November 22, 2009

The 2009 Eclipse award for Horse of the Year is yet undecided, but one thing is certain—it will be either Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta—and it won’t be the first time American horse racing’s top award has gone to a filly or mare.

Since the Eclipse awards were instituted in 1971, three 4-year-old fillies have won top honors—All Along (1983), Lady’s Secret (1986) and Azeri (2002). In 1965, Turf & Sport Digest named 2-year-old filly Moccasin its Horse of the Year, sharing the award with the Daily Racing Form’s victor, 4-year-old gelding Roman Brother.

Three-year-old fillies Twilight Tear (1944) and Busher (1945) captured successive Horse of the Year titles, while in the era prior to the Daily Racing Form selection (which began in 1936) we find 3-year-olds Beldame (1904) and Regret (1915) honored with the top award, as well as 5-year-old Imp (1899) and the only back-to-back filly Horse of the Year, Miss Woodford (1883, 1884).

Over the next month or so, this blog will explore the Horse of the Year campaigns as well as the subsequent careers and breeding impact of these honored few, beginning with Calumet Farm’s Twilight Tear (by Bull Lea, out of the Blue Larkspur mare Lady Lark).

Twilight Tear (1944 Horse of the Year):

In 1943, trainer Ben Jones didn’t have long to mourn the recent retirement of his Triple Crown champion Whirlaway, as a new superstar in the making, a 2-year-old bay filly named Twilight Tear, won at first asking, thus setting off on a stunning career. The first stakes winner for her sire Bull Lea when she took out the Arlington Lassie in only her second life-time start, Twilight Tear ended up co-champion 2-year-old filly in 1943, posting 4 wins in six races and never finishing out of the money.

During her championship 3-year-old campaign, Twilight Tear won 14 of 17 starts—11 straight—including facile victories over top-quality fillies and dynamic wins over males, often in stakes- or track-record time, and at some of the shortest odds ever recorded in betting.

She began the year running a good third against older male horses in Hialeah’s Leap Year Handicap on February 29; the 6-year-old winner Mettlesome had won the 1940 Remsen and was recognized as a crack sprinter. Back against her own age and sex, the bay filly coasted to an easy victory in a 6f event at Tropical Park on March 10, followed up a week later with a similar win, before shipping north to Pimlico where she won again on April 25.

Speculation regarding a Kentucky Derby run began in publications like the Washington Post, but Calumet already had the colt Pensive pointed for the Derby, thus Twilight Tear remained at Pimlico to win the 10-horse field Rennert Handicap over colts Galactic and Ideal Gift—both who came back next out to win and place in the Survivor Stakes. Another conquered foe in the Rennert: future (1947) Horse of the Year Armed.

After winning the May 10 Pimlico Oaks “never out of a tight hold”, Twilight Tear came back a week later to easily win the Acorn at Belmont in stakes-record-tying time over Whirlabout—a very talented filly in her own right (and later dam of Black-Eyed Susan victress Spinning Top and second dam of Hollywood Oaks and Santa Monica Handicap winner Market Basket). On June 21, Whirlabout would return to win the Gazelle in near track-record time by four lengths over Good Thing—a filly whose legacy lies in her Hall of Fame daughter Bed O’Roses, 1949 champion 2-year-old filly, runner-up in the 1950 Travers and 1951 champion handicap mare. In August, Whirlabout won the Test, once again verifying the quality of company Twilight Tear faced.

In his May 19 Daily Racing Form column “Reflections”, Nelson Dunstan voiced the question all veteran horsemen where thinking—could Twilight Tear defeat Pensive, her stablemate and winner of both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes? Yet, her connections refused to again run her against males—yet.

On May 27, Twilight Tear took out the Coaching Club American Oaks by five lengths—where she was “such a leadpipe cinch that a fortune was bet on her to show” (to the tune of 1-to-20 vs. 1-to-10 to win), forcing Belmont Park to cover a show bet pool deficit of nearly $25k for a race worth $10k.

