The Blooming of Champions

Our last blog dealt with the 3-year-old male crop of 1969. Well, their female counterparts were pretty special themselves, and what better time to recount their exploits than on the day of the grade II Gallant Bloom Handicap at Belmont. The race’s namesake will be the main focus of this blog, but no mention of that period would be complete without adding the other two magnificent fillies from that crop, Shuvee and Ta Wee, and the top older mare, Gamely.

If you’re enjoying the current rivalry between Blind Luck and Havre de Grace, you would have also loved the one between Gallant Bloom and Shuvee. Throw in one of the greatest sprinters of all time, Ta Wee, and you have three Hall of Fame fillies all from the same crop, who won a total of seven championships. Waiting for them in the older filly division was William Haggin Perry’s 1968 Handicap Mare champion Gamely, another destined for the Hall of Fame.

To demonstrate just how amazing Gallant Bloom, Shuvee, and Ta Wee were, they combined to win 39 major stakes at 13 different racetracks at nine different distances from 5 ½ furlongs to two miles. Taking it one step further, to show how brilliant and dominant Gallant Bloom was, Shuvee became only the second filly ever to sweep the NYRA Filly Triple Crown – the Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks. She added the Alabama and defeated top-class older fillies such as Obeah and Amerigo Lady in the Ladies Handicap. But despite her remarkable campaign, she did not receive a single vote for champion 3-year-old filly. That honor went to Gallant Bloom, who rattled off 12 consecutive victories from 1968 to 1970, while defeating Shuvee four of the five times they met. She beat her in the Gardenia Stakes to nail down the 2-year-old filly championship and beat her in the Gazelle Handicap to nail down the 3-year-old filly championship.

In 1969, the 5-year-old Gamely captured the Beldame, Diana Handicap under 127 pounds, Wilshire Handicap under 128 pounds, Santa Monica Handicap, and finished second to Nodouble in the Santa Anita Handicap, giving him five pounds on the scale, yet it was Gallant Bloom who was voted champion handicap filly or mare after trouncing Gamely by seven lengths in the Matchmaker Stakes. To show how great a filly Gamely was, she had previously won the Santa Margarita, Santa Maria, Wilshire, and Vanity handicaps; Beldame, Alabama, and Test stakes; was disqualified from first in the Diana; beat the top-class colt Rising Market in the Inglewood Handicap; and finished second to the great Dr. Fager in the Californian Stakes. No one could have predicted the thrashing she would take from the younger Gallant Bloom at Atlantic City.

Gallant Bloom concluded her 1969 championship season by defeating older fillies again in the Spinster Stakes. It had reached a point where racing fans began clamoring for a showdown between the King Ranch filly and eventual Horse of the Year Arts and Letters to see just who the best 3-year-old was.

After winning the Santa Maria and Santa Margarita handicaps the following winter, Gallant Bloom could finish no better than third behind Reviewer in the Nassau County Handicap, but she was beginning to show the signs of wear and tear, After finishing out of the money in the Suburban Handicap, it was discovered she had a chipped bone in her ankle and she was retired to King Ranch in Lexington, Ky.

When she won the Santa Margarita, the diminutive filly had to lug 129 pounds over a quagmire. The track was so sloppy, jockey John Rotz weighed in after the race at 133 pounds. Leon Rasmussen wrote in the Thoroughbred Record, “It was a time for tears – not tears of sadness, but tears of emotion that welled in one’s eyes out of admiration for King Ranch’s magnificent filly Gallant Bloom.”

DRF columnist Charlie Hatton described Gallant Bloom as “all heart and no peel. It is in action she is seen to best advantage, for she is then a thing of air and fire.”

Gallant Bloom was as sweet and kind a filly as I’ve ever been around. I developed a love affair with her that lasted until the day she died in 1991.

