Racing’s Greatest Fillies and Mares before 1955

Nov 3rd 2010 07:00 pm |

On Sunday, 60 Minutes asked: “Is Zenyatta the greatest ever?”  For the purpose of clarification, I think (and maybe I am giving them too much credit) what they meant to ask was, “Is she the greatest filly or mare ever?”   Now, that is certainly a more reasonable question.  Considering all she has done in her three seasons on the track, I think its worthwhile to ask where she belongs in the pantheon of American female racers.

The problem with the question is that “ever” is, well, a long time. To give an honest answer, we need to look beyond her perfect record and historic win in last year’s Breeders Cup Classic (and possible win this year). Answering the question (if it is answerable) requires a close look at the great fillies and mares of the past.  Steve Haskin did just that in a review of the last fifty years for the Bloodhorse over the summer. In this post, i’ll take a look at a list of the top ten fillies and mares as it looked in the 1950s.

One thing I mentioned in last week’s post about Exterminator, was the idea that some opinions about ranking the all-time greats, carry more weight then others. Especially opinions of those who actually saw some of the all-timer’s race. So, I thought then, it would make sense, in looking at fillies and mares to compare with the great Zenyatta, to use a ranking compiled by Delaware Park in the 1950s. The “jury” was made up of members of the American Trainers Association, no doubt an organization of veteran horsemen or, at least, those whose opinions were shaped by veteran horsemen at the time. Their top ten created in 1955 is posted below with my annotations about each.

My question in revisiting this old list: Can we say that Zenyatta belongs above all of these fillies and mares? Take a look, and let me know what you think:

Program page for the 1948 Met Mile -- Gallorette finished fourth as the post time favorite. It was her third appearance in the race -- she finished first in 1946 and third in 1947.

Gallorette (1944 to 1948) — She ran seventy-two times in her career, only seventeen of those starts were against females. She finished in the top three fifty-four times with twenty-one wins. As a three-year-old, she won the Acorn, Pimlico Oaks, and Delaware Oaks, as well as, a second place finish in the Wood Memorial. Among her wins include the Met Mile, Carter, Whitney, and the Brooklyn Handicap where she beat Hall of Famer Stymie (a horse she ran competitivelty against a number of times in her career).

Twilight Tear (1943 to 1955) — Ran twenty-four times in her career winning eighteen starts and finishing second or third four times. She was voted Horse of the Year as a three-year-old in 1944. At three, she ran seventeen times, won fourteen and had an eleven race winning streak. She ran against males ten times, with seven wins including the Arlington Classic and the Pimlico Special against Devil Diver, a future Hall of Famer, in 1944.  She easily beat older females in the Queen Isabella at Laurel Park during her championship season.

Regret (1914 – 1917) — The first female to win the Kentucky Derby in 1915. Regret won the Derby in her three-year-old debut and the fourth start of her career. She won nine of eleven career starts. She only raced twice against females (she won both). In addition to the Derby, she beat males in the Saratoga Special (her first ever start), Sanford, Hopeful, and the Saranac. Regret finished second by a nose in the 1917 Brooklyn Handicap.

Top Flight (1931 to 1932) — In two seasons, Top Flight won twelve times from sixteen starts. She was a perfect nine for nine against females, including wins in the Acorn, Coaching Club American Oaks, the Alabama, and the Ladies Handicap. She won three of seven starts against males with wins as a two-year-old in the Saratoga Special, Belmont Futurity, and Pimlico Futurity.

Miss Woodford (1882 to 1886) — A mare who raced near the start of the modern racing era, she raced forty-eight times and won thirty-seven. She finished out of the top three two times in her entire career. She ran prior to the invention of past performances so detailed statistics about her are hard to come by. We do know she won the Ocean Stakes and Monmouth Cup multiple times each against males. She retired as the richest race horse in American history with $118,270 in earnings.

Busher (1944 to 1945, 1947) — Busher raced twenty-one times and had fifteen wins. She finished out of the top three only twice. Her three-year-old season earned her the Horse of the Year Award. She raced against females fifteen times and won eleven. Her record in open company was four wins from six starts including the San Vincente, Arlington Handicap (against older), Washington Park Handicap, and the Hollywood Derby. She did not race at four and finished a disappointing fifth in her lone start as a five-year-old.

Beldame (1903 to 1904) — Beldame raced during the heyday of racing prior to the New York gambling ban and three year closure of the state’s racetracks. She raced thirty-one times in three years of racing. She won seventeen starts, winning eight of ten against females and nine of twenty-one against males. Among her wins include the Carter, Gazelle, Alabama, Saratoga Cup, and the Suburban.

Princess Doreen (1923 to 1927) — Raced ninety-four times in five years of racing — winning thirty-four times and finishing second or third thirty-two times. At three, she won the Coaching Club American Oaks, the Kentucky Oaks (via disqualification), and won handicap stakes against older males at Latonia, Hawthorne, and Churchill Downs. She also finished third, just two lengths behind the Kentucky Derby winner Zev in 1924. After her three-year-old season, all but one of her races was against males — among her wins are the Bowie Handicap and Saratoga Cup.

Bewitch (1947 to 1950) — Bewitch counts a win against the great Citation among her twenty career victories from fifty-five starts. She won fifteen of her thirty-one starts against females and five of twenty-four starts against males. She won the first nine races of her career, her first loss came in the Belmont Futurity (finishing third behind Citation and Whilrling Fox). It was her only loss as a two-year old. In one of the last races of her career, she finished second to Citation in the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup.

Imp (1897 to 1901) — In five seasons of racing, Imp ran an incredible one-hundred and seventy-one times. She won sixty-two and finished second or third sixty-four times. Only fifteen of those races were against restricted company, the large majority of her races were against males. Her first three seasons were spent in the midwest before moving to the east, where she spent the remainder of her career running competitively in many significant stakes races against males.

