The 2021 Grade 1 Keeneland Turf Mile
When AmWager asked me to write about either my favorite or the best filly or mare I have personally seen, I knew it would be difficult. The issue is, I have about 20 or more favorites or best fillies and mares I have been fortunate to see. I had to put my thinking cap on and as I love to do go back.
Let me start by saying I am firmly in the camp that comparing horses from different eras is entirely subjective. Identifying greatness is not.
When you talk about eras, you get into who did who beat and the quality of the competition. You also, as a horsemen or women, have to realize these animals are competitive and react to their competition. Much like an athlete who plays better when facing better athletes and plays down when the competition softens. This renders the different era discussion moot and 100% opinion.
When it comes to the best ever in the filly and mare department, Ruffian stands out. This is something I discussed when on a debate the greats panel at the first Equestricon convention. There have been many greats, but she has some distinctions that are shared by none. The book I wrote about her was called “All 1’s” for a reason. She led at every call of all 10 races she finished. She was never headed and won at distances from 5 furlongs to a mile and a half. Most remarkably, in my opinion, is that she equaled or broke the track or stakes record in all 10 of her wins. She never raced without breaking or at least equaling the track or stakes record. You just can’t find that in any other horses’ past performances, and it is not something one could label subjective. It is as objective and factual as it gets.
Ruffian had an advantage many horses don’t. Speed. She was fast and could carry that speed. You can’t beat what you can’t catch. She made her luck. Speed horses and even stalkers can do that. Closers, especially deep closers, do not have that advantage and are more pace dependent. When you have a horse, say like Zenyatta, who comes from way off the pace and strings together victories like she did, it is special considering she has to do it no matter what is happening up front.
Once I began thinking about my favorite race gals and the best ones I have seen, I started remembering my earliest days and memories at the track. Days when the grandstands and clubhouses were full, and the atmospheres were like a super bowl or world series every weekend. Quickly, I realized it would take a book to talk about the great ones I saw. One did come to mind however. She was one of my first favorites and she could run with the best of them. I learned all about a swishing tail in the stretch from her, as I had never seen that before and didn’t know what it could mean. You don’t hear much about her today, probably because she like many great race mares didn’t turn out to be a great producer. But on the racetrack, you better be ready to race if she was in the gate.
Shuvee was by the great Nashua out of the Nasrullah mare Levee. She was the second filly in history to win the Triple Tiara, the filly version of the Triple Crown in New York which consisted of The Acorn, The Mother Goose, and The Coaching Club American Oaks. I became a fan early on after seeing her win The Frizette. She had a habit of swishing her tail in the stretch, that caught my attention and I asked about it. Some horses, especially fillies or mares did it when they were tiring, some did it playfully, and some just had a nuance. After sweeping the filly Triple Crown I watched her win The Alabama and even then, as a young boy knew she was something special. I didn’t know the best was yet to come.
A few short years later I was surprised to see her entered against the boys, in what was then one of the most prestigious and grueling races in the country, The Jockey Club Gold Cup, then run at two miles. An ambitious spot for any filly, but Shuvee came through swishing tail and all. That iced her champion older mare and she came back the next year to try The Jockey Club Gold Cup again. She made it back to back wins in the tough race and scored her second champion older mare title. She was inducted into the Racing hall of Fame in 1975 I believe, just 4 years after her second Gold Cup win.
I will never forget rooting for that filly I bet to beat the colts with the swishing tale. I can still hear Fred Caposella calling her name. Ah Shuvee, one of the greats.