For the better part of the last 12 months, Zipessa had simultaneously been testing her connections' faith and doing just enough to reinforce their long-held belief in her form.
Over a stretch of eight starts dating back to August of 2016, the 5-year-old daughter of City Zip was knocking on the door of the upper ranks of turf female echelon. There were grade 1 placings. There were near-misses. There was always effort, but no victories to show for it.
All trainer Michael Stidham could do was keep reading the signals before him and giving the veteran distaffer the chance to make a resounding argument on her own behalf. In the $400,000 First Lady Stakes (G1T) Oct. 7 at Keeneland, the message Zipessa delivered could be interpreted as a resounding "told you so" to those who may have given on up her.
"I think the bottom line was, because she hadn't got it done so many times, she had lost a little credibility and people kind of gave up on her," Stidham said. "And she showed them wrong today."
After repeatedly holding her own against the best of her division, Zipessa crashed through the ceiling Saturday, when she overtook pacesetter Hawksmoor in the stretch on her way to a 1 1/2-length victory in the First Lady—her first grade 1 win after previously being winless in four tries against top-level company.
The eight-furlong First Lady Stakes—a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're in" event for the Filly & Mare Turf (G1T)—marked the first victory for Zipessa since the chestnut mare took the Dr. James Penny Memorial Stakes (G3T) in July of 2016. The narrative for Patrick Gallagher's mare since was a tale of hard luck, as she dropped eight straight after that, including a third-place run in the 2016 Beverly D. Stakes (G1T), second in that year's Rodeo Drive Stakes (G1T), and an admirable fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf last November.
Both her gameness and her unfortunate luck were on display when she was beaten just a neck by multiple grade 1 winner Miss Temple City in the Sept. 9 Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf Stakes (G3T).
"Luckily for us—and that's the way horse racing is—she blossomed for us right at the right time," said Stidham, who saddled his first grade 1 winner since he led over Her Emmynency to win the 2015 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes. "We had been on the East Coast and I hadn't seen her in 10 days, and when she got here, you could see that her coat and her weight were right on.
"She certainly had this one coming. It was owed to her. Let's put it that way. She ran so hard last year and this year and couldn't quite get it done. Today she was pretty dominant."
Hawksmoor has done her best running on the lead, so it was no surprise Saturday when the 4-year-old filly opened up daylight between herself and her six rivals, as she cut a comfortable opening quarter of :24.59. With Joe Bravo guiding her, Zipessa settled in hand in the three path and was racing in second through a half-mile in :49.19.
Zipessa ranged up into striking position on the far turn and Bravo had ample horse to work with, as they settled in for the stretch run and collared Hawksmoor about a furlong out.
"That's the great thing about Michael and his team. He let me go out there and ride with an open mind," Bravo said. "This filly, she can relax. She's gotten bigger (and) smarter with age. She's just gotten to be a better horse."
Stidham gave credit to Bravo. "The key to her is definitely Joe Bravo. He gets along with her so well, he understands her, and he made the difference in winning the grade 1 today," he said. "Just what he had in mind is how the race worked out."
As Zipessa crossed the wire at odds of 16-1, with a final time of 1:36.99, Hawksmoor held for second by a neck over fellow graded stakes winner Roca Rojo. Dona Bruja got up for fourth, with grade 1 winner Dickinson fifth in the seven-horse lineup.
"She ran her race and we had a great trip, but we were second best," said Julien Leparoux, jockey for Hawksmoor.
Owned by Gallagher's Empyrean Stables, Zipessa improved her record to five wins from 16 starts with $783,550 in earnings. Regarding a Breeders' Cup run, Stidham said they would "look at all options" going forward.
"This mare shows up every time and she's always there for us," Gallagher said. "It's like the whole year was prepping her to be ready for today. We're just thrilled for her that she's going to get the recognition we feel like she deserves."