by Terry Conway
In the wake of Rachel Alexandria, Zenyatta and Havre de Grace earning three consecutive “Horse of the Year” honors, it’s hard to believe that just a couple of generations ago there was little emphasis in America on filly and mare races. Only on the New York circuit and at Delaware Park was there a real chance for race mares to take the spotlight.
With exquisite architecture, an elm-shaded saddling and picnic grove areas, Delaware Park was known as the “Hialeah of the North.” Seven miles south of Wilmington, Del., its signature race, the Delaware Handicap, blossomed into the biggest single race for fillies and mares in this country.
The Delaware Handicap celebrates its 75th anniversary on Saturday. Last summer race fans witnessed perhaps the most epic battle in the “Del Cap’s” long and proud history. Four-year-old Blind Luck and Havre de Grace hooked up at the top of the stretch and raced a shoulder-to-shoulder sprint to the wire. Each time one horse would push a nose in front, the other somehow would counter with a lunge of her own. At the last possible second Blind Luck surged to nip her archrival Havre de Grace by a nose in the $765,000 Delaware Handicap.
The Del ‘Cap traces its origin to the track’s premier race, what was then called the New Castle Handicap. In 1953 under general manager Brian Field the track doubled the purse for the New Castle Handicap to $100,000 making it the richest race in the world for fillies and mares. Grecian Princess won the race on her way to earning the champion three-year old filly title.
In 1955 track officials launched a series called the Distaff Big Three-- the Delaware Oaks, the New Castle Stakes (a new race), and the (renamed) Delaware Handicap. The races were run on successive Saturdays with the Delaware Handicap-- its purse jumped to $110,000-- run on the final day of the racing season. The race was promoted heavily in 1955, including polling members of the American Trainers Association as to the greatest race mares of all time. The winner was Gallorette, who retired in 1948 as the greatest money-winning female of all time.
By 1963 the “Big Three” faded away, but each July on Del ‘Cap day fans would stand shoulder-to-shoulder to watch three-time national champions Cicada (1961-‘63) and Susan’s Girl (1972-’73 and 1975). They both raced twice in the 1 ¼-mile Delaware Handicap, Cicada fished second both times while Susan’s Girl won both of her appearances.
Other champions/Eclipse Award winners were Pucker (second in 1957), Old Hat (winner in 1964), Open Fire (winner in 1966), Relaxing (winner 1981) and Fleet Indian (winner in 2006) and Havre de Grace (second by a nose in both 2010 and 2011). Fourteen Hall of Fame trainers have scored victories, including “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, Henry Clark and Allen Jerkins. Todd Pletcher and Clark have both won four editions.
In 1962 the Del ‘Cap drew a stellar field of nine starters who totaled 42 stakes victories and $1.7 million in purse earnings. Champion Cicada had never been out of the money in 26 starts and bankrolled more money than any filly or mare in history. Emerging older filly champion Primonetta was the first foal sired by the great Swaps. Her stablemate, Bramalea, upset Cicada in the prestigious Coaching Club American Oaks, the filly version of the Belmont Stakes. Linita, a powerful filly from out west, also turned up.
Philadelphia-born patrician George D. Widener, Jr. entered Seven Thirty, a dark bay feisty race mare who often got herself in trouble. A determined come from behind runner, her father was Mr. Music, her mother was Time to Dine. Widener, along with Whitney, Belmont, Phipps and Vanderbilt, was one of those wealth-drenched names at the heart of thoroughbred racing. Horses George Jr. bred and raced won 1,243 races, more than $9 million, five Travers Stakes, the 1962 Belmont Stakes, and five Eclipse Awards.
Widener’s mare was not intimidated, and Cicada’s trainer Casey Hayes was especially leery: “Talk up Cicada, Primonetta and Bramalea if you want, but don't talk down Seven Thirty. In most of her races she's had real rotten luck. She'd get bumped or boxed and by the time she could free herself and start running again it was too late to do any good."
Trainloads of race-goers came vis the B & O and Pennsylvania to the trachside terminals at the Stanton, Del. Under sunny skies a crowd of 20,459 turned out at the Stanton, Del. track for the 25th edition of the Delaware Handicap on the closing day of 54 days of racing. Even money or less in 12 of her last 13 races, Meadow Stable’s Cicada went away at 4-1, bettors fretting she had been run too often.
Primonetta burst to the lead as expected with Seven Thirty tracking as Cicada and Primonetta dueling on the lead. At the six furlong marker jockey Willie Shoemaker shook the reins and cicada open up quickly to a three length lead. Meanwhile Seven Thirty’s rider Larry Adams had positioned her over on the rail, defying the consensus among Delaware Park's jockeys that inside path was deep, heavy and tiring.
“During the post parade he had an out-rider take Seven Thirty to the inside,” Adams said. “I jogged and walked her and it didn't seem too deep to me at all. In fact, it felt good. Seven Thirty liked it."
At the top of the stretch Willie Shoemaker aboard Cicada continued to stay a few feet off the rail. Racing in Widener’s dark and light blue silks, Adams piloted Seven Thirty through a narrow hole that Shoemaker left open and the filly stormed down the stretch to edge Cicada by a desperate head. She earned $97,375 of the $141,875 Delaware Handicap purse.
"My mare dug in and fought like she's supposed to. She didn't fool around, and she stayed out of trouble,” Adams said.
Henry and Jane du Pont Lunger’s Christiana Stables’ sensational fillies Obeah (1958-59) and Endine (1969-1970) were both two-time winners of the Del ‘Cap. Trainer Henry Clark’s four victories in the Delaware Handicap are more than any other trainer. Jockey Angel Cordero collected the most wins- four (1968, 1974, 1981, 1987). Three of the two-time winners of the Delaware Handicap — Endine, Obeah, and Susan’s Girl — have stakes races named in their honor at Delaware Park. Clark and Todd Pletcher hold the record with four Del Cap victories. Pletcher is going for his fifth with Awesome Maria and Love and Pride on Saturday.