Equibase Breeders' Cup Handicapping Tournament
Three Great Moments: Breeders’ Cup Sprint

Please note, this series is meant to highlight potentially overlooked performances.
This is not a "best of" list.

Until 2007, the best sprinting fillies & mares competed on equal footing with their male counterparts in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Needless to say, that has resulted in some memorable finishes that have, unfortunately, faded a bit from our minds. So here’s a brief look at three outstanding efforts that just happen to include some great sprinting fillies.

In chronological order….

1987 Very Subtle over Groovy

A Grade 1 winner of the Hollywood Starlet as a juvenile, Very Subtle pursued the typical Kentucky Oaks path at age three, finishing third in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks before capturing the Grade 1 Fantasy Stakes. It turned out she wasn’t up for the Oaks distance, finishing sixth, so her connections set her to sprinting. That summer she won the Grade 3 Railbird Stakes and Grade 2 Test Stakes, both at seven furlongs, and then challenged older mares in the 7-furlong Chicago Handicap where she finished second to the defending winner Lazer Show. Off that effort, she was entered in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with regular rider Pat Valenzuela aboard. Come post time, her odds were just over 16-1.

The favorite that day at Hollywood Park was 4-year-old Groovy, winner of six straight races leading into the event, including the major New York sprints – the True North, Tom Fool, Forego and Vosburgh. He had finished fourth in the previous year’s Sprint, behind the winner Smile and another dynamic filly sprinter, Pine Tree Lane. Now a 5-year-old, Pine Tree Lane was back to avenge her heartbreaking loss, and she burst from the gate to take the early lead over Groovy. That situation didn’t last long. Very Subtle hit the lead before the first quarter and never looked back. Groovy was full out to catch her, but the 3-year-old poured it on, crushing her elders by four lengths.


Video courtesy of the Breeders’ Cup

Groovy Lifetime Past Performance courtesy of Brisnet.com
Very Subtle Lifetime Past Performance courtesy of Brisnet.com

For Groovy, it would be his final race, although he did win the Eclipse Award for Champion Sprinter that year. As a sire, he produced some good sprinter/milers, like his Grade 1-winning son Brutally Frank and Grade 1-placed daughter Incinerate, dam of Grade 1 Gazelle winner (and Kentucky Oaks runner-up) In The Gold.

As for Very Subtle, she produced the multiple graded stakes placed filly Dianehill who ran well on both dirt and turf. Dianehill’s son Splash Point won the 2011 Grade 3 UAE 2000 Guineas. Another daughter produced Subtle Aly who set a new Churchill Downs track record for 4-furlongs in her first start as a juvenile, and then captured the Grade 3 Schuylerville in her final career start.

1990 Safely Kept over Dayjur

Three-year-old Dayjur entered this race as the top sprinter in the world – on turf. He had captured all of the major European sprint races, including the Temple Stakes, King’s Stand, Nunthorpe, Sprint Cup and Prix de l’Abbaye. That this Kentucky-bred son of Danzig out the multiple graded dirt stakes winner Gold Beauty could successfully transition to dirt was a given, at least according to handicappers who made him the 2-1 post time favorite. Meanwhile, the 4-year-old filly Safely Kept had enjoyed another stellar season. As a 3-year-old, she had entered the Sprint off an eight-race win streak, including the Regret, Prioress and Test stakes. Unfortunately, she was caught at the wire by Dancing Spree and finished second in the Sprint. This year, her connections were back for a second try.

Defending champion Dancing Spree was also back, but it was always a two-horse race between the filly and her European challenger. Fighting it out for the lead around the final turn, the filly gave him all he could handle, and, admittedly, he looked to have the advantage late. Then, the unthinkable happened – Dayjur not once, but twice, jumped shadows just strides from the line, allowing Safely Kept to win by a neck. In the post-race interview, jockey Willie Carson admitted Dayjur had lost focus and done the same thing in his previous start in the Prix de l’Abbaye, so perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise to his connections.


Video courtesy of the Breeders’ Cup

Safely Kept Lifetime Past Performance courtesy of Brisnet.com
Dayjur Lifetime Past Performance courtesy of Brisnet.com

Retired following his second-place effort, Dayjur had only a modest stud career. Safely Kept, however, was kept in training, winning five of seven starts in 1991, with the Maryland-bred filly’s most disappointing effort being a third-place finish behind Housebuster in the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel, when she was tardy breaking from the gate. Her 31-race career ended with a victory in the Grade 3 Meadowlands Cup – a ligament injury kept her out of her third Breeders’ Cup. As a broodmare, she has produced at least eight winners, including Grade 2 San Vicente runner-up Peace Chant. Among her daughters’ progeny: 2012 Ruthless runner-up Well Kept who finished fourth, 4-1/2 lengths back of Contested in the Grade 1 Test. For her racing career, Safely Kept was elected in 2011 to the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame.

It would be wrong not to mention that the 1990 Sprint was also marred by the breakdown of Mr. Nickerson who suffered a fatal heart attack during the race. Shaker Knit was euthanized from the injuries he suffered when fell over the distressed horse.

