretch and won the Turf by a neck.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)