Moving on to Arlington Park, she won the 6f Princess Doreen Stakes on June 28 in near track-record time, and—in her ninth straight victory—won the open company Skokie Handicap toting 121 lbs, not only setting a new track record, but coming within 3/5 of a second of the 7f world record set by Clang in 1935. Among the defeated: her stablemate Pensive. Jockey Conn McCreary rode both Pensive and Twilight Tear that year, but fortunately never had to choose between the two of them, as an automobile accident in late June fractured his right wrist. However, it was reported that when Pensive won the Derby, McCreary said Twilight Tear was the better horse (amazing how that smacks of Calvin Borel!).

It was only mid-year, but Twilight Tear’s reputation was already established. On July 8, 1944, the Washington Post’s Shirley Povich wrote in his “This Morning” column:

“Shall we discuss Twilight Tear, the filly that has won nine races in a row and, despite her sex, is the fastest 3-year-old now on the tracks? Girl horses, you know, aren’t supposed to excel the colts because they’re too apt to have their minds on romance instead of racing, but Twilight Tear is strictly race-minded….Like most good fillies, among which Top Flight was a notable exception, Twilight Tear has the bigger, masculine lines. And unlike others of her sex, she isn’t bothered by the proximity of male horses. She’s no man-chaser. And it isn’t because of her sex appeal that the colts have been pursuing her this season. If they’re racing with Twilight Tear there’s no choice but to pursue her because she has the most speed.”

A little ridiculous sexism there (horny girls, you know), but Povich continued:

“Twilight Tear’s performances to date, the latest of which was her triumph in the Skokie Handicap at Arlington in which she beat such colts as Pensive, the Derby-Preakness winner, and Occupy, recall in a sense the career of Man O’War. No horse that has raced since Man O’War has gone to the post odds-on as many times as Twilight Tear this season….The charts of her last seven races have this story to tell of the finish of each one. “Drew Out.” “Won Easily.” “In Hand.” “Going Away.” “Easily Best.” “In Hand.” “Easily.” Her triumphs have been at every distance from six furlongs to a mile and three-eighths.”

Man O'War?!? Now we're talking serious race horse comparison. Povich then states when undoubtedly many felt to be true this year as well about Rachel Alexandra:

“The pity is, of course, that Twilight Tear wasn’t entered in the Derby. The evidence is that she would have been the second filly in Derby history (Regret, 1915) to win the race…Twilight Tear might have started in the Derby except for a change in the racing policy of Calumet Farm. Trainer Ben Jones always raced the stable in Kentucky in the spring, but last year Dave Woods, Alfred Vanderbilt’s man at Pimlico, persuaded him to bring the Calumet stars to Maryland for spring racing. ‘If I hadn’t shipped to Pimlico, we’d have been on the ground in Kentucky and I would have started Twilight Tear in the Derby,’ says Jones.”

Any discussion that Twilight Tear was not the best 3-year-old, let along the best horse in the country period, was settled when she won the 10f Arlington Classic by two galloping lengths over Old Kentuck (who later in August ran second in the American Derby) and seven lengths over Pensive. Coupled with Pensive, she paid $2.20 to win, but, in fact, she went off at 1-to-50—the shortest price since Man O’War went off at 1-to-100. It was then that Shirley Povich and other writer began to voice the inevitable “she may be the best filly of all time.”

When she returned to New York in August, Twilight Tear was installed as a massively-short priced favorite in the Alabama—only to be upset by Vienna who subsequently finished second behind Whirlabout in the Test. Still, commentators ranked the champ’s defeat as “a greater upset in itself than the defeat of Man O’War by Upset.” A small field (4) inevitably did her in, as Vienna had a rabbit stablemate Thread o’ Gold whose job it was to wear Twilight Tear out, and the extra 12 lbs she carried didn’t help, nor did the quick run after the long train trip from Chicago. Regardless, the 11-race win streak ended.

After a rest to regain lost weight, Twilight Tear returned to the winner’s circle on October 2, winning the Meadowview Handicap at Belmont, carrying 126 lbs with Eddie Arcaro up, and defeating older fillies and mares. Ten days later, she won the 9f Queen Isabella Handicap at Laurel under the guidance of Doug Dodson, eased up five lengths ahead of 4-year-old Good Morning, runner-up to Whirlabout in the Diana and subsequent third-place finisher behind Armed in the 1945 Washington Handicap.

