Jul 13th 2010 09:19 pm |
This Saturday, Delaware Park will host the marquee race on its racing calendar: the $750,000 Delaware Handicap for fillies and mares. The “Del Cap”, known as the New Castle Handicap up until 1954, was run for the first time in 1937.
In 1953, in an effort to boost Delaware Park’s profile as the premiere meet for fillies and mares, the track increased the New Castle’s purse to $100,000, making it the richest race for female racers in the world. The winner’s stake of the New Castle in 1953 was $84,600 — more than that year’s Preakness and Suburban and only slightly less than the Kentucky Derby and Santa Anita Handicap. It was nearly twice the winner’s share of the Beldame and Ladies Handicap — the other high profile races for fillies and mares at the time.
A three-year-old filly named Grecian Queen won the first-ever $100,000 race for fillies and mares. Owned and bred by Ben Whitaker and his wife, she was trained by future Hall of Famer James P. Conway. Conway’s daughter told me in an email that Grecian Queen was “nasty” — just what her father liked in a filly (Conway was known for his success with fillies and mares during a career that spanned nearly forty years).
Grecian Queen had shown great promise as a two-year-old. The New Yorker’s legendary race writer Audax Minor counted himself a fan early in her career, writing this in the spring of her sophomore season:
“If anybody were to ask me who was the best three-year-old filly, I’d have to say Grecian Queen. As a matter of fact, I thought she was the best of her age and sex last year, and even made a minority report to that effect in the autumn.”
Minor wrote the above after Grecian Queen won the Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont Park, the most important race for fillies at the time. Another respected writer, Evan Shipman, wrote this after her Coaching Club win in New York: “There is not much to little Grecian Queen, but she is a trim trick, can run and is Thoroughbred game.”
Coming into the New Castle Handicap – her first try against elders – she was on a two-race win streak after the Coaching Club and Gazelle in June. Audax Minor wrote about the big race in Delaware – run on July 4, 1953 – for the New Yorker:
“Few important races have been introduced with less hurrah than the New Castle Handicap, for fillies and mares three year olds and upward, which slid into the Eastern schedule with the opening of Delaware Park in 1937, and ever since has been an entertaining event. Two years ago, the Delaware Steeplechase and Race Association increased the prize money to $50,000, and this summer made it $100,000.
“Such a substantial bouquet to the sex, which not so awfully long ago was looked upon as just a necessary evil, delighted owners and breeders. Well, the New Castle was run off last weekend, closing a successful meeting with a bang, and, as had been rather expected, it was won by Mrs. B.F. Whitaker’s three-year-old Grecian Queen. Carrying a hundred and fourteen pounds — high weight for her age — she took the lead after going about four furlongs of the mile and a quarter, and went on to win, with something to spare, from Devilkin. My Celeste was third.
“A big disappointment to everybody, I’m sure, was the mishap to Kiss Me Kate, the winner last year; she went lame in a workout the morning of the race and probably won’t run again. As for Grecian Queen, she deserves top marks, and so does Jim Conway, who trains her, for she’s not a robust animal and sometimes takes days to recover from an apparently commonplace effort.
“The New Castle was her sixth victory in eight starts this season, and her share of the purse, $84,600, brought her earnings for the year to $178,175. It’s a long time since a filly her age has done so well.
“Delaware Park is one of the more attractive racecourses in the East, and is as easy to get to from New York as the Jersey tracks are; I’d like to spend more time there than I do, and I wish they had an autumn meeting.”
Grecian Queen followed her big money win in Delaware with a victory in the Monmouth Oaks, and finished a close second in the Alabama at Saratoga where she gave 10 pounds to the winner Sabette. She finished three-lengths behind Tom Fool in the Sysonby Mile in her final start of 1953, ending up third in a three-horse field. She was awarded three-year-old filly champion, giving trainer Jim Conway the second of five champions he campaigned during his nearly four decades in racing.
After stellar seasons at two and three, Grecian Queen went winless in 26 starts at four and five. It is possible that her small size finally caught up with her as she never again regained her form.
While she was beaten soundly in her return to Delaware for the Del Cap in 1954 and 1955, she will forever be part of racing history as the winner of the first “hundred-grander” for fillies and mares.
SOURCES, NOTES, OBSERVATIONS
A big thanks to Helene Conway, daughter of trainer James P. Conway, who kindly sent me the images and news clips I used for this post. She also shared a number of memories she had of her father and Grecian Queen for which I am very grateful.
Audax Minor, “The Race Track: Delaware Plum,” The New Yorker, July 1953
Audax Minor, “The Race Track: Place aux Dames”, The New Yorker, June 1953
Evan Shipman, “Oaks Winner, Trim, Fast, Game,” Morning Telegraph, 9 June 1953
THANKS FOR READING AND GOOD LUCK!