Of the other contestants, it turns out that a number of them went on to successful stud careers. Third-place finisher Black Tie Affair gave us Grade 1 winners Formal Gold and Evening Attire, while also-ran Glitterman gave us, among others, the Grade 1 United Nations-winning multi-millionaire Balto Star and Grade 1 Ashland victress Glitter Woman, dam of Grade 1 Suburban winner Political Force. Carson City may have finished a distant tenth, but he enjoyed a stellar career as a sire of sires, including City Zip, Five Star Day and Cuvee. However, it is as a broodmare sire that we still celebrate Carson City – his daughter La Ville Rouge, after all, produced Barbaro.

2000 Kona Gold over Honest Lady

What’s most admirable about Kona Gold is this was a horse that never gave up. He didn’t even make an appearance on the race track until age four, and that first year, with only five races under his belt, he finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, two lengths behind the winner Reraise and just a head back of runner-up Grand Slam. The following year, leading up to the Breeders’ Cup he finished second in the Grade 2 Ancient Title Handicap – off a 7-1/2 month layout. Twenty days later, he was beaten only by Artax in the Sprint. Would his third time be a charm?

At odds of 31-1, Honest Lady wasn’t considered to be a serious challenger, despite victories in the Grade 1 Santa Monica and Grade 2 A Gleam (not to mention runner-up efforts in the Grade 1 Met Mile and Grade 2 Humana Distaff). The regally-bred filly was, after all, the daughter of Grade 1 winner Toussaud, by Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew so the Sprint’s 6-furlong distance appeared too short for her. Little did most realize that the pace scenario would set her up perfectly.

Caller One and Trippi set the blistering early fractions that allowed Kona Gold to take over in the stretch and barely hold off the late-charging Honest Lady. The final time (1:07.77) not only set a Churchill track record, but remained the fastest Sprint ever run, until the record was smashed by Midnight Lute in 2008.


Video courtesy of the Breeders’ Cup

2000 Breeders’ Cup Sprint Chart courtesy of Brisnet.com
Kona Gold Lifetime Past Performance courtesy of Brisnet.com

It’s notable that fourth-place finisher Caller One later went on to become a two-time winner of the Grade 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen, while also-rans More Than Ready, Agnes World and Trippi enjoyed outstanding stud careers. In fact, where Trippi failed, his daughters succeeded, with Miss Macy Sue finishing third in the 2007 BC Filly & Mare Sprint, and R Heat Lightning running second in the 2010 Juvenile Fillies.

After her runner-up effort, Honest Lady was retired to broodmare duty. Considering that her siblings include Grade 1 winners Chester House, Chiselling and Empire Maker, it’s not surprising that she too has produced a Grade 1 winner. Her son First Defence won the Forego before his unsuccessful tilt at the 2008 Sprint.

Named Eclipse Champion Sprinter in 2000, Kona Gold stayed in training for another three years, although he failed to defend his title in 2001, finishing a non-threatening seventh behind Squirtle Squirt and Xtra Heat. In 2002, he finished a distant fourth behind Orientate and Thunderello. After several years as a stable pony for his trainer Bruce Headley, Kona Gold was retired to the Kentucky Horse Park where, in 2009, he was euthanized following a paddock accident.

Also Considered

As you can imagine, it was difficult narrowing it down to just three examples, although the inclusion of Very Subtle raised no objections among the discussants. Other memorable moments we considered include Lit de Justice’s breathtaking last-to-first victory at Woodbine in 1995, the first Breeders’ Cup win for trainer Jenine Sahadi – and the first BC win for a female trainer. In 1993, Cardmania became the oldest Sprint winner, at age 7. Unfortunately, to do so he had to defeat 4-year-old filly Meafara, devastating for her fans as she had been denied a victory in the previous year’s Sprint in similar fashion, as Thirty Slews surged to beat her late then.

In 2001, it looked like little fireball Xtra Heat would carry her blazing early speed to victory over Caller One, but then the oddly-named Squirtle Squirt split foes and drove past her for the win. As a broodmare, Xtra Heat has passed on her speed to Southwestern Heat and Elusive Heat, both Grade 3 runners-ups, but none have matched her longevity or success on the track.

Finally, how can we not consider Desert Stormer’s 1995 victory over Julie Krone’s mount Mr. Greeley? Over a gummy rain-affected Belmont track, the two battled one another the entire way and, just when it looked like the colt would get the best of her, Desert Stormer surged back along the rail to get the win. As a sire Mr. Greeley enjoyed great success, producing among others El Corredor, Finsceal Beo, Aruna and the talented sprinter Nicole H. It was no surprise too when his daughter Miraculous Miss ran second to Maryfield in the 2007 Filly & Mare Sprint over (no surprise!) a sloppy Monmouth track. And Desert Stormer? Her daughters have excelled at producing turf runners, like Grade 1-placed Casino Host and Better Lucky. Go figure!

Certainly there are plenty of other great and potentially overlooked renditions, let us know which ones you like in the comments!

Curious about how we arrived at this list? Find out more about our new section!

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