January 18, 2010

Remembering ... Christmas Past

I have racked my brain trying to remember another year when I witnessed each leg of the Triple Tiara in person. My conclusion is I only did it one time, and I am glad I got to do it that one special Summer. My favorite horse of 1982 was a gray sophomore filly named Christmas Past. At the time, I was just completing the seventh grade and extremely passionate in rooting for my favorites. I know…not much has changed. I found the Triple Tiara of 1982 to be much more interesting than the Triple Crown of that year, in which there were three different winners, Gato Del Sol, Aloma’s Ruler, and Conquistador Cielo. The three race series of the Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club Oaks was of greater prestige back in those days, and in that Summer it featured a match up of two outstanding fillies with as little in common as two horses could have.

Christmas Past was a confirmed stretch runner who had blossomed since her trainer Angel Penna Jr. had turned the daughter of Grey Dawn II loose around two turns. Her rival was a plucky New York bred daughter of Northerly, named Cupecoy’s Joy. The New York bred had speed to burn and went as fast as she could for as far as she could, in fact she had just recently led the boys on a merry chase for the first mile of the Kentucky Derby before fading down the Churchill Downs stretch. Not the normal way to lead-in to the Acorn, but her owner Robert Perez, along with non-household names of trainer Alfredo Callejas, and jockey Angel Santiago, was never afraid to take on a challenge. Meanwhile Christmas Past was owned by Cynthia Phipps, a blueblood of American racing and was managed on a much more traditional path. The Kentucky homebred, out of a Phipps family Bold Ruler mare named Yule Log, showed signs of ability while being beaten in sprints, before romping home by 11 lengths in her first try at a distance. From that maiden win, she went directly into graded stakes where she crushed good fields at Hialeah and Gulfstream Park. The stage was set for the fillies from opposite worlds to clash in the Big Apple.

The Acorn turned out to be no contest and a big disappointment for this young race fan. Cupecoy’s Joy was not pushed hard early and trounced the field while breaking Ruffian‘s stakes record. Christmas Past who had dropped back in distance to the Acorn’s flat mile and back to one turn, raced wide and simply had no punch that day as she jogged home in the middle of the pack. Cupecoy’s Joy had thrown down the gauntlet and Christmas Past was reeling. Round two would come just 13 days later and the real Christmas Past would be ready to fight back.

The Mother Goose offered another eighth of a mile, but at expansive Belmont Park, was still run around one turn. Cupecoy’s Joy was again out and winging, but this time Christmas Past would fire. Although no longer the second choice after her Acorn loss, she easily put away the West Coast challenger, Blush With Pride, who was coming off a series of stakes wins including the Kentucky Oaks. She gained on Cupecoy’s Joy the entire length of the stretch, but at one turn, Cupecoy’s Joy was just too tough, holding off my choice by ¾ of a length while far ahead of Blush With Pride. Again beaten, but this time she had run her race and just ran out of ground. That would not be the case in the Coaching Club. At 1 ½ I knew my favorite filly would not be denied, and so it was. On June 28th, Christmas Past finally got her revenge, as she made a big move to collar the speedy favorite before the far turn and methodically wore her down. To the credit of Cupecoy’s Joy she fought on gamely to hold on for second by a nose, but the day belonged to Christmas Past who, with regular rider Jacinto Vasquez aboard, was the easiest kind of winner. For me, it was a Triple Tiara to never forget and a reward for sticking with Christmas Past throughout.

Distance was the thing with Christmas Past. She was full of class and could beat top horses at middle distances, but around two turns she was a monster and the farther they went the better she was. Stylish victories in the Monmouth Oaks and Ruffian Handicap had given her a stranglehold on the three-year-old filly division, as Cupecoy’s Joy was never the same after her second place finish in the Coaching Club Oaks. Christmas Past's distance ability was so respected that she was entered against the top males in the country that Fall at a mile and a half in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. It turned out to be a race I was sorry I attended, as it ended in tragedy with four horses going down in a horrific spill that claimed the lives of Timely Writer and Johnny Dance. Lehmi Gold won the race and was named older male champion, Christmas Past finished third in her only career loss around two turns, and was named three-year-old filly champion, but that was a heart-wrenching day to be at the track.

My heroine returned early the next year, and I was thinking Horse of the Year. She began with a walk-in-the-park allowance victory in February which set her up perfectly for another try against the boys. This time at a mile and a quarter distance, it would happen in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Handicap. She would be favored against her eleven male counterparts, and did not disappoint with as she wore down the very talented Crafty Prospector to win by a neck. A grade 1 win against the males was enough to thrill me, but unfortunately it was also enough for her connections to call it a career.

Christmas Past was retired shortly after her win in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. It was decided to send the champion to her second career as a broodmare rather than be saddled with the imposing weights that she was sure to be asked to carry the rest of the season. She ended her career with 8 wins in 15 lifetime races, despite going winless sprinting in her first three starts and was only twice out of the money. Her promising broodmare career, that she got an early start on, never did materialize though, as the ten foals she produced only begot six winners and no stakes horses. As many great racing fillies have done before and after her, Christmas Past simply could not produce anything near the talent that she was. Happily, her life after the races would be a long one.

The filly that gave me so much happiness many years ago, was less than three weeks shy of turning 30 when she died. Christmas Past was put to rest due to complications from infirmities of old age on December 13, 2008. She was my favorite horse of 1982, it’s hard to believe that 28 years have past since that Triple Tiara. I remember you Christmas Past.


ja.raymond said...

That was a very endearing write. And I learned about a horse I never really knew anything about.
Thanx, Brian :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, I was there for her Gulfstream Park Handicap and will never forget that one. She was a phenomenal mare!