On December 20, 2012, an updated version of this article was published on BloodHorse.com as part of Esther Marr's blog Beyond the Blinkers. You can read it on Blood-Horse here.
It was simply supposed to be a new experience, something fun that would expose me to another part of the sport of horse racing, the part of the industry that I did not realize at the time would become the section of the industry for which I would find my greatest passion. My trip to the under-tack show for the 2010 Fasig-Tipton Texas-Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale wasn’t supposed to change my life. But it did, and I am so grateful that it did, all thanks to a Thoroughbred filly.
Love at First Sight
Bred by Zenyatta’s owners Jerry and Ann Moss, the filly was born in Kentucky on April 18, 2008. As a yearling, she was sold for just $10,000 at the 2009 Keeneland September Yearling Sale and as a two-year-old, was consigned to the Fasig-Tipton Texas Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale as hip fifty.
Photo by Terri Cage
After breezing in the under-tack show, the filly was returned to her stall on Lone Star Park’s backside. Later that day, my parents and I visited the barn area to look at the horses consigned in the sale.
Leading up to the sale, I had studied the catalogue, writing down horses I was impressed with based on pedigree. Hip fifty was one of them. I was even more impressed by the filly after watching her work on the track, in which she moved with a beautiful, flowing stride. The daughter of Johannesburg was one of many horses I visited on the backside with my parents.
But no other two-year-old caught my attention more than hip fifty. The chestnut filly captivated me with her sweet personality, acting like a puppy. When I ambled up to her stall, the daughter of Johannesburg eagerly walked up to me, nuzzling at me. I gently rubbed her face and she allowed me to hold her dainty head in my arms. I stayed there for several moments, just cradling her head. As I walked away from the filly, I caught the two-year-old staring at me as if she didn’t want me to leave. Honestly, I didn’t want to leave either. I wished I could somehow garner thousands of dollars so I could purchase the affectionate filly for myself.
Needless to say, I couldn’t get my mind off the filly, whom I had nicknamed Fifty for her hip number. I anxiously awaited the results of the sale, finding out that the daughter of Johannesburg had sold for $40,000 as the fifteenth highest-priced horse in the sale to Dolphus Morrison, breeder and former owner of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra.
I decided to find Dolphus Morrison’s address and once I did, I wrote a letter to him, explaining how much I loved the filly by Johannesburg he had just purchased. For days, I awaited a reply and frequently checked online to see if the filly had been officially named.
Not long before I received a reply from Mr. Morrison, I found that the filly had been named Miss Fifty. I was blown away and left wondering if Mr. Morrison had named the filly Miss Fifty because of my letter. My thoughts were confirmed when I soon received a letter from Mr. Morrison, in which he told me he had in fact named her Miss Fifty for the nickname I had given her.
Fifty was sent to Mr. Morrison’s go-to trainer, Lon Wiggins, son of Hal Wiggins, who trained Rachel Alexandra up until her impressive Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) victory. Fifty made her first start in October 2010 at Keeneland Racecourse. I kept my eyes glued to my television screen, watching as the filly loaded into the gate. Just when it seemed as if she and Calvin Borel would open up on the field, an eventual graded stakes winner swept by her, followed by four more horses. Fifty finished a decent fifth out of twelve two-year-old fillies. In her next start, a maiden special weight at Churchill Downs, Fifty was never really a factor and finished last in a field of eleven. Nonetheless, I was excited for her future.
The Defining Moments
The third time I contacted Mr. Morrison, I was full of optimism, as I informed him that my family and I were visiting Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup. The prestigious event was of course being contested at Churchill Downs, the track at which Miss Fifty was stabled. Much to my delight, Mr. Morrison and Lon Wiggins arranged for me to visit Fifty at Churchill Downs on Breeders’ Cup weekend.
