Rivalries come in all shapes and sizes. Some can last for 10 races, like Affirmed and Alydar; others four races, like Damascus and Dr. Fager; and the rare ones that last only two races, like Swaps and Nashua, but still capture the public’s imagination.
In 1986, we had a two-race rivalry that in many ways was unlike anything seen before, because of the vast differences in the combatants, one of whom had recently concluded an epic eight-race rivalry that has gone overlooked in the history of great rivalries. But more on that later.
The two participants in question were the grand-looking 5-year-old “stud,” Precisionist, one of the handsomest horses ever to grace an American racetrack, and the scrappy, pocket-sized bundle of energy, Lady’s Secret, known throughout the racing world as the “Iron Lady.”
Call it an ultra mini version of the titanic three-year rivalry in the 1940s between Gallorette and Stymie. But unlike the many battles those two warriors staged, this was about pure speed. Here were two horses, male and female, who were so different in every way they didn’t look as if they belonged on the same racetrack together. One was a magnificent chestnut 5-year-old horse and the other a diminutive, but powerful, gray 4-year-old filly. From a physical standpoint, it was like pitting the mighty Aslan (the lion in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”) against Toto (the tenacious gray terrier from “The Wizard of Oz”). Precisionist would dazzle you with his amazing feats of speed and strength, while Lady’s Secret, like all terriers, would grab on to your pant leg and refuse to let go.
The traits they did have in common were their running styles, their fortitude and pugnacity, and their brilliance, all of which made their two confrontations so appealing and intriguing.
Precisionist and Lady’s Secret arrived at Monmouth Park for the grade I Iselin Handicap (changed that year from the Monmouth Handicap) and took up residence in the stakes barn. On a bright sunny morning several days before the race, both were brought out to graze at the same time on the grassy area just outside the barn. They were the only two horses out there and one couldn’t help but notice the stark physical difference. Was this little gray filly actually going to eyeball this big, imposing chestnut colt in what promised to be a speed duel for the ages?
Precisionist grazed quietly near the fence, accompanied by trainer Ross Fenstermaker, while Lady’s Secret, oblivious to her future adversary, grazed about 20 yards away, with Jeff and Wayne Lukas’ 25-year-old assistant, Kiaran McLaughlin, allowing her wander about as she pleased.
Fenstermaker’s responsibility was to prevent this four-legged explosive device from detonating before race day.
“He’s a tough, proud horse who does everything hard,” Fenstermaker said, while firmly holding on to the shank. “I have to exercise him myself because he tries so hard in the mornings and I was tired of seeing him run off with his riders every day.”
Another Lukas assistant, Mike Chambless, said of Lady’s Secret, “She’s a ball of dynamite. With her, it’s all ‘go.’ The day after a race she’s a pup, but the next day she’s dragging you around again. She has the daintiness of a princess, but commands a situation like a king.”
When you have two horses, regardless of sex, whose engines are this revved up, something has to give when they look each other in the eye on the field of battle. On this day, they were merely two strangers who had no inclination of the clash that was to come.
Lady’s Secret went into the Iselin having won nine stakes at a mile or longer and had never been headed at any point in any of them. She was no stranger to the boys, winning the Whitney Handicap by 4 1/2 lengths in her previous start and finishing third, beaten 1 1/4 lengths, in the Metropolitan Handicap, run in 1:33 3/5, in which she was giving the colts weight on the scale. To demonstrate her toughness and durability, she was only 4-years-old and had already run 34 times, 33 of them stakes races, winning 19. And she went into the Iselin having finished in the money in 19 straight races, all stakes.
After winning three straight stakes at six furlongs as a 3-year-old, including the Bowl of Flowers in 1:09 flat, she won the seven-furlong Test Stakes in 1:21 3/5, and then proceeded to knock off older fillies and mares in the grade II Ballerina at seven furlongs, and the grade I Maskette at one mile, Ruffian Handicap at 1 1/8 miles, and Beldame Stakes at 1 1/4 miles, giving her eight stakes wins in a row.
Precisionist had run 31 times going into the Iselin. He possessed the raw speed to win the six-furlong Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 1:08 2/5 and the stamina to win the 1 1/4-mile Swaps Stakes in 1:59 4/5, the Charles H. Strub Stakes in 2:00 1/5, and the about 10-furlong Del Mar Handicap in 1:56 4/5.
Judging by his recent form, he had emerged unscathed from a gut-wrenching rivalry with the Charlie Whittingham-trained Greinton. In their eight meetings, they finished one-two seven times, with Precisionist winning four. The big chestnut held a 2-1 advantage when they renewed their rivalry at Hollywood Park in 1985 in what has to be the three fastest-run races in succession in history. In the one-mile Mervyn Leroy, Precisionist defeated Greinton in 1:32 4/5. Three weeks later, Greinton turned the tables, winning the Californian Stakes in 1:32 3/5. They were back only two weeks later, with Greinton taking advantage of Precisionist’s blazing fractions, winning the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1:58 2/5. In his two defeats, Precisionist was conceding seven pounds and five pounds to his rival.
He went into the Iselin as the only horse ever to combine these feats: 1 1/4 miles in under 2:00 (1:59 4/5), one mile in under 1:33 (1:32 4/5), and six furlongs in under 1:09 (1:08 2/5).