But as gentle as she was, she was a fierce competitor who could either out-battle you in photos or crush you, as she did in the Matron Stakes, winning by nine lengths, the Monmouth Oaks, winning by 12 lengths, and her maiden race, which she also won by nine lengths. Prior to her championship showdown with Gamely in the Matchmaker, track photographer Jim Raftery had Gamely brought over to Gallant Bloom’s stall, where he captured the two great fillies nuzzling each other. But there was Gamely with her ears straight up, while Gallant Bloom had her ears pinned way back. She had met the enemy and the enemy was hers. When it was over, Gallant Bloom had left the bigger and stronger Gamely in her wake, routing her by seven widening lengths, while missing the track record by a fifth of a second.

Another special moment, at least to one person, came in one of her lesser-known races, the Liberty Belle Handicap at Aqueduct. As a 2-year-old, Gallant Bloom was an impetuous youngster who had nothing on her mind but speed. Before her career debut, she won a two-furlong race at the Palermo trials in Columbia, S.C.  After romping in her maiden race at Belmont, she won the filly division of the National Stallion Stakes. After that race, for some reason, she lost it mentally, running up the track in three straight races, including the Sorority and Spinaway. In order to get her head straight and her confidence back, trainer Max Hirsch entered her in a six-furlong allowance race and put a 10-pound bug boy, Clayton Carmean up. Sent off at 7-1, she easily defeated a big, strapping Nashua filly named Shuvee, who had just broken her maiden by four lengths in her seventh start.

Gallant Bloom then won the six-furlong Matron wire to wire by nine lengths. But stretching out to a mile in the Frizette Stakes, she shot to the lead from the 11-post, opened a three-length lead, which she maintained throughout, but was nailed right on the wire by the late-charging Shuvee. It was then that Hirsch decided to turn off the switch and teach her to rate off the pace. He brought her back three weeks later in a mile and 70-yard prep for the rich Gardenia Stakes. The new Gallant Bloom settled comfortably back in sixth, some seven lengths off the pace before drawing off to an easy win. It was a drastic transformation from the speed crazy filly of the spring and summer.

That set up a showdown with Shuvee in the Gardenia for championship honors. The bulky chestnut had added a victory in the Selima Stakes at Laurel and seemingly had the upper hand going two turns. Shuvee was made the even-money favorite, with Gallant Bloom at 9-5.

Over a track labeled slow, Gallant Bloom tracked the early pace in third. Most everyone believed the only way she was going to beat Shuvee going 1 1/16 miles was to open a big enough lead on the far turn and try to hold off her opponent’s late rush. But Hirsch, convinced this was a different filly, had other ideas. He had worked hard to turn her around in an attempt to make a classic filly out of her. Rotz kept a tight hold on Gallant Bloom around the turn, even as Shuvee began moving in for the kill. At the quarter pole, Gallant Bloom looked doomed as Shuvee pulled alongside. There was no way Gallant Bloom was going to out-close the stretch-running Shuvee.

But when they turned for home, Rotz let out a notch on Gallant Bloom, and to the shock of most everyone, she began to open up on Shuvee. She led by 1 ½ lengths at the eighth pole, but Shuvee kept trying to close the gap. Gallant Bloom dug in for more and held her off, maintaining her 1 ½-length lead to the wire. Her transformation into a classic filly was complete.

So, here we were at Aqueduct nearly seven months later for Gallant Bloom’s long-awaited debut. Shuvee had already run twice, finishing second by a head to the brilliant sprinter Ta Wee in the seven-furlong Comely Stakes and then winning the Acorn Stakes. She was three days away from adding the Mother Goose and had a huge head start on Gallant Bloom.

It looked like an odd move to debut Gallant Bloom in a six-furlong stakes against hard-hitting older fillies and mares. One thing was for certain; there was no way Gallant Bloom, with her new running style, was going to go for the lead, especially with the presence of the blazingly fast 4-year-old Miss Swapsco, who consistently ran :22 and faster opening quarters and :45 and faster opening half-miles and had never had a horse in front of her early in a race in 20 career starts. And in those days, it was rare to run an opening quarter in under :22 and a half in under :45. Even the immortal Dr. Fager, considered by many the fastest horse of all time, never ran his opening quarter in under :22.

