Trainers look for hope when they eyeball young horses. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas did not see much reason for optimism when he first laid his eyes on Lady’s Secret.
She lacked size and never would weigh much. She appeared to be anything but robust.
“I was really concerned that she was never going to amount to anything,” Lukas recalled of the daughter of Secretariat who was foaled in 1982 at a farm he then owned in Oklahoma.
Then again, looks can be deceiving. In the case of Lady’s Secret, they were incredibly deceiving.
After being purchased by Eugene Klein, then owner of the San Diego Chargers, and entering Lukas’ barn, she stitched together monstrous seasons in 1985 and 1986. She was a determined front-runner, able to set crisp fractions one furlong after another without showing any signs of weakening or yielding to late-charging competitors.
“She was good from the get-go,” Lukas said.
Despite appearances, she proved to be so gritty and sturdy that she came to be celebrated as the “Iron Lady.” In 45 starts, she produced 25 victories, nine runner-up finishes, and three third-place showings. She was the leading female by purse earnings with $3,021,325 at the time of her retirement.
“She just overachieved day after day, and you never got to the bottom of her,” Lukas said.
“She was maintenance free,” Lukas said. “All we had to do was run her and look for the next race.”
Her 1986 campaign was one to savor, culminating in the Eclipse Award as champion older female and, helped by Lukas’ clever handling, Horse of the Year. He put her to a huge test by having her oppose males in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course. She responded by becoming the first female to win that prestigious race since Gallorette in 1948. She never failed to finish at least third in three other Grade 1 contests against males in the Met Mile, Philip H. Iselin Handicap and Woodward Stakes.
Lukas felt a bold stroke might be required if Lady’s Secret was to be deemed worthy of Horse of the Year.
“We always calculated what our chances would be and tried to be realistic about it,” he said of having her step outside her division. “You don’t do that frivolously.”
1986 BREEDERS' CUP DISTAFF
Interestingly, with Horse of the Year honors possibly at stake, Lukas decided against running Lady’s Secret in the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Classic. His gambit paid off. She wired the field in the Distaff at Santa Anita Park, then Lukas watched as front-running Skywalker pulled a needed upset against Turkoman, a Horse of the Year contender, in the Classic.
All that remained was for Lukas to state his case, which has never been a problem for him.
“If it is Horse of the Year, not of the moment, then you have to look from January to January,” he said at the time.
Lady’s Secret was retired the following season. She achieved racing immortality when she was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. in 1992.
She never enjoyed success as a broodmare. Some things are not meant to be. It seems fitting that there should be only one “Iron Lady.”
Note: This story was originally published in July 2016 and has been updated.
- Ranked 76th in Blood-Horse magazine’s listing of top 100 Thoroughbred racehorses in the 20th century.
- Put up for auction three times at end of racing career after failing to meet high reserve on first two occasions.
- Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., entertains customers at Lady’s Secret Café.
- Street where owner Eugene Klein lived was renamed Lady’s Secret Drive.
- Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., established race in her honor in 1993.