Time For a Filly Triple Crown

Is Thoroughbred racing ready for an honest-to-goodness Filly Triple Crown, unlike the provincial series created by the New York Racing Association or the unofficial version that stimulated little interest at all back in the 1940s and ’50s?

There is no reason why a Filly Triple Crown does not currently exist and why no one has attempted to organize one on a national scale, complete with large purses and even possible bonuses.

Imagine a Triple Crown last year that pitted Beholder, Princess of Sylmar, and Close Hatches in all three races and the marketing possibilities that would have existed. As it is, the three super fillies squared off June 7 in the $1 million Ogden Phipps Stakes (gr. I) at age 4, but as great a matchup as that was, it was only one of a number of important and lucrative stakes run on June 7, and was just another lead-in to California Chrome’s attempt at a Triple Crown sweep. Buried even deeper in this stakes extravaganza was the Acorn Stakes (gr. I), once the first leg of the New York Racing Association’s Filly Triple Crown, and at a flat mile, America’s version of Europe’s 1,000 Guineas.

The main problem with establishing a recognized Filly Triple Crown is getting three racetracks around the country to agree to adjust their scheduling and boost the purses of these races. And then there is the issue of actually finding three compatible, prestigious grade I races with the right timing and within fairly close proximity to each other.

The most logical choices would be the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (gr. II) at Pimlico, and the Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I) at Belmont Park. But that no longer seems practical because of the reluctance of trainers to run horses back in two weeks; the Black-Eyed Susan being only a grade II event; and the Coaching Club American Oaks’ having lost the importance it once had and now being more or less a prep for the Alabama Stakes (gr. I), with both races run at Saratoga. Finally, we’ve already been down this road, and horsemen have never embraced these three races as an official Triple Crown.

Unlike the Triple Crown, which has had its feet planted firmly in the history books since 1930 when the term was first coined by Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton, the fillies’ version of this prestigious triad has been floating in the air, unable to find firm ground on which to land and establish its importance on a national level.

The so-called Filly Triple Crown has taken on several life forms since it was informally recognized in the 1940s in an attempt to mirror the Triple Crown. The Kentucky Oaks, run at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby; the Pimlico Oaks, run at Pimlico, home of the Preakness; and the Coaching Club American Oaks, run at Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stakes, were unofficially considered the fillies’ version of the Triple Crown.

But it was in name only, as the distances of the three races reflected the odd nature of this series, in which the Kentucky Oaks and Pimlico Oaks were run at 1 1/16 miles and the Coaching Club American Oaks at 1 3/8 miles.

Calumet Farm’s Wistful became the only filly to sweep all three races in 1949. But when Wistful’s victory in the CCA Oaks was reported in the Daily Racing Form and New York Times, not a mention was made of her completing a Triple Crown, only that she had previously captured the Kentucky Oaks and Pimlico Oaks.

Calumet Farm won all three races again in 1952 with Real Delight, but that same year, the name of the Pimlico Oaks had been changed to the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. Once again, the DRF and New York Times never acknowledged a sweep of any Triple Crown.

By 1961 the established Triple Crown had not been swept in 13 years—since Citation accomplished the feat following two decades of steady Triple Crown winners (Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in 1935, War Admiral in 1937, Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946, and Citation in 1948). With such a long drought the New York Racing Association felt it was time the fillies had an established Triple Crown, and so that year the organization took its three big races for 3-year-old fillies—the Acorn Stakes at one mile, Mother Goose Stakes at 1 1/8 miles, and Coaching Club American Oaks at 1 1/4 miles —and called it the Filly Triple Crown.

After all, New York was the center of the racing universe at the time and the place where championships were decided every year. And because it had never been officially anointed in the past, the media had paid virtually no attention to the accomplishments of Wistful and Real Delight.

In addition, two of the three races were well-established events with plenty of history. The Acorn had been run since 1931 and the CCA Oaks since 1917. The Mother Goose was the baby of the three, having been inaugurated in 1957, but it certainly gained prestige quickly.

So, NYRA packaged all three races and offered a $25,000 bonus to the winner of all three.