Just as Hirsch had thrown a curveball at everyone in the Gardenia, he did the same in the Liberty Belle. Gallant Bloom came rocketing out of the gate from the rail and before Miss Swapsco and everyone else knew what hit them, the little King Ranch filly was winging it out on the lead by 1 ½ lengths. She had to be flying to outrun Miss Swapsco. Sure enough, she had run her opening quarter in an unheard of :21 2/5 and half in :44 3/5 before opening a five-length lead in the stretch. There was no way she could last. As expected, the early fractions and the layoff caught up with her and she began shortening stride as the hard-knocking stretch runner Clem’s Fairy Gold bore down on her, closing the gap with every stride. Gallant Bloom was weary-legged, but dug in and just held off Clem’s Fairy Gold to win by a nose.

It was an amazing display of speed by Gallant Bloom, but had she reverted back to her old ways? Hirsch stretched her out to two turns a month later and she never again saw the early lead, winning her next nine starts – defeating Shuvee in the Delaware Oaks and Gazelle -- on her way to two more championships and induction into the Hall of Fame.   

In all, Gallant Bloom captured 16 of 22 career starts, winning at distances from 5 ½ furlongs to 1 3/16 miles on fast, good, slow, and sloppy tracks. Only her neck defeat in the Frizette prevented her from compiling a 15-race winning streak.

“She had so much heart, said trainer Buddy Hirsch, who had taken over in the summer of ‘69 following his father’s death. “She carried a lot of weight and had a perfect disposition. She was the loveliest filly you’d ever want to be around. She just did everything you wanted her to.”

It was one of my saddest days in racing when Gallant Bloom’s heart gave out at age 25. She just lay down in her paddock and died. I will always cherish my memories of her as a racehorse; visiting her several times at King Ranch; and eventually introducing her to my then 2-year-old daughter. When we arrived, Gallant Bloom, as she always did, jogged over to the fence, where Mandy planted the first of many kisses on her.

Yep, it was quite a love affair.

As for Shuvee, she would go on to win her share of big races and lose her share of big races. But her big races were huge – two wins in the Diana, two in the Top Flight, and one in the Beldame. But where she really found her niche was in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. There wasn’t a male horse in the country who could touch her at that distance. She knocked off Travers winner Loud by two lengths in 1970 and a year later demolished Loud and the three-time Display Handicap (run at 2 ¼ miles) winner Paraje, romping by seven lengths in one of the fastest Gold Cups ever run.

Many feel she would have won the 1970 Woodward Stakes had she not been slammed into the rail, losing her action, while making what looked to be a winning move in the upper stretch. She also finished a fast-closing third in the Whitney after coming from 10th with a big wide move.

Shuvee was voted champion handicap filly or mare in 1970 and ’71 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975. She had moderate success as a broodmare, producing two stakes winners (grade III and listed), but did have a yearling colt by Key to the Mint sell for $1.4 million at Saratoga. She died in 1986 at age 20 due to complications from foaling.

The only time three of these four great fillies faced each other came on Nov. 1, 1969 in an unlikely spot – the seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap. Ta Wee, carrying actual topweight of 123, turned in one of the gutsiest victories in memory, battling head and head on the lead with five different male horses through a torrid half in :44 2/5. Still clinging to a head lead down the stretch, she kept battling, turning back the fresh challenges of Rising Market and Plucky Lucky and a cavalry charge of late closers, including Shuvee and Gamely. Although they finished sixth and eighth, respectively, Shuvee was beaten only 1 ¾ lengths and Gamely 2 ½ lengths. Ta Wee’s time of 1:21 3/5 was the third fastest Vosburgh ever run, topped only her half-brother Dr. Fager and Hall of Famer Bold Ruler. It also was the fastest seven furlongs ever run by a filly.

What made this filly crop so special was that you had one of the greatest staying mares of all time, one of the greatest sprinters of all time, and one of the greatest middle-distance fillies of all time.

You’d have to search long and far to find a filly that equaled the herculean feats of Ta Wee.

The daughter of Intentionally was voted champion sprinter in 1969 and 70, succeeding Dr. Fager, who won the title in 1967 and ’68. So, their dam, Aspridistra, produced the champion sprinter four years in a row.

