Last Thursday was cleaning day for me. For any of you that work in an office, you know all about cleaning day. The cluttered paperwork on your desk becomes unbearable, the dust on your computer screen must go, and your drawers full of old, useless papers must be thrown out. It has to be done.
While in the middle of my cleaning chores, I can upon an old, black-and-white photo that had been in my desk ever since I arrived at The Blood-Horse in 2007. It had been sitting in my bottom drawer from the first day I started working here. Books were eventually piled on top of it and two years later I forgot it was there. Until cleaning day.
The 8x10 framed photo is of a horse standing on the racetrack. She is being handled by a well-dressed man in a suit and stylish top hat - the trainer, I presume. Underneath the picture, it reads - "Firenze 1884." I stared at the picture for a bit and then curiosity got the best of me. I had heard of the name before, but just who was Firenze?
So I googled Firenze and clicked on the first link - the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame (racingmuseum.org). It took me to the profile for Firenze. My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I read the bio:
Firenze - Bay filly foaled in 1884. Died in 1902. By Glenelg-Florida, by Virgil
Breeder: Dan Swigert
Owner: James Ben Ali Haggin
Trainer: Matt Byrnes
YEAR AGE STARTS 1ST 2ND 3RD EARNED
1886 2 8 5 2 0 $12,825
1887 3 14 8 4 2 $23,230
1888 4 22 13 6 3 $34,836
1889 5 21 12 6 3 $22,050
1890 6 14 7 3 0 $14,720
1891 7 3 2 0 1 $4,810
TOTALS: 82 47 21 9 $112,471
The most staggering part was her totals- 82 starts, 47 wins, 21 seconds, 9 thirds. Wow. I felt ashamed for not knowing about this horse, who was obviously one of the best of her time, of any time. I read more:
"Firenze was a small filly bred by Dan Swigert in 1884. She was sired by Glenelg out of the mare Florida, by Virgil. James Ben Ali Haggin purchased Firenze for $2,600. Small in stature, she grew to only 15 hands, but her racing presence was large.
"At 3 Firenze won all the major stakes for fillies and at 4, 5, and 6 she was named Champion Handicap Female.
"As champion filly or mare for four consecutive years, Firenze raced against colts 69 times and beat them regularly over all distances. She beat the mighty Hanover at 1 1/4, 1 1/2, and 1 3/4 miles; beat Kingston twice, and gave The Bard his only defeat of 1888.
"Rider, trainer, racing official, and Hall of Fame member James McLaughlin knew such great fillies as Miss Woodford, Imp, Beldame, Artful, Pan Zareta, and Regret, but claimed that Firenze was the best of all.
"Firenze was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1981."
Unbelievable, I thought. Here was a filly that raced 82 times over a six year period, mostly against colts, and hit the board in 77. 82 starts. 77 on the board. Wow.
This was the same week in which John Shirreffs told me Zenyatta was unlikely to leave California for the rest of her career and Jess Jackson said Rachel Alexandra wouldn't be going to the Breeders' Cup this year. I had to chuckle to myself. Firenze can race 82 times but we can't get a Zenyatta vs. Rachel match-up? Go figure.
Obviously, racing back in the late 1890s doesn't resemble racing as we now know it. It's not fair to compare eras more than 100 years apart. But I still couldn't help but feel a little sad, knowing that horse racing back then was all about racing and today it's mostly a business. Nowadays, we're lucky if we get to see a great horse race 14 times in a career. Firenze had at least 14 starts in a season four times.
Firenze's record should also put the word "greatness" into perspective for us. When I hear people talk about modern horses as "one of the best ever" after making seven or eight starts, I cringe. I usually throw out names like Kelso, Citation, Forego, and John Henry to refute their argument. Now I can also add Firenze.
The old picture was dusted off and now hangs in my office. Firenze will be forgotten no more.