May 14th 2009 02:14 am |
Much has been (and will be) written about fillies competing in the Preakness as Rachel Alexandra looks poised to capture the middle leg of the Triple Crown in Baltimore this weekend. The name Nellie Morse – the last filly to win the Preakness in 1924 – will be bandied about during Saturday’s broadcast on NBC but it won’t go beyond a name and a date.
Here at Colin’s Ghost, we like to go beyond names, dates, facts, and figures. In fact, you’re likely to get more than you need to know (or care to know). If you like historical minutiae – you are in the right place.
Nellie Morse was purchased by Bud Fisher for $2000 from legendary breeder Jack Keene. Fisher was the creator of Mutt and Jeff – one of the first successful comic strips to appear in a daily newspaper. Starting in 1907, before Mutt and Jeff, Fisher published a comic called A. Mutt for the San Francisco Chronicle, which focused on the adventures of a racetrack regular (pictured). By the time he purchased Nellie Morse in 1923, much of his attention was directed toward buying and selling racehorses using royalties he collected from his famous comic strip.
Nellie Morse raced 22 times as a 2-year old, winning four times including the Fashion Stakes at Belmont Park. At three she ran second in the Kentucky Oaks (moved up from 3rd on a DQ). After the Oaks, she shipped to Pimlico and won an allowance race and the Pimlico Oaks (now the Black Eyed Susan). Four days after her winning the Oaks, she took on the boys in the Preakness.
[Correction, 5/31/09 - The Oaks took place after the Preakness on May 31, 1924 - the closing day of the Churchill meet]
An unnamed writer for the Washington Post, in a column called “In the Press Box,” provided this recap of Nellie Morse’s unlikely win in the 1924 Preakness:
“Ladies first is a rule that seldom is observed at this stage of the thoroughbred year – certainly not among 3-year-olds – but Nellie Morse, running back to the day 84 years ago, when Mollie Jackson first won the Woodlawn vase, brought that historic piece of turf plate into the keeping of ‘Bud’ Fisher yesterday afternoon.”
“It was the second time that a filly had won the Preakness. Since the stake has only been contested for sixteen times this is a rather remarkable record.”
NOTE: The author here considers 1909 the first Preakness. The Preakness was run in Baltimore from 1873 to 1889, moved to Morris Park in New York in 1890, disappeared for three years, and then returned in 1894 to Gravesend where it was run until 1908.
The Post writer continued:
“Forty-nine runnings of the Kentucky Derby have passed into history and only once – the year that Regret triumphed – has anything but a colt or a gelding been the winner. Almost exactly six months and a half ago Nellie Morse ran over the same track, with many of the same horses that faced the barrier with her yesterday and finished behind all but one of those that took mud from her heels today. That was in the running of the Pimlico Futurity and Nellie Morse was twelfth in a field of sixteen. The same jockey was up. The only difference then was that Nellie Morse was a 2-year-old and the track was fast, instead of a sea of mud, as was the case yesterday.
“As a result of her showing yesterday Nellie Morse should make the trip to Kentucky for the running of the derby golden jubilee on Saturday. In a field that has been narrowed down considerably, she might have been fortunate enough to achieve turf immortality by winning both events despite the handicap that sex is supposed to impose.
“Unfortunately Bud Fisher failed to enter his filly in the Kentucky classic. Certainly the commonly accepted theory that a filly can not round into shape for the spring fixture failed to give evidence of its presence in the case of Nellie Morse.
“She picked up 121 pounds, more weight than any winner save Sir Barton and Man o’ War ever carried in the Pimlico fixture and there was never a time when she did not have the race at her command….The stretch drive was the real test of the Fisher filly as a stake horse. Transmute and Mad Play were pounding at her heels. Had Nellie Morse been short of being a thorough thoroughbred by the veriest fraction of an inch that was when she would have dropped her tail and died.
“In the eyes of the turf world the tow colts behind her were better horses. Horses recognize even better than humans the superiority of blood lines. There is an axiom of the turf that is seldom far wrong that a ‘dog’ will quit when a real race horse looks him in the eye. Nellie Morse accepted the challenge today and refused to yield an inch of her advantage…
“…A year must pass before the colts can seek to regain the Woodlawn vase. The name of Nellie Morse had been added to that of Mollie Jackson, Idlewild, and Miss Woodford, the only mares who won it previously. If for no other reason than the race she ran yesterday, her name is a worthy addition.”
The Kentucky Derby was run a week after the Preakness in 1924. Bud Fisher, however, did not nominate his filly. During that era, if a colt or filly was not nominated in March, it could not run in the Derby. Here is how the Post writer opined this missed opportunity:
“‘Bud’ Fisher probably will be unable to get material for a humorous cartoon out of the fact that he neglected to name Nellie Morse. When the cartoonist and his trainer sought to forecast the future last March they did not think the filly would have a chance in the Churchill Downs masterpiece so contented themselves with naming the filly for the Oaks, where she would be opposed only by her own sex.”
“Today Fisher could make several thousands dollars on his filly merely because of the chance he figures to have to win the derby, provided that her name was among the list of eligibles….A few dollars less than the value of Nellie Morse’s feed bill for a week, invested in March would have doubled the value and given her a chance to win two $50,000 stakes within a single week, something no thoroughbred in the world has yet accomplished.”
“Undoubtedly Fisher would be willing now to give the entire derby stake or a great part of it, just for the honor that it would be to have his filly home first in both the Preakness and the Kentucky derby. He cannot buy the privilege now with all the money that he could beg, borrow and steal. Two months ago it was ridiculously cheap, considering the golden opportunity that rests in the filly’s hoofs today.”
Nellie Morse was unplaced in three other races as a three-year-old and she did not win a race at four. The Preakness was her last victory. Bud Fisher sold her to Warren Wright in 1931. She foaled the first thoroughbred for Wright at the famed Calumet Farm. That foal – Nellie Flag – became the first stakes winner and champion for the most successful thoroughbred operation of the twentieth century.
The stories of Rachel Alexandra and Nellie Morse have this interesting parallel. Neither filly was nominated for the Kentucky Derby. They both missed the race for different reasons. In Rachel Alexandra’s case, the owners (foolishly) decided not to run her. Nellie Morse couldn’t run because no provision existed for supplementing an entry in the Derby as there is today. No amount of money would have permitted Nellie Morse to run in the Derby one week after her Preakness win.
On Saturday, Rachel Alexandra will attempt to join Mollie Jackson, Idlewild, Miss Woodford, and Nellie Morse as the only other fillies or mares to win the Woodlawn Vase.
Read more about the Woodlawn Vase at The Rail
SOURCES, NOTES, AND OBSERVATIONS
“Nellie Morse Splashes Home to Preakness Victory,” Washington Post, May 13, 1924
Article from the Augusta Chonicle about the foaling and sale of Nellie Morse to Bud Fisher
Kent Hollingsworth, The Kentucky Thoroughbred (University Press of Kentucky, 1985) at Google Books
Image of Nellie Morse from Bob Moore’s Those Wonderful Days (1976)
More history of the Woodlawn Vase at the Preakness website
Looking forward to the Preakness. I will not be venturing down I-95 to the zoo at Pimlico – a venue that does not hold a crowd well. I will be making the trip to New York for the Belmont Stakes in a few weeks but will be content watching the Preakness at Delaware Park.
Hope everyone has a successful Preakness weekend.
THANKS FOR READING AND GOOD LUCK!