Where would we place Zenyatta in this list? Mike Smith had a point when he said “you can’t argue with perfection” but a perfect record can’t be the sole criteria for placing Zenyatta above all others, right?

Personally, I think you could make a compelling argument to put Zenyatta somewhere on this list but I would have a hard time ranking her above Gallorette, Beldame, Miss Woodford, or Imp. As I stated in the last few posts, I give extra points for longevity and durability. Those four had long and competitive careers — taking on all comers and racing frequently against the best males of their generation. When taking the long view, that is the one hole in Zenyatta’s resume, she will retire with only two starts in open company. Yes, those two starts will come in one of the toughest races in the world, the Breeders Cup Classic, but it is still only two starts.

I don’t mean this as a slight, it’s simply a statement of fact. Zenyatta will go down as one of my favorite horses ever but I think it’s OK to be a fan and have a realistic perspective on where she belongs among the list of all-time-greats.  For what it’s worth, she is the best filly or mare (and maybe the best horse) I have ever seen and I will be rooting hard for her this weekend!


Delaware Park Press Guide, 1955.

Thanks to Ron Micetic for supplying the program pages from the 1948 Met Mile (the program had a beautiful cover that i’m sure I will use in a future post).

I highly recommend Steve Haskin’s, “Best Fillies of the last 50 years”.  Steve is one of the best historians in the business and this is a great piece of writing and research

If you missed the 60 Minutes piece on Zenyatta, it’s available via the CBS website.

I will be flying out to Louisville on Thursday afternoon and will be in-the-house for this year’s Breeders Cup.  Really looking forward to it — hope to see you there!


Filed in Gallorette,Greatest fillies and mares of all-time,thoroughbred racing history,Zenyatta

6 Responses to “Racing’s Greatest Fillies and Mares before 1955”

  1. Miss Woodford says:

    Minor correction about my namesake. She raced 48 times, winning 37, placing second 7 times, and third twice. She retired not just as the richest filly in American history, but as the richest racehorse, period. She was the first Thoroughbred to reach the $100,000 mark. And she had a 16-race win streak from age 3 to 5.

  2. Kevin says:

    Hello Miss Woodford: Noted and corrected. Thank so much for the contribution, Kevin

  3. RG says:

    How do Rachell and Zenyatta rank with Gallorette? Can only guess. When they move on to the next phase of their career how will they rank with another entrant in the 1948 Metropolitan? The filly Miss Disco, champion broodmare, dam of Bold Ruler. If that ever becomes debatable then things will indeed be looking up for horse racing.

    When I see these lists I always think of Alex Konyot’s quote,” They are all good horses, all of them.”

  4. elly says:

    um excuse me!
    you SOOO forgot to mention the most successfull thoroughbred in HISTORY of either gender!
    and her name was KINCSEM! and she is #1 leading thoroughbred, racgin all across europe racing both males and females, she started 54 times and WON all of her 54 races!
    she is the greatest female racehorse in history!

  5. Kevin says:

    Hi Elly: Thanks for the comment. I was focusing on American-based fillies and mares. No doubt if I was doing an international list, Kincsem would have been mentioned. Thanks! Kevin

  6. Joseph says:

    Now that we have seen history and this excellent article is aging at a rapid pace, I would like to put in my two-cents and my horse sense.

    The first thing that should be done when annointing anyone or anything with the title of “Greatest” is to decide the definition and parameters of “great”. It’s sort of like the word “love” in that it means different things and has differing values placed on it. So defining “Great” also requires a specific focus as to the context that greatness is placed in.

    With Zenyatta, you have seen the arguably greatest filly/mare of all-time as it relates to track performance in a modern competitive era. I include the entire world (Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia) in this assessment.

    I won’t labor you with her record because it stands on its own. I remind you her times were very fast but you cannot measure a horse’s ability by timing alone. She has an excellent record but many horses have had an excellent record (Silverbulletday stands out to me as an excellent over-achiever). The fact that she ran in the world’s most competitive race (Breeders Cup Classic) and won the first time out against the top males of her time and finished second the following year by a nose (and by a jockey error, in my opinion) elevates her into that lofty strata as achieving that which had been rarely been in acheived at the highest levels of professional competition in any sport.

    I read mention of the historic Kincsem, who won 54 races and was undefeated. However, there were no accurate timings of her races for comparison, the competition was vague at best and the era she ran in was notorious for the “Big fish in a Little Pond” syndrome as racing in eastern Europe could be considered a little pond. A great horse… no doubt in my mind but the greatest?

    In considering great horses, we need data, stiff competition and repitition. Repeat performances showing greatness, showing a champions spirit and imperical data to coincide with what our hearts tell us. Most of all, as an athlete (and these horses are athletes), you can be defined by how good you are by how proficient the competition is. In the Breeders Cup, Zenyatta beat the top males of her era in the biggest race of the season. That is something Rachel Alexandra failed to do.

    Horses like Ruffian, who remains in my heart long after her death, were amazing. If I were just to place my opinion on allegance, I would choose her to wear the crown. Europe has produced some superior fillies such as Zarkava, Ouija Board, Bosra Sham, and All Along just to mention a few in the last 30 years. Canada gave us Dance Smartly.

    As this article will attest, if you go back far enough in time, you will find many stellar careers among the female equines on many continents. But I argue that we have seen the best that has yet to grace our tracks in Zenyatta.

    This seems bitter-sweet to me. The “Sweet” being I was old enough and aware enough to appreciate that it came in my time.

    The bitter part? As with Secretariat… we may never see the likes of this again in our lifetime… it is that rare.