At first it looked as if this would follow in the footsteps of the past filly series. In 1963 Spicy Living captured the Acorn and Mother Goose, but in reporting the CCA Oaks, Joe Nichols in the New York Times mentioned the filly, having won the Acorn and Mother Goose, would be attempting to sweep a “Triple Crown of a rather esoteric nature.” And when he referred to the Oaks as a classic, he put the word “classic” in quotation marks.

So, racing still wasn’t sold on the Filly Triple Crown, especially when Spicy Living was beaten in the CCA Oaks by Lamb Chop, thus preventing the new series from getting off on a successful note.

In 1967 Charles Hatton did acknowledge the Filly Triple Crown, discussing its formation and historical significance.

“(NYRA’s) decision reflects a sensitive entirely sound grasp of box office values and a flair for showmanship. Other and richer races there are, but the NYRA series accrue a special significance, challenging the best horses to win the proudest honors. These series inculcate a way of thinking about them. Regarded individually they are just three other races. Collectively, they gain in importance.

“The series not only has color and imagination but makes a prerequisite of speed, stamina, and versatility, with a $25,000 bonus inviting the leaders in the division to attempt the hat trick and bring off victories in all three races.”

Finally, the Filly Triple Crown had been recognized, and by the same person who first used the term “Triple Crown” back in 1930.

All it needed now was a filly that could complete the sweep. No one could have predicted that filly would be a Lilliputian-sized gal named Dark Mirage, who had won only two of her 15 starts at 2 and had been sent off at odds of 112-1 in the Gardenia Stakes. At just over 14 hands and weighing less than 750 pounds, she looked more like a yearling and hardly a filly who would stamp her name in the history books and put the Filly Triple Crown on the map.

But the $6,000 yearling purchase by the obscure (in this country) stallion Persian Road II, out of a deaf mare named Home by Dark, blossomed into an overnight sensation at 3. After winning the 1968 Kentucky Oaks easily, she came to New York, where she romped by six lengths in the Acorn and by 10 in the Mother Goose. Finally, a sweep of the NYRA Triple Crown seemed like a mere formality, and Dark Mirage didn’t disappoint, putting on a spectacular show in front of more than 41,000 fans, winning the CCA Oaks by 12 lengths.

Even Joe Nichols wrote, “The Oaks is the third part of the triple crown for fillies,” although he failed to capitalize “Triple Crown.” Nevertheless, racing had a new hero in 1968 to go along with Dr. Fager, Damascus, and Stage Door Johnny, and had its first “official” Filly Triple Crown winner.

The NYRA Filly Triple Crown had been born, and the following year, the great Shuvee followed suit by sweeping all three races, followed by future champions and Hall of Famers Chris Evert (1974), Ruffian (1975), Davona Dale (1979), Mom’s Command (1985), Open Mind (1989), and Sky Beauty (1993).

The CCA Oaks has been the jack rabbit of Thoroughbred races. From 1971 to 1989, the distance was changed from 1 1/4 miles to 1 1/2 miles. They had tried the 12-furlong distance in 1942, but that lasted only two years, after which it went back to 1 3/8 miles from 1944 to 1958. During the years it was run at 1 1/2 miles, we saw five Filly Triple Crown winners – Chris Evert, Ruffian, Davona Dale, Mom’s Command, and Open Mind. In 1990, the year after Open Mind swept the Crown, it was switched back to 1 1/4 miles, then back to 1 1/2 miles in 1998. In 2004, it was back to 1 1/4 miles, and in 2010 it was changed to 1 1/8 miles before being moved from Belmont to Saratoga, where it took on its new role as a prep for the Alabama.

It is apparent that NYRA has had no clue what to do with the CCA Oaks, which certainly did not give the Filly Triple Crown any continuity or stability.

Davona Dale, by capturing the Acorn, Mother Goose, and CCA Oaks, as well as the Kentucky Oaks and Black-Eyed Susan, became the only filly to sweep both acknowledged Filly Triple Crowns.

“Traditionally, I believe the three premier races at Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont should be considered the Triple Crown,” said Davona Dale’s trainer John Veitch. “But NYRA wanted to enhance their program and see what would happen if they came up with their own Triple Crown. To be honest, when I ran Davona Dale in all those races at 3, I wasn’t thinking about a Triple Crown or anything historical.