However, on October 21, Twilight Tear finished out of the money in the first of what would be only two times in her entire career, managing only a fourth-place and beaten by more than 13 lengths in the muddy Maryland Handicap. The winner, Dare Me had been readily defeated by Twilight Tear in the Coaching Club American Oaks, so it appeared clearly the surface, not competition, did in the bay miss that day—as well as the 130 lbs she carried, which was nearly 30 lbs more than most of her competitors.

The real test came on November 1 when, over a fast Pimlico track, she took on the 5-year-old handicap champion Devil Diver in the Pimlico Special.

In 1944, Devil Diver had won just about every major handicap race on the East Coast—seven stakes races in all, including the Toboggan (for the second consecutive year), Metropolitan (the second of three consecutive wins), Paumonok (the first of two consecutive wins), Whitney (over Princequillo), Manhattan, Wilson and American Legion handicaps. In each of those races, he toted more than 130 lbs. Here, he carried 126 lbs to her 117—would he provide the filly with the greatest challenge of her career, in what was, for all practical purposes, a match race as there was only one other entrant?

Matching the stakes-record time established by Seabiscuit in defeating War Admiral in 1938, Twilight Tear romped by six lengths over Devil Diver who finished 10 lengths ahead of Pimlico Cup Handicap winner Megogo. She was the first filly to ever run in the Pimlico Special, and remains the only to have won the race (although two years later, Bridal Flower finished third behind the great Assault and Stymie).

In the Daily Racing Form’s end-of-year poll, Twilight Tear garnered 26 of 28 votes for Horse of the Year (the other two votes were for 2-year-olds Pavot and Free For All). She was also the unanimous choice for best 3-year-old, best 3-year-old filly and best handicap filly or mare. By Jimminy beat out Pensive as top 3-year-old colt, while Devil Diver was named best handicap horse. Futurity and Hopeful stakes winner Pavot won best 2-year-old and best 2-year-old colt honors (he would win the 1945 Belmont Stakes), while the 2-year-old filly award went to Adirondack, Matron and Selima victress Busher—whose championship 3-year-old campaign we’ll explore in a future blog entry.

In the Turf & Sport Digest poll, Twilight Tear received 121 of 154 votes for Horse of the Year—Pavot had 20 votes, followed by By Jimminy (6), Pensive (3), Devil Diver (2), Seven Hearts (1) and Okana (1). Guess it goes to show you that some stubbornly-opinionated and outright contrarian turf writers have always cast their votes idiotically (like the imbecile who voted for Tale of Ekati last year).

She raced sprints and routes, from Florida to New York, Chicago to Maryland, against the best fillies and colts of her age group, and against quality older mares and handicap horses like Devil Diver. And while she didn't always win, her 11-race win streak and the manner in which she dominated her competition, often in stakes- or track-record times, left little doubt that Twilight Tear deserved her "Horse of the Year" title. Contemporary writers, as well as modern ones such as Avalyn Hunter, speculate that had she been campaigned for it, Twilight Tear could almost certainly have won the 1944 Triple Crown.

As a 4-year-old, Twilight Tear only made one start, finishing out of the money after bleeding badly, and was retired. As a broodmare, she produced (by the Epsom Derby winner Blenheim) the impressive A Gleam, multiple-stakes winner including twice victress of the Milady Handicap and third-place finisher vs. open company in the Hollywood Gold Cup. A Gleam’s daughter A Glitter repeated her second dam’s achievement in winning the Coaching Club American Oaks, while another A Gleam daughter Moonbeam produced Before Dawn, champion 2-year-old filly of 1981.

Sources Consulted:

“Twilight Tear Seen As Derby Possibility” The Washington Post (March 13, 1944) p. 12.

“This Morning with Shirley Povich” The Washington Post (July 8, 1944) p. 6.

“Twilight Tear Voted ‘Horse of the Year’” The Washington Post (December 4, 1944) p. 12.

“Writers Name Twilight Tear Horse of the Year” The Washington Post (December 18, 1944) p. 15.

“#59 Twilight Tear” Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century (Bloodhorse, 2000) pp. 166-167.

Avalyn Hunter, American Classic Pedigrees, 1914-2002 (Eclipse Press, 2003) p. 233.


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