Photo by Terri Cage
On Friday morning of the Breeders’ Cup, my sister, my mom, and I visited Mr. Wiggins’ barn. Mr. Wiggins led me to Fifty’s stall, allowing me to duck under the stall guard to visit the filly. I did so, cautiously walking up to her. Fifty turned her head when she heard me approaching, pricking her ears and tossing her nose in my direction. I smiled, stepping forward and allowing her to sniff my hand. I then stroked her face, telling her how much I’d missed her. I’d never dreamed I’d get to visit the filly. Yet, there I was, over seven months after I had met her, pampering the chestnut on the backside of Churchill Downs during Breeders’ Cup week. It was absolutely surreal.
After watching a stablemate of Fifty’s gallop over the track, it was time for the filly I adored to head out to the track. I thought I would simply just go watch, as I had with her stablemate, but Mr. Wiggins handed me the lead and showed me the way to the gap. I was actually leading Fifty toward the track. And it wasn’t just any track; it was Churchill Downs, the track on which a plethora of the greatest moments in the sport have taken place, the track on which so many dreams had been attained in a single moment. For me, that was one of those moments.
|Leading Fifty onto the track|
Photo by Terri Cage
I thought I was dreaming as I led Fifty onto the dirt surface. Across the expansive track, the Twin Spires smiled back at me as classy horses galloped and jogged past on the renowned oval. I unclipped the lead from the filly’s bridle and Mr. Wiggins allowed me to stand alongside the filly on the track. I did so, stroking her silky neck and shoulder as she stared inquisitively at the other horses galloping by.
Fifty then headed off for her gallop and I stood at the gap, watching Breeders’ Cup horses as I waited for her to come into view. Once I spotted the exquisite chestnut galloping beneath her exercise rider, my eyes locked on her, watching her gallop past me. It was a beautiful sight and one that will forever be engraved in my mind. Her breath came in snorts that were in sync with her stride, her hoofs beat over the dirt, and her ears were pricked eagerly as she galloped past, leaving me mesmerized by the sight of her in motion, the iconic Twin Spires acting as the perfect backdrop.
|With Miss Fifty|
Photo by Terri Cage
After Fifty was cooled out, we did a short photo-shoot with the filly and me. While the grade one-winning Paddy O’ Prado received a bath just a few feet away, I stood alongside Fifty outside of Mr. Wiggins’ barn, smiling into my mom’s camera. Considering my mom is a photographer, grinning for the camera can get quite old and fake. But this smile was far from fake – it was completely genuine.
That wasn’t the end of the morning. Mr. Wiggins led us to the other side of the backstretch to catch a glimpse of the great Zenyatta, my favorite racehorse of all-time. It was my first time to ever see the incredible mare and I stood breathless as I watched her walk onto the track before galloping in preparation for her final race. That wonderful morning provided me with the greatest day yet of my life and I will forever be grateful to Mr. Morrison and Mr. Wiggins for such an opportunity.
A Merry Christmas
Three weeks after my magical morning with Miss Fifty, the filly finished eleventh against the males in a maiden special weight at Churchill, finishing behind the eventual classic winners Fort Larned and Shackleford.
Mr. Wiggins then shipped his horses to Tampa Bay Downs. Fifty made her final start as a juvenile on the day after Christmas, dropping into the claiming ranks for the first time. I was incredibly worried that the beloved filly would get claimed from the connections that had so graciously kept me involved with her. Before leaving for a family Christmas celebration, I watched the race anxiously, my eyes glued to the television. I knew she would likely do well, but my main worry was that she would be claimed.
In the first race on Cotillion Cup Day at Tampa Bay Downs, Fifty broke quickly and went to the lead in a maiden claiming (claiming price $25,000). She never looked back from there and went on to win by a remarkable 7 ¾ lengths. Throughout the entire homestretch, I was bouncing up and down with great joy.
However, the excitement began to wear off. Had she been claimed? The question rang in my head for what seemed like eternity until I received a result notification in my email. I anxiously opened the message, reading the results chart to find out the answer to the question. With a huge sigh of relief, I found that she had not been claimed. It truly was a merry Christmas.
A New Chapter
In January, her connections tried her in a stakes race, but Miss Fifty faded to finish last in a field of eight, losing to a future graded stakes winner. After two months off, Fifty returned in a five-furlong allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs, finishing third.
