The 'Iron Lady's' Secret Garden

Watching Beholder decimate her male opponents in the Pacific Classic and the aftermath on TVG and social media, it made me realize how times have changed; how the great fillies of the past never received the national recognition of a Beholder, a Zenyatta, or a Rachel Alexandra, or even a Black Caviar and Goldikova.

I then began to think what an outpouring of love, admiration, and awe there would have been if racing fans had an outlet to spill their emotions in public about Ruffian and other great fillies who performed spectacular deeds, such as Ta Wee, Gallant Bloom, and Shuvee – three Hall of Famers in one crop. While Ruffian came and went like a sudden shaft of light, a filly like Lady’s Secret would have had a following over a three-to-four-year period unlike anything seen before.

This is an appropriate time, as you will read later on in the column, to bring Lady’s Secret back to life, so that racing fans can truly appreciate her remarkable feats that would have endeared her to people all over the country.

It was 30 years ago that NYRA Filly Triple Crown winner Mom’s Command returned to the races in the seven-furlong Test Stakes. Despite the drop back in distance, the speedy filly was sent off as the 1-2 favorite. After going head and head through fractions of :22 1/5 and :44 4/5, most expected her to draw clear from her opponents.

But turning for home, an ominous gray presence came charging up alongside her. Despite going off at odds of 10-1, the gray filly, a daughter of Secretariat, ran right by Mom’s Command and drew off to a two-length victory in a sizzling 1:21 3/5, just a fifth of a second off the stakes record. Mom’s Command, an amazing filly in her own right, would come right back to win the Alabama with ease.

That filly, Lady’s Secret, would go on to a Hall of Fame career in which she demonstrated such brilliance, toughness, and durability, while facing fillies and colts in grade I stakes, she was voted Horse of the Year in 1986, a year that saw stars such as Precisionist, Ferdinand, Snow Chief, and Turkoman. It was because of that toughness and her amazing endurance that she became known as “The Iron Lady.”

Just how tough and resilient was Lady’s Secret? In addition to winning 25 of her 45 career starts and finishing in the money 37 times, she went 25 consecutive races without finishing out of the money, 17 of them grade I stakes, including the Woodward, Whitney, Met Mile, and Iselin against the colts.

Despite her small, compact frame, she won carrying weights as high as 129 pounds. That came in the grade I Ruffian Handicap, which she won by eight lengths, giving the runner-up Steal a Kiss 20 pounds.

Trainer Wayne Lukas put her through a campaign in 1986 unlike anything seen in a very long time, if at all. After racing at least once in 11 of the 12 months in 1985, Lady’s Secret went right into her 4-year-old campaign off only a three-week rest, winning the El Encino Stakes on Jan. 18, the grade I La Canada on Feb. 9, and the grade I Santa Margarita Handicap under topweight of 125 pounds on Feb. 23.

That was followed by a neck defeat in the grade I Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn under 127 pounds, a victory in the grade I Shuvee Handicap at Belmont under 126 pounds, a close third in the grade I Met Mile as the highweight on the scale, a second in the grade I Hempstead Handicap in the mud at Belmont under 128 pounds, and a 6 1/4-length romp in the grade II Molly Pitcher at Monmouth Park.

It was now July 5 and Lady’s Secret had already run eight times under top weights, six of them grade I stakes, in California, New York, New Jersey, and Arkansas.

It was then that her 1986 campaign really began. Lukas turned his attention to the boys, and Lady’s Secret responded by winning the grade I Whitney Handicap by 4 1/2 lengths, finishing a close third in the grade I Iselin Handicap in the slop after going head and head the whole way with the brilliant Precisionist, and then finishing second to Precisionist in the grade I Woodward Stakes, run in a blazing 1:46 flat for the 1 1/8 miles.

With 11 graded races under her belt already, including four grade I stakes against the boys, it was time to focus on Belmont Park’s Fall Championship Series for fillies and mares, which consisted of the grade I Maskette at a mile, grade I Ruffian Handicap at 1 1/8 miles, and grade I Beldame Stakes at 1 1/4 miles. Lady’s Secret had swept the series the year before as a 3-year-old, capping off an eight-race winning streak that included the Test and Ballerina at Saratoga, before finishing second to stablemate Life’s Magic in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

All Lady's Secret did was win all three races once again, taking the Maskette by seven lengths in a scorching 1:33 flat, the Ruffian by eight lengths in 1:46 4/5 under 129 pounds, and the Beldame in 2:01 3/5.

She would culminate her incredible year in the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita, which she won by 2 1/2 lengths in 2:01 1/5. No filly since the days of Gallorette had even come close to putting together a year like this, racing 15 times, 13 of them in grade I stakes, without even having a break after her 3-year-old campaign that saw her race 16 times. That’s 31 races – all stakes -- without a break. And that followed an eight-race 2-year-old campaign. And Lady’s Secret was far from a big robust filly and usually was dwarfed by the majority of her opponents.

Said her assistant trainer Mike Chambless, “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. She’s just very positive in everything she does.”

