The Ladies Handicap, scheduled for Dec. 14 at Aqueduct, possesses a colorful history by virtue of its lengthy history and its illustrious group of winners. America’s oldest race for fillies and mares, the Ladies first was contested in 1868, just a year after the inaugural Belmont Stakes (gr. I), and proved highly important when it came to deciding championships. Perhaps just as important is that many of its winners have had stakes named after them.
The best place to begin is with the 1883 winner, which happens to be America’s first $100,000-earner. Miss Woodford, who won the first of her two Horse of the Year titles in 1883, captured the Ladies when it was restricted to 3-year-olds and held at 1 1/2 miles at Jerome Park. Miss Woodford, who also won five divisional championships, was honored with a stakes at Monmouth Park.
Jerome Park, named for Winston Churchill’s maternal grandfather, hosted the Ladies from 1867 to 1890. From there, the Ladies was held at Morris Park, and later at Belmont Park and Aqueduct.
A victory in the Ladies was so highly prized for a time that the race was conferred grade I status the first year stakes were graded. That happened in 1973, and is easy to remember because it happened to be the year of Secretariat’s Triple Crown.
The Ladies, which was held at various distances over the years, has been contested regularly at 1 1/4 miles since 1965. That year’s winner, Straight Deal, has been honored with stakes named after her at different tracks.
New York has held graded stakes honoring such other Ladies’ winners as Firenze (the 1887 winner), Beldame (1904), Maskette (1909), Top Flight (1932), Vagrancy (1942), Next Move (1950), Flower Bowl (1956) Rare Treat (1957), Tempted (1959), and Shuvee (1969). The Beldame and Flower Bowl currently are grade I stakes.
The Firenze, which was first contested at Jamaica in New York, later was moved to Aqueduct, and then to Saratoga. It was renamed the John A. Morris and now is run as the Personal Ensign (gr. I).
The Maskette also underwent a name change. It now is contested as the Go for Wand (gr. I) and held at Saratoga.
Endine, the 1958 Ladies winner, has a graded stakes run in her honor at Delaware Park. But that might be due more to her winning the 1958-59 Delaware Handicap.
Like many stakes, the Ladies proved less of a major goal as time went on. The Ladies slipped to grade II status, then to grade III, before becoming a listed stakes and worth its present day $75,000-added. But for a long, long time, it proved a worthwhile goal.