Rachel Alexandra seems to have accomplished the impossible this year. The 3-year-old filly won the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and the Mother Goose Stakes (gr. I) by nearly 40 lengths and manhandled males in the BlackBerry Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and the Haskell Invitational Stakes (gr. I). Now, majority owner Jess Jackson is attempting to accomplish something perhaps even more dramatic--taking on older males in the Sept. 5 Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga and become the first distaffer regardless of age to win the important race.
The Woodward, named for William Woodward Sr., chairman of The Jockey Club from 1930-50, first was contested in 1954 at Belmont Park and quickly gained national prominence. Horses such as Dedicate, Sword Dancer, Kelso, Roman Brother, Buckpasser, Damascus, and Arts and Letters used the early fall race as a springboard toward Horse of the Year honors (Dedicate and Roman Brothers shared honors in their respective years) prior to the 1970s.
During its early days, the Woodward also was contested at Aqueduct. It was moved to Saratoga and its position on Labor Day weekend in 2006.
The Woodward was a male-dominated race for its first 18 runnings. But in 1972, a filly finally hit the board. Summer Guest, bred by Hubert B. Phipps and raced by Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable, finished second. She then was disqualified for interference and placed third.
Summer Guest wasn’t the first filly to contest the Woodward. That honor went to Mrs. Whitney Stone’s Shuvee. She finished fifth in 1970 and sixth in 1971. Despite those losses, Shuvee had achieved enough in her other races to be voted champion older female both years.
Summer Guest, a 3-year-old in 1972, nearly didn’t run in the Woodward. After winning the historic Alabama Stakes at Saratoga in mid-August for her fifth stakes win of the year, trainer Elliott Burch felt she stood a good chance to be voted divisional champion and thought about retiring her for the year.
Summer Guest also boasted earlier wins in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico, the Hempstead Handicap at Belmont over older females, the Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont, and the Monmouth Oaks. But instead of retiring her, Burch kept her in training to meet chief rival Susan’s Girl, who had been impressive in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West Coast for owner Fred Hooper.
Summer Guest and Susan’s Girl had hooked up in the CCA Oaks and in that year’s Mother Goose Stakes, also at Belmont. In the 1 1/2-mile CCA Oaks, Summer Guest displayed an affinity for distance racing, as she beat Susan’s Girl, who finished third, by eight lengths. In the 1 1/8-mile Mother Goose, Susan’s Girl finished a neck behind the winner, Wanda, and six lengths in front of Summer Guest.
The two star fillies crossed swords again in the Sept. 9 Beldame Stakes at Belmont three weeks before the Woodward. Summer Guest, making her first start since the Alabama, and Susan’s Girl, fresh off a win in the Gazelle Handicap at Belmont a week earlier, faced a top field that included prominent older distaffers Manta and Typecast and the previous year’s champion 2-year-old filly, Numbered Account. Susan’s Girl took command of the division by beating Summer Guest by a length in what was her last start of the year.
Burch, realizing Summer Guest needed a big win to overtake Susan’s Girl in the standings, ran her in the 1 1/2-mile Woodward with stablemate Key to the Mint, who was engaged in a heated battle with Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge for champion 3-year-old male. Key to the Mint, who went into the Woodward with consecutive wins in the Brooklyn Handicap at Aqueduct and the Whitney and Travers Stakes at Saratoga, found the Woodward distance and sloppy going to his liking, beating Summer Guest by 1 1/4 lengths. Summer Guest, ridden by Laffit Pincay Jr., was placed third after crossing in front of Autobiography going into the first turn. Autobiography was moved up to second. Riva Ridge, the leader after a mile, finished fourth as the 7-5 favorite.
The Woodward was Summer Guest’s last start of the year. The daughter of Native Charger had won or placed in all 12 starts.
Susan’s Girl, who had won or placed in all 13 starts, was voted champion 3-year-old filly. Key to the Mint who lost out to 2-year-old Secretariat for Horse of the Year, was named best 3-year-old male over Riva Ridge.
Summer Guest contested the next two Woodwards. She finished last of the five in the 1973 running, made famous by Prove Out’s epic upset over Secretariat. In 1974, she finished sixth behind another female, fifth-place Magazine. For the winner, Forego, it was the first of a record four triumphs in the Woodward.
The only other females to have contested the Woodward have been Relaxing, fourth at the age of 5 in 1981; and Lady’s Secret, second as a 4-year-old during her 1986 Horse of the Year and champion older female season.