The Dazzling and Dominant Maskette

A conformation photo of Hall of Famer Maskette. (BloodHorse Library/McClure Collection)

She never lost a race against fillies and mares. She was a two-time champion, winning some of the most prestigious races in her division, as well as a couple of big ones against males. She never raced outside of New York, but demonstrated her versatility by winning races at six different tracks within the state.

Her name was Maskette and, as her accomplishments suggest, she was fast, talented, durable, and downright unstoppable when at her best.

In every respect, Maskette was cut out to be a star racehorse. Born in 1906, her pedigree was nothing if not racing royalty — her grandsires were Domino (renowned for his unprecedented speed) and Hamburg (who won the 1898 Brighton Cup by the estimated margin of 100 lengths.)

Likewise, her owner-breeder James R. Keene was among the most successful men in the sport, with the unbeaten Colin among the most famous runners to carry his silks. Furthermore, Maskette was trained by James Rowe Sr., already applauded for his skill in conditioning the likes of Colin, Commando, Hindoo, Miss Woodford, and Sysonby, among others.

Maskette could also boast the physical build to match. “Maskette is what is called a masculine filly,” explained the Nov. 30, 1908, edition of The Anaconda Standard. “Better understood, her conformation is that of a huge, well-developed colt rather than that of a filly.”

So naturally, there must have been some degree of excitement when Maskette emerged for her debut at Saratoga on Aug. 3, 1908. Not surprisingly, she was the overwhelming favorite at 1-4 odds. The young Joe Notter, riding regularly for Keene and Rowe at the time, was in the saddle and reserved Maskette behind the leaders early on before unleashing her in the homestretch to win by a half-length.

Nowadays, a sharp debut winner like Maskette would be expected to jump into stakes company four or five weeks later. Maskette did indeed make the jump, but racing fans didn’t have to wait so much as a single week for her return. Remarkably, Maskette’s stakes debut came in Saratoga’s Spinaway Stakes a mere two days after her debut, and neither the quick turnaround nor a prerace storm could stop her from securing victory. Sent straight to the lead by Notter, Maskette led throughout and won by 1 ½ lengths, and her time for 5 ½ furlongs — 1:05 4/5 — was a new track record and the fastest time ever posted by a 2-year-old.

Already, Maskette was being billed as a star. An Associated Press recap published in the Aug. 6, 1908, edition of the Pittsburgh Daily Post opined that Maskette’s Spinaway victory “stamps her as the best 2-year-old filly in training … horsemen said it was a marvelous performance because the track was not at its best … ”

Later that month, Maskette reiterated her quality by defeating the best 2-year-old males in the country in the prestigious Futurity Stakes at Sheepshead Bay. As in the Spinaway, Maskette never gave her rivals a chance at victory, sprinting straight to the lead and pulling away to win with ease by three lengths. Her time for three-quarters of a mile, 1:11 1/5, marked the fastest-ever edition of the Futurity at the time.

But Maskette’s season wasn’t done yet. Four days later, she carried 127 pounds to an easy triumph in the Great Filly Stakes at Sheepshead Bay, and three days after that, she endeavored to beat males again in the Flatbush Stakes, but was beaten to the wire by the Futurity runner-up Sir Martin. Yet, Maskette lost nothing but the winner’s share of the purse while suffering her first defeat, for the Sept. 6, 1908, edition of The New York Times reported: “Maskette made a gallant showing under the handicap of the five pounds penalty she carried … ”

However, Maskette did not end her season with a defeat, returning one month later for the Matron Stakes at Belmont Park. Her presence seemed to scare off any serious opposition, so Maskette and her stablemate Affliction wound up being the lone starters, turning the race into a walkover of sorts with no wagering involved. With essentially nothing on the line but bragging rights, the Oct. 9, 1908 edition of The Washington Post noted that the Matron “caused little or no interest. Maskette simply jogged along in front of Affliction all the way, and won pulled up by a length and a half in the slow time of 1:20 4/5.”

Of course, Maskette’s exploits for the season earned plenty of accolades.

“Her graceful and symmetrical movements and consistent performances won her a warm place in the hearts of the race-goers of New York,” wrote The Anaconda Standard, “and even those that noted her performances from afar learned to admire her if nothing else than for her dazzling speed.”

Maskette was recognized as the champion 2-year-old filly of 1908, and when she returned to competition the following season, she picked up right where she left off.

Storied prizes such as the Ladies Stakes and Gazelle Stakes were no challenge for Maskette; despite stretching out in distance to a mile and beyond, she won them both with complete authority to kick off her 1909 campaign. The Mermaid Stakes going 1 1/8 miles was likewise no obstacle; as usual, Maskette seized command at the start and never let up, winning by three lengths while conceding 15 pounds to her two overmatched rivals.

But lest anyone get the impression that Maskette was all about brilliance and had no need for heart and determination, she demonstrated otherwise in the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga. Heavy rain leading up to the race left the track a sloppy, tiring mess quite unlike anything seen nowadays; the track was so slow that Maskette’s front-running speed yielded extremely slow times of :50 flat for the half-mile, 1:17 flat for three-quarters, and 1:59 2/5 for 1 1/8 miles. Her Daily Racing Form past performances indicate that she “disliked [the] going,” but it made little difference to the authority of her victory. The Aug. 6, 1909, edition of The New York Times remarked that Maskette took the lead “within a few strides after the barrier rose, led from end to end, and quite as easily as she has won all the filly stakes of the year, added the historic Alabama to her credit …”

That performance could perhaps be considered the culmination of her career. Given more than two months off, Maskette did return to win the Pierrepont Handicap against males while conceding a remarkable 26 pounds to the runner-up, but she was subsequently beaten by a nose in the Aqueduct Handicap to end the season.

Maskette was a clear choice as the champion 3-year-old filly of 1909, but her attempt to remain atop the division for a third straight year did not go as planned. Over the course of five starts in 1910, she won just two minor handicap races and was soundly beaten in both the Metropolitan and Delaware Handicaps, though she did show one flash of her old championship form in the Sheepshead Bay Handicap against males, falling just a half-length short of catching King James (the champion handicap male of 1909) despite a somewhat troubled trip.

But ultimately, the quiet end to Maskette’s career did little to hurt her long-term reputation. Quite to the contrary, in 1954 Belmont Park named the important Maskette Stakes (now the Go For Wand Handicap) in her honor, and in 2001 was she was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.

Considering her pedigree, connections, and pure talent, would you have expected anything less?

Note: This story was originally published in August 2018.

Fun Facts

  • Maskette retired with a record of 12 wins and three seconds from 17 starts, plus earnings of $77,090.
  • Although an anti-gambling movement had significantly reduced wagering on New York horse races during the years of Maskette’s career, her Daily Racing Form past performances nevertheless indicate that she was the odds-on betting favorite in 14 of her starts, not including a race with no wagering permitted.
  • During her career, Maskette was ridden by four different jockeys, and won at least one race under each of them.
  • On Nov. 14, 1908, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Maskette was scheduled to be shipped to England to continue her racing career abroad. Although she was nominated to the prestigious Epsom Oaks, her travel plans apparently fell through, for she remained in the U.S. for the rest of her career.
  • According to The Anaconda Standard, Maskette’s exercise rider — who also handled the training of Colin and Synsonby — considered Maskette to be the fastest horse he had ever ridden.

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