The 57th renewal of the Mother Goose Stakes will take place at Belmont Park on Saturday and it promises to be an outstanding race.
Dreaming of Julia will attempt to regain some of the luster that came off her resume when she finished a troubled fourth in the Kentucky Oaks.
Yet even if Dreaming of Julia reprises her 21 ¾-length triumph in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, there’s no way Saturday will match an edition of the Grade 1 stakes that dates back 22 years.
Then again, how could it?
Races like the 1991 Mother Goose happen once, maybe twice in a lifetime.
In more than 25 years of covering racing, I can’t say I’ve ever reported on a race with as much fanfare and personality tied into it as that race – even Triple Crown races.
Before the horses were loaded into the starting gate, Meadow Star’s trainer Leroy Jolley memorably called the impending matchup between his filly and Lite Light as the “Mother of all Gooses” - and in a world filled with rampant and misplaced hype, he was amazingly accurate clairvoyant.
The 1991 Mother Goose was much more than a horse race. It brought together an over-the-top personality and a clash of American culture in a manner that a racetrack has not witnessed since.
Contested the day after the Belmont Stakes, the Mother Goose in many ways transcended the much more famous “Test of the Champion” due to the personalities involved.
Meadow Star was the reigning champion 2-year-old filly and was owned by Carl Icahn, a celebrated corporate wheeler and dealer who at the time ran TWA airlines.
Lite Light was owned by America’s first rap mega-star MC Hammer, who, through the help of MTV, turned bouncing around in harem pants to some catchy tunes into an estimated yearly income of more than $30 million at the height of popularity (which didn’t last all that long).
Hammer, whose real name was Stanley Kirk Burrell, was introduced to racing by his father, Lewis Burrell, a lifelong horseplayer. He poured millions into building Oaktown Stable, and spent $1.2 million to buy Lite Light, who was turned over to trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and went on to win the Kentucky Oaks by 10 lengths.
The flash and charisma that made Hammer a smash success in the music industry, carried over to the racetrack as he loudly voiced his belief that Lite Light was better than Meadow Star, who skipped the Oaks but spent the early stages of 1991 winning three stakes against fillies and finishing fourth against males in the Wood Memorial Stakes.
The proving ground became the Mother Goose and the battle lines involved more than the two fillies. It was the corporate raider versus the rapper; business suits versus turquoise jump suits.
Hammer arrived in New York on Friday, the day before the Belmont, and took over the historic racetrack. A press conference was held to promote what was called “The Battle at Belmont Park” and gave some electricity to the day before the final leg of the Triple Crown. The Belmont, which pitted Derby winner Strike the Gold and Preakness victor Hansel, for perhaps the first time clearly had some competition in terms of attention.
After the press conference, Hammer spoke with a smaller group of writers and said he wanted the Mother Goose to be a match race. He said NYRA should use the purse to pay off the owners of the other two horses in the race so they would scratch and that he would make a winner-take-all bet with Icahn on the outcome. He tossed out $200,000 as a starting figure and when someone mentioned that was a hefty bet, Hammer shot back, “(Icahn) can afford it. Man, he owns an airline.”
Hammer and his posse then headed to the Turf and Field Club, where they had some “slight” problems with the dress code. In the world of “Hammer Time,” shirts were an optional garment and the restaurant staff scrambled to properly outfit the crew.
Taking over a few tables, Hammer and company then proceeded to play the races with gusto, stacking mutuel tickets on the table like a deck of playing cards. All the while, the other people in a room where the average age was about 50 just gawked at them.
The next day, the Belmont was an epic, with Hansel holding off Strike the Gold by a head.
The Mother Goose, though, was not about to play second fiddle.
The day of the race, buttons supporting Meadow Star and Lite Light were distributed.
In the owners’ boxes, amidst the conservative, white-shirted crowd, the flamboyant Hammer and his entourage marched into position at the finish line for the race and then urged their filly on, some of them jumping on their seats.
The race itself was even better than the Belmont. A half-mile into the race, Lite Light moved up to challenge the front-running Meadow Star. With three furlongs left, Lite Light was alongside Meadow Star and they remained locked together the rest of the way in a race that was as fiercely contested as Affirmed and Alydar’s unforgettable duel in the 1978 Belmont.
At the end, it came down to a bob of the head and after the stewards took six minutes to study the photo finish, Meadow Star was declared the winner by the length of a fingernail.
It came out afterwards that Hammer had made a $35,000 bet with Icahn, which was handed out to charity.
Hollendorfer reported that Lite Light bled in the Mother Goose, which dimmed the chances of a rematch in a pre-Lasix New York.
But the two met a month later in the Coaching Club American Oaks, which Lite Light won by seven lengths.
The two fillies were never quite the same after that as neither won another race and the 3-year-old filly championship ultimately went to Dance Smartly. The CCA Oaks, though, did enable Hammer to collect on a $150,000 bet with Icahn, which was also turned over to charity.
Yet as memorable as the Oaks was, without the positioning of the Belmont to help it, the race did not capture the imagination of the nation like the Mother Goose did.
Or should we say, the Mother of all Gooses, a race of which it can still be said, even more than 20 years later, “U Can’t Touch This.”