Following two sound losses in Kentucky, Fifty revisited the claiming ranks. Again, I became extremely anxious that she would be claimed. In a claiming race (claiming price $15,000) at Churchill, Fifty finished a good second, one of her best performances in some time. She seemed to have found the right level of competition and much to my delight, she had not been claimed.
Three days later, I competed in one of my biggest horse shows of the year. After returning home that evening, I spent some peaceful moments outside my barn with my newly-crowned grand champion mare, Pebbles. As the sun sank closer to the horizon, I leaned my head against my beloved mare’s shoulder, enjoying the peaceful moment.
A few minutes later, that peace was shattered. I came inside to learn that the backside of Churchill Downs had been hit by a tornado. My thoughts immediately jumped to Fifty and the Wiggins family. Frantically, I searched for news, praying that I would not find their names on a list of casualties or injuries. When I found out that no one had been hurt, it felt as if someone had dumped a bucket of relief on me.
Photo by Terri Cage
Just over a week after the tornado, Fifty was entered in a claiming race (claiming price $10,000) at Churchill Downs. She was sent off as the second choice and matched strides at the top of the lane with the favorite, a multiple black-type-placed filly. However, Fifty found another gear and went on to win the race by an easy 4 ¼ lengths under Calvin Borel.
As usual, I had watched the race live and, of course, was ecstatic that Fifty had won. I’d had a gut feeling that she would find the winner’s circle, but a certain gut feeling also existed: the sense that she would be claimed. Both gut feelings were confirmed.
After I discovered who Fifty had been claimed by, I wrote Mr. Morrison, thanking him for the entire experience. I knew my experience with sharing the filly’s career with him was over, but I was not going to allow my involvement with Fifty to end. She meant too much to me for that to happen.
For several weeks, my worry for Fifty escalated. I hadn’t received any email notifications regarding the filly and finally decided to send her new trainer a letter, explaining what Fifty meant to me. Just days later, the trainer sent me an email, telling me to call him.
I did. He informed me that the filly had hurt her eye but should be fine. The bigger news? He told me that he had enough horses and once they were done with Miss Fifty, I could have her. Needless to say, I was jubilant.
Then Fifty was entered in a race – a claiming race. She finished second in a claiming race (claiming price $7,500) at Presque Isle Downs and after the race had been run, I was devastated to find out that she had been claimed. I wasn’t going to give up on following her, however. I would not allow this journey to come to an end because of another bump in the road.
Fifty was not claimed in her next start, a third-place finish in a claiming race at Presque Isle, but was claimed out of her subsequent race.
I then contacted her new owners, Long Shot Racing Stable, to get an update on her. With relief and joy, I found out that she was doing well and had in fact put on almost one hundred pounds since being claimed. It was comforting to be informed of this, as I had noticed while watching her most recent races that she had become quite thin. I knew she was in good hands and had again found connections I did not want her to be claimed from.
On November 20, 2011, Fifty ran in a claiming race at Charles Town (claiming price $10,000). Anxiously, I watched the race online, my eyes fixed on the beautiful chestnut. Much to my satisfaction, Fifty conquered the field by 5 ½ lengths. I was ecstatic that the filly had returned to the winner’s circle and became even more joyous when I learned that she had not been claimed and would remain with the Vrables of Long Shot Racing Stable.
About a month later, Fifty returned to the allowance level. I felt confident in her chances, as did the betting public. She loaded into the gate as the heavy favorite for the allowance race at Charles Town. With dread, I watched as she left the gate roughly and galloped in front of the grandstand unevenly after the start. She never got involved. I was extremely worried about the filly, but after contacting her owner, I was relieved to find out that the trouble had been caused by the jockey losing his irons. Fifty was fine. Near-disaster had been averted and I hoped it was her only encounter with such a situation for the rest of her career. But it wasn’t.