With two such incredibly fast and game horses, something had to give. Unfortunately, it was the weather. Mother Nature apparently doesn’t know a good thing when she sees it or she would have held off the deluge that fell one hour before the race.
Lady’s Secret outran Precisionist for the first quarter of a mile, but then Fred W. Hooper’s colt moved up to challenge and the battle was on. Locked together through fractions of :46 4/5 and 1:10 3/5 over the tiring, sloppy track, they were still at each other’s throat at the eighth pole. Lady’s Secret continued to fight, but Precisionist was just too much for her and began to inch away. The damage, however, was done. Precisionist began to feel the effects of his battle with Lady’s Secret, and Lukas’ other entrant, Roo Art, under Bill Shoemaker, came flying late to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Precisionist, who was conceding eight pounds to the winner, finished 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Lady’s Secret, who also was conceding eight pounds (on the scale) to Roo Art.
Pat Day, on Lady’s Secret, came back and said, “She’s just a courageous individual.” Bert Holleran, who owned Roo Art, watched Lady’s Secret walk by him in the shed following the race and commented, “That’s one gutsy gal.”
As for Precisionist, he had run down on three legs, a front and both hind, with blood coming from his right hind.
As grueling and taxing a race as the Iselin was on Precisionist and Lady’s Secret, both were back only two weeks later for the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park. Roo Art also was back, along with the hard-knocking stakes winner Personal Flag, who was in receipt of 15 pounds from Precisionist and 11 actual pounds (16 on the scale) from Lady’s Secret.
With Angel Cordero replacing Pat Day, Lady’s Secret burst out of the gate and quickly opened a clear lead, while setting blistering fractions of :45 3/5 and 1:09 2/5. Precisionist, tracking her the whole way, about two lengths back, made his move after turning for home. He collared her at the eighth pole, the mile run in 1:33 4/5. After setting those rapid fractions, Lady’s Secret tried, but couldn’t match strides with Precisionist, who flew home his final eighth in :12 1/5, drawing off to a 4 3/4-length victory in 1:46 flat, three-fifths off Secretariat’s American record. Lady’s Secret still was able to finish 5 1/2 lengths ahead of third-place finisher Personal Flag and 11 1/4 lengths ahead of Roo Art.
Lady’s Secret now had run 11 times already in 1986, including four grade I races against colts and two slugfests against Precisionist. Despite her rigorous campaign, she was far from finished. Lukas put her back against fillies, and as it turned out, she was just getting started.
Only one week after the Woodward, she romped by seven lengths in the Maskette, running the mile in 1:33 2/5 under 125 pounds. Two weeks later, she won the Ruffian Handicap by eight lengths in 1:46 4/5 under 129 pounds, conceding an incredible 20 pounds to runner-up Steal a Kiss. She came back in three weeks and won the Beldame in 2:01 3/5. She then concluded her remarkable year by winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 2:01 1/5.
With Precisionist finishing second to Turkoman in the Marlboro Cup, winning the Yankee Valor Handicap at Santa Anita, and finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Horse of the Year honors went to Lady’s Secret.
One of my fondest recollections of those days was bringing my then 2-year-old daughter to visit Precisionist at Belmont Park and watching her introduce him to Bert and Ernie, as Precisionist looked quizzically at the two strange figures being held up to his face.
The following year, Wayne Lukas brought a string of horses to Monmouth for the first time, with McLaughlin running the barn. In July, all eyes were on Lady’s Secret, who was just a few dollars shy of passing All Along as the leading filly and mare earner of all time. On July 18, Monmouth racing secretary Bob Kulina received a call from Jeff Lukas, informing him that an allowance race at Belmont had failed to fill and he wanted to enter Lady Secret in a similar spot at Monmouth in an attempt to break the record. Kulina made sure a 1 1/16-mile allowance race carded three days later filled, and on July 21, Lady’s Secret virtually galloped down the stretch to win by seven lengths, putting herself in the record books. In her next start at Saratoga, she bolted badly to the outside fence in another allowance race in the slop. It was her way of saying she had had enough. That was to be the final race of her career.
Precisionist, after being retired in 1986, proved virtually sterile, siring only four foals. He was brought back to the races in 1988, and although he had a fairly productive year, winning a pair of stakes at Del Mar and placing in three other stakes at Aqueduct and Hollywood Park, he was far from the brilliant horse he once was, and was retired as a pensioner following a poor effort in a small stakes at Calder in December.
Lady’s Secret and Precisionist were inducted into the Hall of Fame – Lady’s Secret in 1992 and Precisionist in 2003.
My daughter paid two more visits to Lady’s Secret, one at Fares Farm in Lexington, where she spent 20 minutes playing with her out in the field, as the “Iron Lady” kept gently nuzzling against her. The other was at John Glenney’s farm outside Lexington, where my daughter spent some quality time in the paddock with Lady’s Secret and her Skip Away foal.
Unfortunately, we never got to see Precisionist before his death from an inoperable tumor at Old Friends in Sept. 2006, nor did we see Lady’s Secret again, as she died due to complications from foaling in Feb. 2003 at Valley Creek Farm in California.
My daughter was too young to see Lady’s Secret run against Precisionist, but she still has memories of both horses through our many photos.
Whether they won or lost, I will always remember these two special races in 1986, when a pair of future Hall of Famers of the opposite sex tested each other for speed and courage, and served as a reminder why the Thoroughbred is still revered after so many hundreds of years.