Fighting "Spirit" - A Champion for the Ages

Courtesy of Becky Johnston

In The Beginning

In the mid 1960's, Stephen Calder, a Miami Beach based real-estate executive and architect Stephan Zachar envisioned summer racing in Florida.  In 1965, supported by all three south Florida tracks, Gulfstream Park, Hialeah Park and Tropical Park, the state legislature agreed to authorize racing dates.  Calder and Zachar leased W.L. McKnight's Tropical Park and appealed to him for his help.  McKnight agreed but with the condition that they would experiment with something at their new track.  McKnight wanted to venture into synthetic track surfaces for safety purposes. 

McKnight owned 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company) and they designed a track with a synthetic base and a sand and marl (clay-like substance) top, thus making Calder the first thoroughbred track with a modified synthetic surface at its 1971 opening.


For the Girls

The track has been known as a mecca of speed, boasting such aptly named stakes winners as What a Cooker and Scorched Panties.  In the 1980's and early 90's Calder was a marketer's and race fan's dream with sprinting fillies making repeated appearances.  Retirement and breeding value were not the priority, racing was. The following fillies  started 441 times in their careers, averaging just over 40 starts apiece:  Premier Question (55), Fit For a Queen (51), Love's Exchange (29), Hyperactive (62), Sweet Proud Polly (36), Sez Fourty (30), Born Famous (26), Leave it Be (66), Ana T (49), Sheer Ice (43), and Sugar's Image (56). 

However, there was one more, and never was a mare more appropriately named than the bay filly by Gallant Knave out of the Lord Rebeau mare Some One Finer.  Her name was Spirit of Fighter and she was the epitome of a fighter from the moment the gates opened she came out with her guns blazing and did not quit until she passed the wire.  She appeared at Calder for eight seasons from 1985 through 1992.  Jose Velez, Jr. would pilot her in 42 appearances.

The speedy filly would race 72 times (57 starts at Calder) and would win 33 times at distances from six furlongs to seven furlongs.  She ran second or third in another sixteen tries.


Bargain Filly

Many people consider the California-bred Lava Man to be the greatest claim in the history of the sport with his $50,000 price tag and his lifetime earnings in excess of five million. That's hard to argue.  In that same vein, trainer Dan Hurtak and owner Dennis Punches' claim of the two-year-old Spirit of Fighter from her first race on October 14, 1985 proved to be a fortuitous move. 

The filly won the eighth race that day, a six-furlong $30,000 claiming event, by 14 lengths in 1:12 3/5.  (Note:  The times over the Calder tracks were somewhat slower and the record of 1:10 stood for years before changes were made to the surface.)

A month later, the new connections sent her out again at Calder, on Veteran's Day, for a six-furlong allowance with a $12,700 purse.  The filly made good by three-quarters of a length. 

Just over two weeks later, the connections would try her on turf going two turns.  She finished fifth in a six-horse field.  She would not try a route of ground again for almost three years.  That second try would be the last.  This filly was a sprinter and she knew one way to go, all out.

She made one last start in 1985, an allowance race at Calder on the day after Christmas.  She won by three lengths going seven-furlongs in 1:24 3/5.


Star in the making

Her stakes debut would come at Gulfstream Park in mid-January 1986, the Old Hat Stakes for three-year-olds going six furlongs. The Northern Prospect filly Noranc would get the better of her this day by five lengths in 1:11, but the Calder filly was seven and a half lengths in front of the other 13 runners.

Spirit of Fighter did not resurface until the last day of August that year.  She ran second by a length in an allowance race at six and a half furlongs.  Her next start, September 10th, in a six and a half furlong $18,300 allowance, resulted in a three length victory in 1:18 3/5.  That win would begin an eight-race win streak spanning the next three months.  She won The Beverly Handicap, Burn's Return Handicap, Jacaranda Handicap, Miss Dade Handicap, Lago Mar Handicap, and the Miss Tropical Handicap. 

The Pembroke Lakes Handicap was her last race of 1986.  The three-year-old filly would carry 128 pounds, twelve pounds more than her second-placed opponent would.

The late year streak would earn Spirit of Fighter the three-year-old filly champion's role among Florida-breds.  Her name that year stands beside other division winners Precisionist, Ogygian, Brave Raj, Flying Pidgeon, Smile, and Shocker T.

The New Year would find the four-year-old filly shipped across the country to Santa Anita to run in the Grade 3 La Brea Handicap at seven furlongs for a purse of $75,000.  Unfortunately, away from the track she loved, she couldn't perform.  She would struggle home sixth and last behind the Eugene Klein-owned Family Style.

The filly went on hiatus until July 18 of that year, when she re-appeared at Calder in the seven-furlong Princess Rooney Handicap.  Facing a field of five, the top-weighted Florida Champion could do no better than third behind Classy Tricks and Sheer Ice after the six-month layoff. 

She regained her winning form in an allowance event later that month and would go on to place in three more added-money events before starting a streak of ten wins from thirteen starts between October 1987 and December of 1988. 

During 1988, she would win eight of her 12 starts including the 1988 running of the Princess Rooney Stakes.  She ran the seven furlongs in 1:24 3/5 with Stanleys Run in second and Sheer Ice in third. 

In 1989, she would open the season with two races at Hialeah Park, where she was soundly beaten. Then, after a June loss in her return to Calder, she won three more stakes.  After a bothered trip in an allowance prep for the Princess Rooney Stakes, she would be placed second with the disqualification of Dike's Image.  In the Princess Rooney, she would interfere with another filly and fall from her second place finish to fifth in the record books. 

The six-year-old mare rebounded in the Egret Stakes and then took on the boys in a handicap race as the .30 to 1 favorite.  The three-year-old gray colt, Groomstick, would win the race while Spirit of Fighter would finish fourth. 

The Hurtak trained filly would make her 1990 racing debut at Gulfstream Park.  She finished third in her first two starts before she took the seven-furlong Heather Stakes by a neck at the Hallandale track, with Earlie Fires aboard.  This would be her first win at a track other than her beloved "Tartan" surface.  She repeated that effort in a six-furlong allowance event later in the meet. 

She again took a break and prepped for the Princess Rooney Stakes with a leg stretcher in the Zippy Do Handicap at Calder, winning with ease over a sloppy track.  A repeat in the Princess Rooney Stakes was not to be as she ran next to the last behind two fillies that also relished her favorite footing, three-year-old Sweet Proud Polly and the four-year-old J. Mack Robinson filly, Love's Exchange.

She would not win again until January 1991, but the eight-year-old gained her most important victory in the First Lady Handicap at Gulfstream Park.  She won in the slop by two lengths over stakes winners Fuerza, Banbury Fair, Love's Exchange and eventual Eclipse Champion older mare, Queena.

After that victory, she visited the winners circle only three more times through the 1992 season, missing the Princess Rooney Stakes in both 1991 and 1992.  The resilient mare  had accumulated a bankroll of $847,454 when she made her last start in November of 1992.  She also won a place in the heart of every fan that ever laid eyes on the queen of Calder sprinters.


Life as a Broodmare

In 1998 Normandy Farm would purchased the 15-year-old mare for $75,000 at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale.  Although Spirit of Fighter would never produce another like herself, she produced seven foals (five fillies) with six starters, five of which won with one graded stakes winner in Puerto Rico, Gallant Fighter by Devil His Due. 

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