THE BIG CAT
Californians embraced Chilean import Cougar II as one of their own. After all, the long-striding horse kept fans on the edge of their seats with one sensational stretch drive after another. No wonder Southern California became known as "Big Cat Country" in the early 1970s. Cougar II, who is the first Chilean-bred to be inducted into the racing Hall of Fame, won or placed in 34 of 38 U.S. starts, but his popularity wasn't simply due to his fans leaving the betting windows happy. It was more of a case of cheering for a horse that tried hard time and time again. A good example of that type of devotion to their hero took place in the 1973 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) after Cougar II, the 3-2 favorite, appeared to finish in a dead heat with 10-1 Kennedy Road. Both were trained by Charlie Whittingham. "I win more if Kennedy Road beats Cougar, but I'm pulling for Cougar," one man told a newspaper reporter while the stewards were examining the photo. "Why? I like Cougar. He's different. He has character." Cougar II, who ended up in the winner's circle that March afternoon in front of a packed house of 59,625, showed plenty of character throughout his four years of racing for Whittingham and owner Mary Bradley. Whittingham, who died in 1999, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974, a year after Cougar II retired. The fact that Cougar II became a fan favorite hardly surprised Whittingham's son, Michael, who assisted his father during the Cougar II era. "It's always a thrill watching horses who come from far back," said Whittingham, who later went out on his own and saddled Skywalker to win the 1986 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). "People like that kind of running style." "Cougar had a tremendous fan club," Whittingham added. "He was the Big Cat. They used to put banners up along the hedges in the infield at Santa Anita measuring 30 to 40 feet long with 'Go Cougar Go' on it." Once on track, Cougar II put on quite a show during the post parade. "He'd walk 50 feet, stop, then turn around and face the crowd, and they'd cheer," Whittingham said. "He'd do it five or six times, accepting the cheers before he got into a jog. I got chills when Cougar came out of the paddock because there was always a big cheer. "Cougar had a great big shoulder, and stood real tall in the front while sloping down in the back, sort of like a cat. He had huge almond eyes and a beautiful head." Cougar II, who raced during a time when the sport shared headlines with such other worthy pursuits as baseball and football, was part of Whittingham's crew when the Bald Eagle's lineup was filled with stars. Ack Ack, the 1971 Horse of the Year and a future Hall of Famer, was the biggest star of the group, but Whittingham gave the nod to Cougar II at distances longer than 1 1/4 miles. Bill Shoemaker, who already had been elected to the Hall of Fame, was the regular rider of both. Cougar II wasn't exactly a slowpoke at the shorter distances and definitely not in the stretch. In the 1972 Californian Stakes at 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood Park, he came from last to win by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:39 1/5 after chasing fractions of :44 4/5 and 1:08 1/5. It was the second-fastest 1 1/16 miles in history, surpassed only by Swaps' 1:39 clocking when that California legend set a world record in the 1956 Inglewood Handicap. Cougar II also had captured the 1971 Californian, chasing fractions not as fast, but still speedy. "To win those mile-and-a-sixteenth races off blistering paces was incredible," Michael Whittingham said. UP FROM CHILE
Cougar II's importation to the U.S. in 1970 probably had as much to do with political instability as it did the horse's race record. Cougar II had won three stakes and run third in the Chilean Derby. Santa Anita announcer Joe Hernandez, whose bloodstock agency had ties to South America, had been contacted about buying Cougar II because the horse's owners at the time were worried about the threat of a Communist coup in Chile. Cougar II arrived in the U.S. that May and got right down to business, making his first four starts at Del Mar in a month's time. Racing for Hernandez' Perla de Chico Stud and trained by G.A. Riley, Cougar II started out unplaced in two allowance races and then won both the Cabrillo (on dirt) and Escondido (on turf) Handicaps in track-record time. The Cabrillo victory provided a window into the future as it came over prominent winner Quicken Tree. Whittingham purchased Cougar II for Bradley for a reported $125,000 in the summer of 1970, and it didn't take long for Cougar II to justify the price. In his first start for her, Cougar II finished a head behind another Whittingham top charge, Daryl's Joy, in the important Del Mar Handicap. Bradley later joked that Cougar II finally had lifted her out of the claiming ranks. "I never had one before or since like him," said Bradley, who lives in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. "He won so many big races and earned over a million dollars, which was a lot of money in those days, and was the first foreign-bred to earn that much." Bradley's thoughts at the time of the induction will be with Whittingham and Shoemaker, who died in 2003. "It's going to be sad because the two people who made the horse, Charlie and Bill Shoemaker, won't be there," said Bradley, who will be represented at the Aug. 7 ceremony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., by a daughter. GRADE I WINS
Cougar II was a huge double threat, winning stakes at the highest level on dirt and turf against the toughest of competition. He finished three lengths in front of 1970 co-Horse of the Year and turf champion Fort Marcy in the 1971 San Juan Capistrano Handicap on grass at Santa Anita and defeated him later that year in the Ford Pinto Invitational Turf Handicap at Hollywood. In 1972, the year he was champion grass performer, Cougar II beat Unconscious in setting an American course record of 2:11 in winning the 1 3/8-mile Century Handicap at Hollywood. Cougar II's first three years of racing were conducted before races were graded and several major stakes that he won later earned grade I designation (grading started in 1973). For practical purposes and to give Cougar II his full due, 10 of his wins can be construed as grade I triumphs. Whittingham sent Cougar II to the East Coast several times, but the horse generally fared poorly, catching wet turf courses and being badly beaten. But there was one occasion, in the 1971 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park, where Cougar II romped by five lengths, only to be disqualified because of interference and placed third. "That was California going to New York," said Michael Whittingham. "It wasn't the best horse wins policy; it was take down any infraction. He was blowing by the field and the jockey (on Tinajero) just stood up. Cougar II had a habit of circling the field and diving to the rail. That he did, but he was going by so fast. The other guy did a great acting job." Cougar II was back in New York two years later for the inaugural Marlboro Cup Handicap, featuring stablemates Secretariat and Riva Ridge. Cougar II had to alter course in the stretch, but managed to finish third behind Secretariat and Riva Ridge. Cougar II stayed in New York to run in the Woodward Stakes, but caught a wet track and finished 15 1/2 lengths back in third. The Woodward was Cougar II's final race. Bred by Haras General Cruz, Cougar II (Tale of Two Cities--Cindy Lou, by Madara) was retired with 20 wins from 50 starts in both Chile and the U.S. and earnings of $1,172,625. His first two U.S. starts had been in allowance races and the remainder came in stakes. He won 15 U.S. stakes. Cougar II stood first at Leslie Combs II's Spendthrift Farm near Lexington, then at Arthur B. Hancock III's Stone Farm near Paris, Ky., where he sired 1982 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Gato Del Sol. For Bradley, Cougar II sired Exploded, who won the 1982 Hollywood Invitational Handicap (gr. IT) and 1980 Del Mar Derby (gr. IIIT) for a partnership that included Bradley and Charlie Whittingham. Cougar II, who sired 24 stakes winners, died at age 23 at Stone Farm in June 1989.