Ahead of Sunday's running of the Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga, second leg of what is now known as the Triple Tiara, Mary Pitt looks back at the amazing career of Dark Mirage, who in 1968 became the first horse to win the fillies' triple crown (when the CCA Oaks was the third leg).
Dark Mirage may have been small, but she left a large and lasting legacy on the sport in which she played such a brief part.
She was a dark bay foal of 1965, and her sire, Persian Road II, was bred in Britain and was mainly a stayer (he won the Ebor Handicap at York). Her dam, Home By Dark, by Hill Prince, was deaf and never raced. Her fighting weight hovered near 710 pounds but neither her humble parentage nor her size stopped her from capturing the New York Filly Triple Crown with enviable ease.
Dark Mirage was bred in Kentucky by Duval Headley and purchased as a yearling by Texan Tom Hastey as agent for Lloyd Miller, chairman of the board of the Cincinnati Transit Company.
A slow starter, to say the least, Dark Mirage won only twice in 15 starts at 2, with three seconds and two thirds, but her trainer, Everett King, felt she made up for in potential what she lacked in size. She ran a credible fifth, beaten only two-and-a-half lengths after being hemmed in on the rail most of the way, in the Gardenia Stakes at Garden State at odds of 113-1.
After a winter’s freshening in Maryland, Miller’s flyweight filly could do no wrong at 3. Following a fourth place finish in a $15,000 allowance at Aqueduct at 13-1 in mid-March, she reeled off nine straight victories, eight of them in stakes, in a span of only four months.
Twelve days after a win at a mile at Aqueduct as the even-money favorite on March 22, she turned back to six furlongs to take the Prioress at that track by a length, then shipped to Kentucky for the seven furlong La Troienne, which she won by three over 11 others.
On May 3, the day before Dancer’s Image’s controversial Derby, Dark Mirage won the Kentucky Oaks by four and a half lengths as the favorite in a field of 14. From there it was back to New York for a try at the triple.
The Kentucky Oaks, Black Eyed Susan (formerly the Pimlico Oaks), and Coaching Club American Oaks for many years had been loosely tied together as a Triple Crown for fillies, but in 1961 New York officially linked its own trio of races for distaff sophomores (the Acorn, the Mother Goose and the Coaching Club American Oaks, all then run at Belmont), with a $25,000 bonus offered to the one who could take all three.
It hadn’t yet been done. Ironically, the bonus had been dropped for the 1968 running.
On May 25, 1968, the first Saturday card at the newly rebuilt Belmont Park, a crowd of 47,420 saw “The Tiny Tigress”, as she would come to be known, move through after being trapped down on the rail to win the one mile Acorn by six lengths under regular rider Manuel Ycaza in 1:34 4/5, equalling the track record set by Count Fleet as a 2-year-old in 1942.
A tragic event on the other side of the country nearly wiped out Dark Mirage’s chance to make it into the record books. Following the assassination of New York Senator Robert Kennedy on June 6, the New York Racing Association requested that racing be cancelled June 7 and 8. Senator Kennedy’s funeral was to take place in New York City on the morning of the 8th.
Racing and most other sports were cancelled on Friday, June 7, but on Saturday – Mother Goose day at Belmont – racing went ahead, against the wishes of the NYRA board of trustees and track management, when NYRA’s request for a June 8 cancellation was denied.
A telegram sent by the New York State Racing Commission to James Cox Brady, chairman of the board of trustees of NYRA, said: “Since the funeral plans call for the funeral party to leave New York City about noon on Saturday, and since Sunday has been established as the official day of mourning by separate proclamations of President (Lyndon) Johnson and Governor (Nelson) Rockefeller, Thoroughbred racing programs scheduled for Saturday afternoon, June 8, will go ahead as planned.”
In California, where the senator was shot, Golden Gate Fields, Bay Meadows, and Hollywood Park continued to race on June 7 and 8.
Dark Mirage improved upon her Acorn performance in the Mother Goose, winning easily by 10 lengths before a crowd of 38,440. Final time for the 1 1/8 miles was 1:49 2/5.