The following year, however, at age 5, it all caught up to her. She wasn’t the same filly, running poorly against the boys in the Donn Handicap when she tried to bear out badly, which concerned and puzzled her connections. But she bounced back to win an allowance race at Monmouth in 1:09 4/5, before finishing second in the Molly Pitcher in a shocker, in which she tried to bear out again soon after the start. Jockey Chris McCarron said he felt she lost the race on the first turn when she kept bearing out. She then returned to Monmouth to win another allowance race, by seven lengths in 95-degree weather, which made her the leading female earner of all time, pushing her winnings over the $3 million mark.

But Lukas knew she was a shell of her former self and ran her in another allowance race against the colts at Saratoga. Her bearing out in her races couldn’t convince Lukas she was trying to tell him something, so she finally let him know she had had enough by bolting on the first turn and pulling up. That would be the final race of her career.

I had the privilege of visiting her on two occasions at two different farms, and had one of my fondest experiences when my daughter Mandy was allowed to go in the paddock with her at Fares Farm and Lady’s Secret came over and played with her for quite a while, nuzzling against her. The laughter from my daughter and the constant smile on her face made this a truly special moment.

I saw her again several years later at John and Kim Glenney’s small farm outside of Lexington, where Mandy posed with her and her Skip Away foal.

Like many mares who were overraced, Lady’s Secret never produced anything of note. She may have been unsuccessful as a broodmare, but she was a wonderful mother, producing 12 foals, 10 of who made it to the races, with five winners.

The Glenneys moved Lady’s Secret and her companion, Superbe Dawn, from Kentucky to California, believing the milder winters would benefit her. She was sent to Valley Creek Farm in Valley Center, California that once was the home of 1986 Preakness winner and Eclipse champion Snow Chief.

Lady’s Secret, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992, died suddenly on March 3, 2003 at age 21 from complications due to foaling.

According to a report in the Daily Racing Form, Lady's Secret had produced a General Meeting colt (on March 2) at about 11:50 p.m. The foaling appeared normal, according to farm manager Leigh Ann Howard.

"There were no signs of trouble at all," Howard told the DRF. "I checked her at 6:50 this morning, then came in and sent an e-mail to people to tell them she had foaled."

At 7:45 a.m., an employee at the farm checked Lady's Secret again and found her dead in her stall. The General Meeting colt was born healthy and was placed on a nurse mare.

That nurse mare was Lady’s Secret’s companion, Superbe Dawn. Lady’s Secret was buried on the farm, which eventually was sold to Shirley Kimball.

Soon after the purchase of the farm, renamed SK Racing/Oak Creek Farm, work began on The Lady’s Secret Memorial Garden with the help of a generous donation of plants and flowers. A group of volunteers, Friends of The Lady’s Secret Memorial Garden, was formed, and a Facebook page was started, with the goal of raising the public awareness of “Lady’s Garden” and finishing and maintaining it and building a grave marker as a tribute to Lady’s Secret, and also to gain historical site recognition for her grave site and memorial garden.  

Lady’s Secret not only has been for the most part forgotten by the industry and fans who never saw her run, Santa Anita took it upon themselves to eliminate the Lady’s Secret Stakes, its grade I prep for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and rename it the Zenyatta Stakes as a final indignity to this great mare

At the present, fundraising efforts are underway, with the help of avid racing fan Sisi Laurer, to get Lady’s Secret a proper gravesite and marker, restore the garden, and reinstate the stakes that bore her name for so long.

In addition to a Facebook page (Celebrities of Lady’s Secret), a T-shirt was designed by equine caricaturist Mel Leonard, depicting the garden in all its color, that is for sale to help in the fundraising

“I am involving our Facebook group in picking a beautiful gravestone marker,” Laurer said. “I feel with the money that has been donated it is fitting to do that first because she will finally have a gravestone marker after over a decade of waiting. My simple answer of why I am doing this is because of Lady’s Secret. She should be treasured, not hidden away and her personal story lost.”

Laurer said they also are planning to set up another organization to help other racehorses in this position in the future. “It is certainly something we could do to give back,” she said. “Every racehorse deserves a proper burial. We could name it in Lady’s Secret’s honor as well.”

There is no way all, or even a portion, of Lady’s Secret’s accomplishments could fit on a gravestone marker. But there is no need to. All it would need is the name Lady’s Secret. That alone would evoke images of one the greatest and most remarkable fillies to ever grace the Turf.

Monetary donations can be sent to:
Friends of The Lady’s Secret Memorial Garden
14728 Cool Valley Road
Valley Center, CA  92082
or via
Remembering Lady’s Secret or can be applied to the Paypal Account of

Lady's Secret

Lady's Secret grazing at Monmouth with arch rival Precisionist

Lady's Secret with Mandy at Fares Farm

Lady's Secret at the Glenneys farm with Skip Away foal

Lady's Garden

Lady's Secret's Garden

Lady's Secret's Garden

T-shirt design by Mel Leonard

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