Princess Rooney: The First Breeders’ Cup Distaff Winner

Legends
Princess Rooney capped her career with a win in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Princess Rooney capped her career with a win in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Distaff. (Tony Leonard/BloodHorse photo)

The career of Princess Rooney was not unlike a sandwich. Hold the laughter – it’s true. During her three seasons on the track, she packaged a thin layer of disappointment between two sensational winning streaks that stamped her as one of the greatest fillies to every grace the sport of kings.

Bred in Kentucky by Ben and Tom Roach, Princess Rooney wasn’t exactly a hot commodity as a yearling. Her pedigree wasn’t the most fashionable; her sire, Verbatim, was a respectable though not outstanding racehorse and stallion, while her dam and damsire were both unraced.

Perhaps as a result, Princess Rooney was sold for just $38,000 as a yearling to Paula J. Tucker, who sent the gray filly to train in Florida under the care of Frank Gomez. It was there, in the Sunshine State, where Princess Rooney laid the foundation for an unforgettable career.

Princess Rooney made her debut on May 22, 1982, at Calder Race Course, far from the spring spotlights of New York, Kentucky, or California. Favored to defeat eight rivals in a maiden sprint, Princess Rooney rewarded her supporters with an easy three-length victory. Barely more than two weeks later, she won an allowance race at Calder by four lengths before taking a three-month break from racing to aim for a fall campaign. She had begun her career in promising fashion, but few could have anticipated what her future held.

When Princess Rooney returned in the fall, she had transformed into a beast. First, she destroyed an allowance race by 18 lengths, winning with complete authority. Then she dominated the Melaleuca Stakes at Calder by a dozen lengths before shipping to Belmont Park for the Grade 1 Frizette Stakes.

The sharp rise in class while traveling to a tougher racing circuit would have been a stumbling block for most horses. But Princess Rooney negotiated the obstacle like an Olympic hurdler, employing her front-running speed to dominate the Frizette by eight widening lengths. Thirteen days later she wheeled back in the Grade 2 Gardenia Stakes at the Meadowlands, and despite “grabbing a quarter” (striking and injuring herself with her own hoof) at the start, she pulled away as usual to trounce her challengers by 11 lengths.

Princess Rooney’s Gardenia triumph brought the curtain down on a sensational 6-for-6 juvenile campaign in which her average margin of victory was better than nine lengths. Normally, such a season would have earned Princess Rooney an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly, but when the votes were counted she lost out to the similarly unbeaten and unchallenged Landaluce.

This wouldn’t be the last time Princess Rooney missed an Eclipse Award despite compiling a high-class campaign. As a 3-year-old in 1983, she returned as dominant as ever, rattling off two allowance wins sprinting at Gulfstream Park and Keeneland before cruising to a 9 ½-length victory in the Grade 2 Ashland Stakes, her final prep for the prestigious Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs.

But under the twin spires, Princess Rooney lacked her usual sparkle. After setting a modest pace, she was put to an all-out drive down the homestretch to stem off a late rally from Bright Crocus and prevail by just 1 ¼ lengths. Her record was still perfect – 10-for-10 – but racing analysts were disappointed she didn’t win by more.

“She looks around a lot every time,” jockey Jacinto Vasquez explained in the May 7, 1983, edition of the Fort Myers, Florida, News-Press. “Whenever she sees a shadow, she tries to jump. Then when she got to the quarter-pole, a guy raised a camera inside the rail and she shied from it.”

“I think she got to loafing a little bit,” agreed Frank Gomez.

Princess Rooney capped her career with a win in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Distaff. (BloodHorse photo)

But three weeks later, the seemingly impossible happened. In the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes, held over the same track and distance as the Frizette, Princess Rooney faltered badly. After tracking a fast pace, she offered no response in the homestretch and weakened to finish a distant second, 7 ½ lengths behind the winner. It was the first defeat of her career, and she hadn’t even come close to challenging.

A few days after the Acorn, Princess Rooney was reported to be suffering from a knee injury, and nearly seven months passed before she returned to action in a six-furlong allowance sprint at the Meadowlands. With the majority of the season lost, there was no time remaining for Princess Rooney to enhance her Eclipse Award credentials, and losing her comeback race by a length surely didn’t help her chances, even if she was later awarded first prize. Again, when the ballots came in, Princess Rooney was left in the cold as the late-maturing summer sensation Heartlight No. One claimed honors as champion 3-year-old filly.