Two weeks later, Dark Mirage created a minus show pool of $22,344.63 in winning the Coaching Club American Oaks (run at Belmont until switching to Saratoga in 2010). Third early, she and Ycaza moved up on the outside to take the lead and quickly put four lengths between them and the rest of the field going into the far turn, coasting home by 12 widening lengths.
The crowd of 41,137 gave the little filly an ovation that lasted from the eighth pole to the wire. She completed the 1 ¼ miles (started from the backstretch chute) in the good time of 2:01 4/5.
After the race, trainer King commented: “She’s just small in everything except the one thing that counts – ability.”
Despite the presence of only five betting interests (the Meadow Stable entry of Gay Matelda and Syrian Sea, a full sister to Secretariat, finished second and third, respectively), the track bravely offered win, place, and show betting.
She carried her win streak next to Monmouth for that track’s Oaks. The race off the track was more suspenseful than the one on it. Jockey Ycaza was slated to ride highweight Damascus in the Suburban at Belmont the same afternoon. The Suburban had a 4:48 post, while post time for the Oaks was 5:51. Ycaza had to be on the Monmouth grounds by the time the seventh race was made official or King would be forced to name another rider.
After finishing third at Belmont to favourite Dr. Fager, Ycaza dashed for a waiting helicopter, which swept him into New Jersey with only minutes to spare. Dark Mirage won the Oaks by four lengths, a more comfortable margin than Ycaza’s.
Next up for Dark Mirage was the Delaware Oaks. With four in the field and only three betting interests, Delaware Park officials received permission from the Delaware State Racing Commission to run the $57,950 Oaks as a betless exhibition.
Kept just off the pace in third, Dark Mirage began making her move midway down the backstretch. She took the lead inside the eighth pole and won drawing clear by two lengths.
She was sent to Saratoga to prepare for the Alabama when she bruised a hoof while training and was finished for the year. After the Alabama, King had planned to send his charge in the Gazelle and then to face colts for the first time in the $50,000 Lawrence Realization, at 1 5/8 miles in October. In spite of her abbreviated campaign, she earned champion 3-year-old filly honors.
Events unfolding as they did that summer, John Gaines and James Hoolahan, an advertising executive, paid $300,000 for Dark Mirage’s dam, while Jack Ward was sitting with her sire on his Connecticut farm mentally tallying the income from stud fees.
Ward had purchased Persian Road II the previous autumn for $8,000, mainly to breed to his own small band of mares and to outsiders for $500. When his diminutive daughter leaped upon the scene, Persian Road II’s stud fee jumped to $2,000. He was scheduled to be bred to 40 mares in the spring of 1969 but he died the day after Christmas, 1968.
In February, while the snow was piling up in New York, Dark Mirage was in California making her 4-year-old debut in the Santa Maria Handicap at Santa Anita. Ridden this time by Eddie Belmonte, she was kept in on the rail, racing most of the way in third, and managed to squeeze through to get up by a neck over Desert Law, giving the runner up 11 pounds.
Her next start was the March 1 Santa Margarita at 1 1/8 miles. About a half mile into the race, Dark Mirage, the highweight at 130 pounds, broke down and had to be vanned off the track. She was found to have dislocated sesamoids and tendon and ligament damage in her right front leg. King later said he felt the injury may have occurred when his filly was bumped around at the start.
Dark Mirage underwent surgery at Tartan Farm in Florida (where she was scheduled to be bred to Dr. Fager) but developed laminitis in her left front leg and was euthanized on July 9, 1969.
Dark Mirage won 12 of 27 career starts and $362,788. She was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1974.
The New York Filly Triple Crown, having been rechristened the Triple Tiara, now consists of the one-mile Acorn, the mile-and-an-eighth Coaching Club American Oaks, and the mile-and-a-quarter Alabama, run at Saratoga in August.
From 2003 through 2006, it was reconfigured as the Mother Goose, the CCA Oaks, and the Alabama. In 2007, NYRA reverted to the original three races until, in 2010, it went to its present configuration. Seven other fillies went on to capture the original series, the last being Sky Beauty in 1993.