Miss Fifty’s Miracle
Four weeks after I shared Miss Fifty’s story with my blog readers, Fifty made her first start after her unlucky December outing. Like usual, I was perched before both my television and computer, watching television coverage and the live feed on Charles Town’s website. I had formed a prayer chain between my family, my friends, and myself, praying for Fifty to stay safe in the running of the race. It wasn’t much different than any other time she’d raced.
I fixed my eyes on Fifty as the horses raced down the backstretch, watching as she found a position behind the leaders along the rail, gaining ground on the inside as the field rounded the far turn. I was certain she was about to run a huge race.
Photo by Terri Cage
Then everything changed. The horse on the lead suddenly broke down in Fifty’s path. I lost my breath and watched in horror as Fifty miraculously scrambled over the fallen horse as the other horses in the field fell like dominos. I was shaking uncontrollably as Fifty continued on under Oswald Pereira, crossing the finish line all alone. The remainder of the horses had either fallen or lost the jockey; she was the only horse to complete the race with a rider.
I was relieved that Fifty had not gone down, but I was still tremendously troubled. Had she received an injury from clambering over the fallen horses? Would a loose horse collide with her?
The latter fear nearly became reality in the gallop out. After pulling her up after crossing the finish line, Pereira guided Fifty to the outside rail with hopes of avoiding the riderless horses. However, one of the loose horses neared Fifty at full speed and with seconds to spare, managed to avoid colliding with her. My mother and I, watching the screen in dread, let out a giant sigh of relief.
I soon received word from Miss Fifty’s owner that the filly had suffered some cuts on her legs that required stitches, but would be okay. Miraculously, Fifty had avoided disaster. And that’s exactly what the incident had been for her: a miracle. She had every chance to go down or to be slammed into, but somehow, those things did not happen. God was watching over her.
What Fate Had in Store
Miss Fifty did not return to the races for nearly five months, contesting in a claiming race at Charles Town (claiming price $5,000). I was incredibly worried that the filly would be claimed, but with joy, I watched the chestnut dash to a 3 ½-length victory, exiting the race without having been claimed.
About two months later, Fifty recorded a bullet work at Charles Town. However, days after that work, my iPhone indicated that I had a Facebook message from her owner. I immediately thought of the worst possibility when I read the opening words of the message that my phone previewed: “Sorry to have to tell you this, but…”
But I was relieved not to find the words I dreaded. Rather, I learned that Fifty had broken a sesamoid while training. What mattered most was that she would be okay. She would, but her racing career was over and she would require lengthy stall rest. However, along with this bad news came terrific news: it was now time for Fifty to become a part of my family, something I had dreamed of since I met the filly.
Thanks to Nate Vrable of Long Shot Racing Stable and the help of Woodson Show Horses, arrangements were made for Fifty to make the more than 1,200-mile journey to be with me. As her arrival approached, I found myself daydreaming of being reunited with her as my enthusiasm grew more intense by the hour.
The day Fifty arrived in Texas was the same day I arrived in Southern California for the 2012 Breeders’ Cup. Though I would have loved to be there when Fifty reached my home, the filly would be an incredible thing to come home to. As soon as the thrilling Breeders’ Cup culminated, I focused on returning to Fifty, to my horse.
The moment I arrived at home, I dashed to the barn to greet her. And there she was. Miss Fifty was in my barn. She was mine. I opened her stall door, my hands tenderly stroking her face as my eyes locked on hers. Her kind eyes gazed at me as she gently rubbed her lip against my hands. All I could think was, “Who’d have known…?”
I never could have known when I wrote down hip fifty in my journal of horses to watch at a nearby Fasig-Tipton sale in 2010 that it would lead to such an incredible journey. Each time I see my beloved Fifty, I know that if I had never had the courage to write Dolphus Morrison, I never would have essentially experienced what it felt like to own a racehorse while I was so young. I never would have led a horse onto the track at Churchill Downs as a young fan or come within inches of the great Zenyatta. And most of all, I know God has blessed me with a tremendous filly that will always be an important part of my life.
|Miss Fifty and me|
Photo by Terri Cage