It was at dinner 225 years ago, at his home "The Oaks" near Epsom, England, that the 12th Earl of Derby proposed a race for 3-year-old colts to complement the race run that afternoon for 3-year-old fillies named for his residence, that he had won with a filly named Bridget. It might have been fairer to let his friend and dinner companion, Sir Charles Bunbury, give title to the new race. Instead they flipped a coin and Derby won. Otherwise, it would be the Kentucky Bunbury contested every May at Churchill Downs.
Flash forward a couple of centuries to last June at Epsom. The successive Lords Derby have collected seven more Oaks and the 19th Earl has a filly named Ouija Board in the paddock for this year's classic. With Kieren Fallon wearing the historic "black, white cap" silks, Ouija Board is fancied but not favored at 7-2 despite winning her first race of the year, Newmarket's Pretty Polly Stakes, by six lengths. Twenty minutes later a star is born as Ouija Board kicks clear a furlong out and storms home to win the Vodafone Oaks (Eng-I) by seven lengths.
Trainer Ed Dunlop, son of 1995 British champion trainer John Dunlop, then took Ouija Board international. First came the Darley Irish Oaks (Ire-I) at the Curragh in July, which she won by a length, then an outing back home in the Yorkshire Oaks (Eng-I) in August was aborted when the ground came up too soft. With nothing suitable on the horizon, Ouija Board was put away for her late season target in which she would face males and older runners in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe Barriere (Fr-I) at Longchamp.
With Fallon committed to Vodafone Derby (Eng-I) winner North Light, Johnny Murtagh took the reins on Ouija Board in Paris and came flying from the back of the pack with two furlongs to run to finish third to Bago, just 11/2 lengths back. A trip to the Breeders' Cup four weeks later, a possibility during the summer, was now a certainty.
"She got a bit far back in the Arc and may have been unlucky, but she came out of the race better than any race this year because I think she is getting mentally stronger," said Dunlop a few days before the World Thoroughbred Championships. "She put all her weight back on in about eight days and appears now to be as good as she's been all year."
Ouija Board was pre-entered in two Breeders' Cup races, the $2-million John Deere Turf (gr. IT) at 12 furlongs with a second preference in the $1-million VO5 Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) at a furlong less. Her participation required a 9% of the purse supplementary fee to make her eligible, and her connections opted finally to run her in the Filly & Mare Turf for a payment of $90,000. She joined a Breeders' Cup record six supplements to the race, swelling the purse for the dozen runners to $1,292,970.
Ouija Board would probably have been second choice to Kitten's Joy in the Turf, but she was a certain favorite for the Filly & Mare Turf from the moment she was entered. American runners took the first two editions of the youngest race on the Breeders' Cup card, but since then, Banks Hill from France won in 2001; Starine, trained by Bobby Frankel in California but European-raced the year before, tallied in 2002; and Islington led a 1-2-3 Euro sweep last year.
Other Europeans turning out for this year's edition were Yesterday from Aidan O'Brien's Irish yard, third in the race last year and hoping to become the third consecutive winner to succeed in her second attempt, and German-bred Aubonne from Eric Libaud's French yard. Yesterday, wearing blinkers for the first time, was on her way to the breeding shed after the race.
Juddmonte Farm's Light Jig, from Frankel, was accorded the best chance of reclaiming the Filly & Mare Turf crown for the U.S. on the strength of her four-length romp in Oak Tree's Yellow Ribbon Invitational (gr. IT). She would start at 6-1 behind 4-5 Ouija Board with Yesterday a 9-1 shot just ahead of another Frankel entrant, the 10-1 Megahertz, fifth in this race last year but off the track since the Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IT) in May. Also flashing at 10-1 was Wonder Again, impressive winner of Saratoga's Diana Handicap (gr. IT) for James Toner but an odds-on flop in Riskaverse's Flower Bowl Invitational (gr. IT). Riskaverse was a 13-1 proposition as the fillies and mares, Ouija Board the only 3-year-old among them, entered the gate with 11 furlongs of "yielding" turf ahead of them.
The 13/8-mile race at Lone Star provides only a short run to the far turn, forcing a quick decision from jockeys drawn wide on whether to gun for the lead or take back. Ouija Board, racing on Lasix for the first time, was ideally drawn in post five, and Fallon took her in hand immediately after the bell rang and settled in sixth in the early going. After the Oct. 27 draw, Dunlop had said prophetically: "I'll leave most of the strategy to Kieren. I'd like to think we'll be sitting fifth or sixth and we'll go from there."
California-based Moscow Burning looked to be the speed of the Filly & Mare Turf and she went straight to the front from post four under Jose Valdivia Jr. Film Maker tucked in second ahead of Aubonne and jockey Jerry Bailey, who was trying to win his third Filly & Mare Turf. The quarter-mile passed in a slow :26.42 as Moscow Burning opened two lengths on the field, and as the runners came to the wire the first time around it didn't take the Teletimer to confirm that the pace was funereal.