For a time, it appeared Princess Rooney’s career was in a freefall. She kicked off 1984 with a fourth-place finish in the Bal Harbour Stakes on turf, the worst performance of her career, and it was fair to wonder if she would ever regain her best form. With the inaugural running of the rich Breeders’ Cup Distaff looming less than a year away, a change was needed to reignite Princess Rooney’s competitive spirit.

Perhaps a shift in scenery would do the trick. The decision was made to send Princess Rooney to train under the care of Neil Drysdale in California, where the Breeders’ Cup would be held at Hollywood Park.

But what should have been a straightforward journey took a rough turn halfway across the country. “[Princess Rooney] first was vanned from Florida to Kentucky, where upon her arrival a tree fell on the van,” recounted Don Clippinger in The Philadelphia Inquirer of Nov. 6, 1984. “Princess Rooney, normally a good-natured and placid filly, became extremely upset and banged up her hocks.”

Thereafter, Drysdale took his time with the once-unstoppable filly. Princess Rooney didn’t run for two months, and when she did return to the track, her form improved only modestly at first. She was all-out to win the minor Susan’s Girl Stakes by a nose, then finished third in the Grade 2 Hawthorne Handicap and second in the Grade 2 Milady Handicap, both won by the 4-year-old Adored.

Having crossed the wire first in just one of her last six starts, Princess Rooney could hardly have been expected to reemerge as a top contender for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. But she was nevertheless improving bit by bit, and Drysdale persevered, entering her against Adored one more time in the Grade 1 Vanity Invitational Handicap at Hollywood Park.

This time, the results were different. As though a switch had been flipped, Princess Rooney turned back the clock and rallied tenaciously through the homestretch to wear down Adored and prevail by a head in the stakes-record time of 1:46 1/5 for 1 1/8 miles.

“Boy, is she game,” marveled winning rider Eddie Delahoussaye in the July 16, 1984, edition of the Los Angeles Times. “…When we came to Adored in the stretch, she took off again, but my filly also came back. When she’s right, she’s a real runner.”

And clearly, Princess Rooney was right again. As though emboldened by her first major victory since the Kentucky Oaks, Princess Rooney ripped off consecutive wins in the Grade 3 Chula Vista Handicap, an allowance race, and the Grade 1 Spinster Stakes, a remarkable streak that made her the favorite to win the Nov. 10 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

The challenge at Hollywood Park was supposed to be fierce. Each and every one of Princess Rooney’s six rivals had previously won at the Grade 1 level, including the 1984 Kentucky Oaks winner Lucky Lucky Lucky and the future 1985 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Life’s Magic.

But in the final start of her career, Princess Rooney finally delivered the tour-de-force, championship-defining performance analysts had expected in the 1983 Kentucky Oaks. After vying for the early lead with Lucky Lucky Lucky, Princess Rooney took command on the far turn, opened up in early stretch, and widened down the lane to crush her rivals by seven lengths.

“I felt good about her, but I never thought she’d win like that,” marveled Drysdale in the Nov. 11, 1984, edition of the Fort Lauderdale News. “I knew [Delahoussaye] hadn’t asked her to run when she got to the top of the stretch, but you never know how much they have left. I’m glad she won that way because she now has clinched the Eclipse Award.”

Drysdale was correct. When the ballots were counted for the 1984 Eclipse Awards, at long last, Princess Rooney was recognized as champion of her division.

But the trophy was simply confirmation of what racing fans and analysts already knew. By resurrecting her racing career when all seemed lost, Princess Rooney had proved she was a genuinely great racehorse.


Fun Facts

  • Princess Rooney retired with a record of 17 wins, 2 seconds, and 1 third from 21 starts, with earnings of $1,343,339.
  • Since much of Princess Rooney’s early success came in Florida, it’s understandable why the Grade 2 Princess Rooney Stakes at Gulfstream Park is named in her honor.
  • Plenty of money was riding on Princess Rooney to finish third or better in the Kentucky Oaks. According to the May 7, 1983, edition of the New York Daily News, “Three separate wagers of $50,000, $100,000 and $170,000” were placed on Princess Rooney to show. Fortunately for those big bettors, Princess Rooney delivered as expected.
  • After selling for $5.5 million as a broodmare prospect – nearly 145 times greater than her original purchase price – Princess Rooney produced seven named foals, six of which won races.
  • Princess Rooney lived to the age of 28, passing away on Oct. 7, 2008.

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