Ta Wee captured 15 of her 21 career starts, and for a smallish filly, her weight carrying feats defy description. Beginning in August of ’69, she won the Fall Highweight Handicap over the boys under 130 pounds; the Correction Handicap under 131 pounds; the Hempstead Handicap carrying 132 pounds; the Regret Handicap under 136 pounds; the Fall Highweight lugging 140 pounds; and concluded her career by winning the Interborough Handicap under a staggering 142 pounds, conceding 29 pounds to runner-up Hasty Hitter.

Not only was she incredibly fast, she was as gutsy a filly as you’ll ever see, as indicated by her victory in the ’69 Vosburgh. She was involved in finishes of less than a length seven times and won them all – two by a head, two by a neck, one by a half-length, and two by three-quarters of a length; all of them stakes.

She won seven of her last nine starts, all of them as the topweight and four of them against the boys. In her only two defeats, she was beaten in the seven-furlong Distaff Handicap by the brilliant filly Process Shot, while carrying 134 pounds. In the six-furlong Gravesend Handicap against males, she was second to one of the fastest sprinters in the country, Distinctive, to whom she was conceding 20 actual pounds, again carrying 134. But in her next start, the Fall Highweight, she turned the tables on Distinctive, winning under 140 pounds.

Just a short note about Process Shot, who added to the brilliance and depth of this crop of 3-year-old fillies: The attractive daughter of Restless Wind won 23 of her 40 starts, capturing 14 major stakes and placing in 12 others. She defeated Shuvee as well as Ta Wee in separate stakes, equaled the five-furlong track record of :57 4/5 at Garden State, and set a track record at 1 1/16 miles at Liberty Bell.

To demonstrate what an extraordinary year this was, not only did the 3-year-old class of 1969 produce a record six (along with 1970) Hall of Fame horses (not including steeplechasers), but racing fans in ‘69 had the privilege of seeing a total of nine Hall of Famers in action if you add Gamely, Fort Marcy, and briefly Dark Mirage (a story for another time) before her tragic death.

Getting back to Ta Wee, her Fall Highweight victory was noteworthy. The morning of the race, her trainer, John Nerud, went over to his assistant, Flint ‘Scotty’ Schulhofer and told him, “Scotty, I just want to let you know I’m retiring as trainer (to become general manager of the Tartan operation) and entered Ta Wee in your name. You’re now her trainer.” Schulhofer saddled her to victory and went on to a Hall of Fame career, as did Ta Wee.

“She had such a wonderful disposition,” Schulhofer said. “She’d stand in the paddock and show no emotion at all. You could see her shoulder quiver a little and that was the only way you could tell she was on the edge. She would go to the post like and old cow, but when the gate opened she was gone. There was a lot more to her than just speed, however. She’d get her head in front and wouldn’t let you get by her.”

When Ta Wee retired after the Interborough, she was sent to Tartan Farm. As she stepped off the van, waiting for her at the bottom of the ramp, facing each other, were her brother, Dr. Fager, and dam, Aspidistra. Ta Wee stopped to pose, and the result was an unforgettable family portrait.

Ta Wee produced four stakes winners and can be found in the pedigree of numerous other major stakes winners. But like Dr. Fager and many in that family, she was prone to colic and stomach disorders, and like her brother, she died at an early age, succumbing to a twisted intestine in 1990 at age 14.

Although the once great Tartan Empire eventually decayed into a lifeless tract of land, Ta Wee and Dr. Fager still lie together on a protected memorial site overlooking Lake Ta Wee, along with other Tartan greats.

Shuvee was buried at her birthplace, Morven Stud in Virginia, which dates back to 1730. In 2001, businessman and philanthropist John W. Kluge gave Morven Stud, now named Morven Farm, and several other nearby farms to the University of Virginia Foundation to be used for educational and charitable purposes.

Gallant Bloom is buried in a small grove of trees in the shadow of the training track on the old King Ranch site that is now a division of Three Chimneys Farm.

These gravesites have remained in virtual anonymity for many years, but they still serve as a fleeting reminder of an era long gone.

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