With prime contender Serengeti Empress preparing to make her final career start in the $1 million Filly and Mare Sprint at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships on Nov. 7 at Keeneland Race Course, owner Joel Politi began the nearly impossible task of searching for a replacement.
He returned to the Keeneland September yearling sale, the site where trainer Tom Amoss discovered the daughter of Alternation for the bargain price of $70,000, while grasping the complexity of his mission.
“When they are yearlings, you can tell the physical, you can look at their walk, you can look at their demeanor,” said Politi, an orthopedic surgeon from Columbus, Ohio. “You can’t tell how much heart they have. No way.”
Serengeti Empress is all heart. She showed that when she won last year’s Longines Kentucky Oaks, answering Amoss’ prayer for a signature triumph while his aging parents, Berthe and Jim, could witness it.
“I’ve never asked God for anything when it comes to horse racing. He’s got bigger problems than who wins a race,” Amoss said. “But I have asked him more than once that, if there was a big race in my future, and I mean a really big one, could he please make it happen while my parents were still alive?”
Berthe and Jim were 95 when their son’s greatest horse to date thundered home in the nation’s premier race for 3-year-old fillies. Berthe died two months later. Jim passed away six months after that.
Amoss saluted them on national television during the post-race interview. Once the trophy presentation was over, Amoss made an unforgettable phone call to his parents’ Mississippi home. Jim’s voice cracked with emotion. Berthe reminded her son that she had always urged him to pursue his dream.
“That’s the beauty of having good, loving parents,” Amoss said. “They’ve got your back.”
So, too, does Serengeti Empress. It is almost unthinkable that there is a horse in any of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races spread over Nov. 6 and 7 at Keeneland that possesses a greater will to win than she does.
“She’s hard to root against, isn’t she?” said Amoss. “You’ve got to be a fan with her desire and her heart.”
The multiple graded-stakes winner has, indeed, built a devoted following.
“When she won the Kentucky Oaks, all of a sudden she became a horse getting a lot of attention. People came to the barn wanting to take a picture, wanting to meet her,” Amoss said. “She handled it with such poise. She enjoys people, so that’s great in itself.”
Other highlights of her 3-year-old campaign were second-place finishes in the seven-furlong Test and in the one-mile Acorn leading to a solid third behind Blue Prize and Midnight Bisou in the 1 1/8-mile Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Santa Anita.
In hindsight, Amoss wishes he had used the Test, a hard-trying half-length loss to eventual Filly and Mare Sprint winner Covfefe, to define how his filly would be managed at the start of this season.
“She showed her hand in the seven-eighths Test, taking Covfefe to the wire and I kept her running a distance of ground,” he said. “In defense of that, when you win the Kentucky Oaks at a mile and an eighth, you are not thinking about sprints or middle-distance races.”
Serengeti Empress ended any doubt about what suits her best when Amoss cut her back in distance in the seven-furlong, Grade 1 Ballerina Stakes on Aug. 8 at Saratoga Race Course. After Luis Saez gunned her to the front, her dazzling speed allowed her to take the field through an opening half-mile in 43.75 seconds.
Could she possibly withstand such a blistering pace? She not only handled that but repelled Bellafina’s determined bid by one length.
She reiterated her affinity for the distance in the Grade 1 Derby City Distaff Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs. She showed her mettle despite being overtaken by Bell’s the One by a whisker. She threw down an opening half-mile of 43.77 seconds. Bellafina paid a steep price for pressing her early, fading to sixth.
“It was a heart-breaking loss, but she definitely lost nothing in defeat,” Politi said. “Her weapon is her speed, and I think going seven furlongs is definitely her strength.”
The dynamic combination of blazing speed and tremendous courage convinced the owner to retain Serengeti Empress as a broodmare, even though he is not in the breeding business on a large scale.
“She feels a little bit like family and I’m fortunate enough that I don’t really need to sell her,” he said. “This could turn into a great story in about 15 years if she turns into a foundation broodmare. If she doesn’t turn into that, we’ll still love her and feed her peppermints and pet her and think she is the greatest thing ever. Either way, we will have a happy ending.”
Undoubtedly, a victory in the Filly and Mare Sprint would greatly contribute to that happy ending. According to Amoss, he has kept to a promise he made to the life-changing filly after her emotionally-charged victory in the Oaks by keeping her as sound as she was the day she was purchased. He has ample time to prepare her for the Breeders’ Cup.
While noting how sorely her peppermint-demanding presence will be missed once she is retired, Amoss cannot wait for the Breeders’ Cup.
“I just feel you’re going to see something spectacular from her,” he said.