“She just came out of each race better than she went in. She was as tough as nails and you had to train her like you would a very robust colt. For pure athleticism, she was the best horse I ever trained. She could do everything, whether it was at six furlongs or a mile and a half. My one big mistake was, after the CCA Oaks I should have given her the rest of the year off, but I ran her back in the Alabama and Travers. Calumet had so many great fillies, and she carried on the tradition of the farm, and justly is in the Hall of Fame.”

Veitch said the Breeders’ Cup has resulted in many of the sport’s traditional races being rescheduled or having their distances changed or both, so it has been difficult to maintain any continuity in these races.

“Many of the decision-makers have no regard for history or tradition and basically have destroyed many of the great historical races,” Veitch said.

In 1987 NYRA decided to change the name from the Filly Triple Crown to the “Triple Tiara,” most likely in an attempt to separate it from the Triple Crown and give it its own identity. That proved confusing and provided little historical relevance, even though the series was swept by Open Mind (1989) and Sky Beauty (1993).

NYRA had tinkered with something that wasn’t broken and then compounded it by tinkering some more. In 2003 the Acorn, which at one mile was similar to the One Thousand Guineas in England, Ireland, and France, was yanked from the Tiara and replaced at the back end by the Alabama. That lasted only three years, after which the Acorn was restored to the “Tiara.”

NYRA had pretty much given up on the series, dropping its bonus, and in 2010, Betfair TVG stepped in, sponsoring the event but making it the Acorn, Coaching Club American Oaks, and Alabama. So the Mother Goose was given the boot. It was also a series with no name. Betfair TVG attempted to add interest by offering a $50,000 bonus to the owner of the winner of all three races, who would get to donate it to the charity of their choice. If no one won all three races, the owner of the filly that accumulated the most points would get a $30,000 bonus, again to be donated to charity.

That lasted one year before the point system was dropped. The sad part is that no one really cared because most people didn’t even know about the bonus or the point system.

Betfair TVG at least tried to promote and market the series, and that concept has to continue, but on a much larger, national scale.
Personally, the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks is a no-brainer as the first leg of the Fillies Triple Crown, and the 1 1/4-mile Alabama is a no-brainer for the last leg. One in Kentucky in early May and another at Saratoga in mid-August leaves a perfect spot on the calendar in late June for the middle leg.

Santa Anita, which has the new $200,000 Summertime Oaks (gr. II) scheduled for June 21, can change that name and move it to the spring as a Kentucky Oaks prep and move the more prestigious and historical Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) to June 21 or June 28 and boost the purse, and that could serve as the middle leg of the official Filly Triple Crown.

Of course, unlike Europe, whose Triple Crown is spaced apart from May until September, it is not quite as easy in the U.S. to wait that long between races. The major obstacle is sustaining interest over that long a period of time. But if we can get rivalries forming and have the best 3-year-old fillies in America pointing toward those three races, even if they wish to prep in between, it could, with the right marketing campaign, become a huge event, especially with a bonus program attached to it. Racing as a whole, has failed miserably in the field of marketing, and this would be the perfect venue for an energetic and creative marketing team to step in and make foie gras out of chopped liver.

This is the perfect time to take advantage of the filly craze around the world, spurred on by Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Black Caviar, and all the extraordinary femme fatales in France and Japan over the past few years. We don’t have to wait for them to turn 4, 5, or 6. Let’s start creating heroines when they’re 3, as we did with Rachel Alexandra, and intense rivalries like Blind Luck and Havre de Grace and the current big three of Close Hatches, Princess of Sylmar, and Beholder. Heck, the Zenyatta – Rachel Alexandra rivalry may have been the most intense in the history of the sport, and they never even ran against each other. It’s all about marketing. Wonder Woman and Xena are out there. We just have to put them on TV and sell them to a public clamoring for heroes; male or female.

And there is no better hook than linking them to the name “Triple Crown.” The bottom line is that the fillies deserve a Triple Crown, and even though there has been one in some form or another for more than 80 years, it needs to be done correctly and given an opportunity to pique the interest of horsemen and the public.

(This originally appeared in the June 7 issue of Blood-Horse magazine)

Check out this slideshow on the filly Triple Crown winners.

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