Even though the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic plays a bit of a second-fiddle to the Classic and at times even the Juvenile (gr. 1), it is a race that has given us many memorable moments – some filled with the greatness of some of the most famous female race horses in North American history.
Like most Breeders’ Cup races, the Ladies Classic was first run in 1984 at Hollywood Park. Formerly known as the Breeders’ Cup Distaff until 2008 when it assumed the current name, the Ladies Classic started with a boom.
Lining up to face the 7-to-10 favorite was Life’s Magic, the eventual Champion 3-Year-Old Champion Filly that year who had taken the Mother Goose Stakes, Alabama Stakes and Monmouth Oaks; Lucky Lucky Lucky, second to Princess Rooney in the Spinster; and Miss Oceana, who was second to Life’s Magic in the Beldame at Belmont Park among the field of seven.
Princess Rooney would not disappoint her supporters that day, winning by seven with jockey Eddie Delahoussaye seven lengths over Life’s Magic in second and Adored in third. So impressive was Princess Rooney that day, that her final time of 2:02-2/5 was a full second faster than Wild Again’s Breeders’ Cup Classic later that same day over the same 1-1/4 mile distance.
Although Life’s Magic was second in the first Breeders’ Cup, she would come back the next year at Aqueduct and take home her own Breeders’ Cup victory, defeating Lady’s Secret (photo below left and later named Champion Older Filly or Mare in 1985.
It would take only two years before another future Hall of Fame filly would grace the Distaff with her presence – in fact it would be two greats.
Personal Ensign came into the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff undefeated in 12 career starts including wins in the Hemstead Stakes, Shuvee Handicap, Molly Pritchard Handicap, Beldame Stakes (for the second time), Maskette and a victory over males in the Whitney Handicap.
The race featured Winning Colors, who in May had become only the third filly to win the Kentucky Derby.
The two met in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, the Kentucky Derby winning filly Winning Colors jumped out to an early lead as always and ran comfortably around the sloppy Churchill Downs track. At the top of the long Churchill Downs streatch, Winning Colors and jockey Gary Stevens started pulling away from a stubborn Goodbye Halo and well on their way to a win. But Personal Ensign had moved into the picture, but was trying to pass Goodbye Halo for second with Winning Colors still keeping her distance from the Goodbye Halo and Personal Ensign, some two lengths behind.
But Personal Ensign began creeping closer toward Winning Colors, but by that time, the finish was insight and time and track appeared to be running out for Personal Ensign and jockey Randy Romero. Driving to catch Winning Colors in apparent vain, the finish line suddenly appeared and the race seemed finished. But just as quickly, Personal Ensign jumped even with Winning Colors in one stride and was a nose ahead the next. Not a fraction of second too soon, Personal Ensign won and would retire with her 13-race undefeated winning streak intact and honors and the Champion Filly or Mare of 1988.
The next two years of the Distaff division belonged to the parrot-mouthed, tongue-hangin’ out Bayakoa, trained by Ron McAnally. In 1989, Bayakoa won the Ruffian, Santa Margarita Invitational, the Apple Blossom, Milady Handicaps and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The following year was almost a repeat. She won the Santa Maria Handicap then took the Santa Margarita, Milady and Breeders’ Cup Distaff for the second time. Today, she remains the only horse to ever win the Distaff twice.
Two years after McAnally returned with another Argentia-bred in Paseana. In 1992, Paseana (who also had a penchant for running with her tongue hanging out) won the Santa Margarita, Milady, Apple Blossom, Vanity, Santa Maria and San Gorgonia Handicaps. But just before the ’92 Breeders’ Cup, Paseana finished second in the Spinster Stakes at Keeneland and many wondered if she would be in top form for the Distaff a month later. Let go with 5-to-2 odds coupled with stable mate Exchange in the Distaff, Paseana stalked pace-setter and favorite Saratoga Dew down the Gulfstream Park backstreatch but passed her with ease just as the field hit the far turn. With ears pricked as if to ask jockey Chris McCarron when to go, Paseana took the Distaff into her own hoofs and began to extend her lead around the turn. By the time they turned for home, Paseana was comfortably in front and went to win by four lengths over Versailles Treaty and be named the Champion Old Mare for the first of two consecutive times.
Ten years later, the star of the Distaff was Azeri after she ran one of the most impressive campaigns for a female Thoroughbred in recent memory. She won the Clement Hirsh, Lady’s Secret Breeders’ Cup, Santa Margarita, Apple Blossom, Milady Breeders’ Cup, Vanity and Vanity before winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in romp and be named Champion Older Mare and the second Distaff winner to take Horse of the Year. Immediately after the Distaff, future Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith declared Azeri the best filly he had ever ridden.
That was about to change.
On April 5, 2008 Smith was named by trainer John Shirreffs to ride his filly in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. Based in California, the filly had been ridden by David Flories in her first three starts, all wins. But Flores did not make the trip from Southern California to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Smith, also based in Southern California, had other mounts that weekend at Oaklawn Park and had ridden for Shirreffs many times before, including winning the Kentucky Derby on Giacomo. At the start of the Apple Blossom, the filly quickly fell back to second to last of the six mares and stayed there until the field reached the far turn. She circled the field (just as she had always done), took command in the stretch and won by a four lengths.
Victories in the Milady, Vanity, Clement Hirsch and Lady’s Secret followed before Zenyatta would make her Breeders’ Cup debut in the $2 million Ladies Classic. Breaking last in a field of eight, her winning running style was repeated and for the ninth consecutive time, Zenyatta was in the winners circle of the 2099 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic.
There are certainly other great champions to run in the Ladies Classic and exciting stretch runs and close finishes. But these eight fillies and mares are some of the greatest in the history of American horse racing. All but Zenyatta are in the Hall of Fame and she will get on the first ballot in which she is eligible.
Just as it’s winners are glorified in the halls of racing history, the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic has etched its way into horse racing history with a story that is far from being complete. It is unknown when the Ladies Classic story will come to an end – probably not in my lifetime – but I’m sure anticipating the next chapter set to take place at Churchill Downs Nov. 4.