The half-mile was a walking :52.47, to the delight of Valdivia. "I could have ordered a pizza at the three-quarter pole," he said later. "I was so surprised with the pace I set. Jim (trainer Cassidy) told me that if somebody wanted the lead to let them go, but if they didn't for me to set my own pace."
Ouija Board was covered up and relaxed in fourth position after seven furlongs and was still there at the mile, poised to make her challenge on the inside. Around the turn, Fallon took Ouija Board off the fence and ranged up outside the leaders. Moscow Burning still had her head in front at the eighth-pole but she was weakening as Ouija Board moved into second alongside a still game Film Maker. The tussle for supremacy was brief as Ouija Board strode to the front, but Film Maker made a race of it for a few strides before Lord Derby's runner drew clear to win by 11/2 lengths.
Film Maker, under John Velazquez, hung on for second by a neck over the fast-finishing Wonder Again, who closed from 10th at the mile pole under Edgar Prado to claim third by 23/4 lengths. Then came Moscow Burning, Yesterday, Shaconage, Light Jig, Riskaverse, South African-bred Super Brand, Katdogawn, Megahertz, and Aubonne.
Ouija Board showed signs of a little distress entering the winner's circle but traveling head lad Robin Trevor-Jones spotted it and was quick to her aid with a water bottle. "It was just a little distress on a hot, humid day," said Lord Derby at the following day's Breeders' Cup breakfast.
Ouija Board's $733,200 payday took her earnings to $1,671,768 from five wins in eight starts. While no Arc winner has ever won a Breeders' Cup race, she continued a tradition that has seen seven horses who were beaten in the Arc being successful.
Connections of Ouija Board seemed to have only one worry during the 2:18.25 it took to complete the Filly & Mare Turf. "We were worried watching it that they were going very slowly and it would be very difficult (to win) from where we were," said Dunlop. "But she did it great.
"I asked Kieren before the race about the turf and he said, 'Some people say it's good; some people say it's soft'--we didn't really know--but she handled it and it gives us more options for next year. She's nominated to the Japan Cup (Jpn-I) later this year but I think we probably won't do that."
Lord Derby, who inherited his title on the death of his uncle 10 years ago, explained the thinking that put his filly in the Filly & Mare Turf instead of the Turf.
"All year we thought we would keep her to her own age and sex at three," he said. "And later on this season we'd meet the older horses. The Arc was irresistible, but coming here with all the predicted thunderstorms we wondered if the mile and a half on soft ground would be stretching her."
Fallon, after his second consecutive Filly & Mare Turf victory, said he "was never worried at any stage.
"I didn't think the ground would bother her and the slow pace didn't worry me because she has a turn of foot and because I thought she was the best horse in the race," he said. "The draw helped me and put me in the 'box' seat. That's where I like to be, with not too much ground to make up. I was confident she would quicken on the home turn, and she did.
"I've always rated her very highly since the time I first sat on her this spring," he continued. "Most of the good fillies I've ridden in the past were stayers, but this one has a real turn of foot and is as nice a filly as I've ridden.
"I was in California when I was doing my apprenticeship, first with Rodney Rash and then two years with Bobby Frankel. I was 24 and it was the best time of my life. I learned to ride riding on these tracks and whenever I come back to America I have a lot of confidence."
Film Maker's trainer, British-born H. Graham Motion, who would later win the Turf with Better Talk Now, was quick to laud the winner. "All the credit in the world to the Europeans," he said. "They are very game and sporting to come over and race against us."
Toner wasn't disappointed with Wonder Again's third-place finish. "Edgar had to take her way back to get her covered up because that's the way she runs," he said. "I'm very happy with the way she ran and I think it vindicated her last race."
Ouija Board's name was suggested by Lord Derby's wife, Cazzy, and is based on her breeding, by Cape Cross out of Selection Board. "I thought it worked as a name in its own right," said Lord Derby. "But what she couldn't possibly have known was that Selection Board's dam was named Ouija. Ouija's half-brother, Teleprompter, came over to America and won the 1985 Budweiser Arlington Million (gr. IT)."
Ouija Board was picking grass outside the quarantine barn early the morning after the Breeders' Cup. She was due to fly home via Paris later that night for a few months off before being prepared for her 4-year-old campaign. Lord Derby outlined a challenging program, with every race against males.
"Her first race will almost certainly be the Coronation Cup (Eng-I) in June at Epsom, followed by the 'King George' (Eng-I) at Ascot, although Ascot is being redeveloped so it will be run at Newbury this year," he said. "Then the Juddmonte International (Eng-I) at York in August, perhaps the Arc again and then the Breeders' Cup."
Six horses have won the same race twice at the Breeders' Cup but none has won two different races. Ouija Board, Lord Derby's only horse in training this season, will be aimed at the Turf at Belmont Park next year. Coming from the most historic family on the British Turf, it would be fitting if the Lord's 'lady' made history on this side of the Atlantic as well.