September 21, 2009

Remembering ... Princess Rooney

I will never forget the day the Princess became a Queen. It was on November 18, 1984. Rider Eddie Delahoussaye got her out of the gate running and the Princess was quickly abreast of the speedy Lucky Lucky Lucky, where she stayed until ready to explode. At the top of the stretch, she did just that with an explosion of desire, class, and speed, Princess Rooney had finally made the world take notice. Left in her wake was a top class field that included two-time champion, Life’s Magic, who could only manage an outclassed 2nd as the Princess romped home that day by seven emphatic lengths. This was the inaugural Breeders’ Cup and Princess Rooney had taken the spotlight that she so long deserved on a most grand stage. Her performance became even more impressive when the Classic was run. Wild Again the victor in a stretch long battle with Slew O’ Gold and Gate Dancer stopped the teletimer a full second slower than had Princess Rooney who had been little more than hand urged earlier that afternoon in the Distaff.

In my eyes, Princess Rooney had always been an amazing champion. As a two-year-old, trained by Frank Gomez, she was untouchable. At that time it was a little unusual to hear of rumblings of greatness coming from Calder Race Course, but the word was out. There was a two-year-old filly owned by Paula Tucker who was devastating the racing landscape of South Florida. After four races where she annihilated her Calder competition, her connections brought her to the Northeast where she could finally be tested. She was not tested. The prestigious Frizette at Belmont and the rich Gardenia at the Meadowlands became two more walks in the park for the gray daughter of Vebatim. Six races at two and not another horse within camera-shot. Princess Rooney was simply awesome and along with Ruffian was one of the best two juvenile fillies that I have ever seen.

Yet a championship was not in the cards, as that same year out West raced an electric filly named Landaluce. The greatest juvenile filly ever to run in California, Landaluce tragically died of a virus before the year was out. Her winning margins were so big and her times were so fast that at the time of her death talk of her abilities had reached almost mythical proportions. It was clear that two of the best horses of 1982 were 2-year-old fillies, but only one could be named champion, and that would be Landaluce.

Princess Rooney began her 3-year-old season in similar fashion as her juvenile campaign. She dominated colts in a prep race in Florida in which she beat the future Tampa Bay Derby winner and then proceded to take Kentucky by storm. After her win in the Ashland by nine and ½ lengths, most people, including yours truly, considered her the best 3-year-old of either gender. She had won her first nine starts with an average winning margin of nearly nine lengths. Her trainer Frank Gomez nominated her to both the Derby and the Oaks, but always planned on the Kentucky Oaks. Although he did have a little fun with everyone by walking into the racing secretary’s office just minutes before the Derby entry deadline. But the Derby was not to be, and the Princess went to the Oaks as an overwhelming favorite and gutted out a 1 ¼ length victory. She was 10 for 10, but the narrowness of the victory was a foreshadowing of things to come as in her next race she was finally defeated, a well beaten second to Ski Goggle in the Acorn. Something was wrong and the racing world quickly found out it was a hairline fracture. Because of her short year and with her last race being a defeat, Princess Rooney was once again denied championship honors.

Several months went by before her next race and when she did come back the Princess was not quite the same. She changed hands of trainers twice, first to Joe Pierce, and then on to Neil Drysdale as she felt the sting of three more defeats. The Princess was far from through though, as the Summer of her 4-year-old campaign rolled around, Princess Rooney began to round back into top form. Her winning time of 1:46 and 1 in the Grade 1 Vanity and her smashing score in the Spinster were part of a four race winning streak she brought into the new championship day of racing, the Breeders’ Cup. As the beautiful gray filly effortlessly sprinted away from the field that day she clinched her first and so richly deserved eclipse award as the champion older female of 1984.

Princess Rooney retired after the Breeders’ Cup Distaff with 17 wins out of 21 races. She proved to be a great filly three consecutive years despite her setback midway through her racing career. In 1991 Princess Rooney was inducted to racing’s Hall of Fame, becoming the first Breeder’s Cup winner to enter the Hall. The Princess might have been all tiger on the racetrack, but back home she was a sweet and gentle mom to hundreds of foals that were born on her farm.

Although she was unable to produce many foals herself, Princess Rooney became a true matriarch as she oversaw all the fillies on the Gentry Farm with her love, kindness and teaching of the young horses. Princess Rooney had moved to the Gentry Farm in 1995 after George Aubin, who had paid $5.5 million for her in foal to Danzig at the 1985 Keeneland November sale, realized that she was not going to reproduce her greatness and sold her at auction to Robert Gentry. Gentry bought her in foal to Deputy Minister for $130,000. The Princess spent her final 13 years at the Gentry Farm and left an enormous void when she finally succumbed to complications from equine protozoal myelitis. The younger horses at the Gentry Farm had lost their adopted mom. She was 28 years old. I remember you Princess Rooney.


LDP said...

I am so glad you have these storys, so i can at least let the horses i never got to see live within my imagination. She sounds like one special mare.

jpinkertoncook said...

I love this story. Nice ending.

Anonymous said...

Truly a beautiful story! Brought me to tears.

Celeste said...

Wonderful story, Brian! Thank you for sharing your memories of Princess Rooney.