Princess Rooney wins the 1984 Breeders' Cup Distaff. (Photo courtesy of Breeders' Cup)
Explosive turn of foot. Simply put, the term refers to a horse's ability to accelerate quickly and put distance between itself and the other runners in the blink of an eye. Princess Rooney had it in spades.
Her most stunning triumph came in the inaugural running of the $1 million Breeders' Cup Distaff (Grade 1) at Hollywood Park on November 18, 1984. Dappled grey in color, Princess Rooney romped in grand style, by seven lengths, a full second faster than that year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Wild Again. The dazzling performance earned her a permanent place on the list of Thoroughbred racing's great mares.
Born: March 22, 1980
Died: October 7, 2008
Owner: Paula Tucker
Breeder: Parrish Hill Farm
Trainers: Frank Gomez, Neil Drysdale
Record: 21 starts, 17 wins, 2 seconds, 1 third
Princess Rooney won 17 of 21 starts, including five Grade-1 races, and finished out of the money just once, earning $1,343,339 and the Eclipse Award for champion older mare in 1984.
She was bred by Dr. Ben Roach and Tom Roach at their Parrish Hill Farm in Midway, Kentucky. The daughter of Verbatim, by Princess Parrish was sold at the 1980 yearling sale in Kentucky for $38,000 to Paula Tucker of Miami. Tucker sent her to be taught the early lessons necessary to reaching the races by Frank Gomez whose surname belies that he grew up in Limerick, Ireland, and did not understand Spanish.
Tucker quickly discovered she had a gem. Word about the grey youngster's prowess must have leaked out from the Gomez barn at Calder Racetrack. She was installed as the 2-1 favorite in a five-furlong maiden special weight in a field of nine on May 22, 1982. In what would be the first of a 21-race Hall of Fame career, Princess Rooney won easily by three lengths.
A few weeks later in another five-furlong race at Calder, Princess Rooney scored in an allowance race by four handy lengths. After four races where she ran her Calder rivals off their feet, her connections shipped Princess Rooney north where she could finally be tested. She was not. Two more walks in the park-- the Gardenia at the Meadowlands and the prestigious Grade-1 Frizette Stakes at Belmont where she stormed home by eight lengths. As a two-year old Princess Rooney was a perfect six-for-six winning by a total of 56 lengths and bankrolling $223,815.
It was the kind of brilliant campaign that would normally would have earned an Eclipse Award as the divisional champion. But 1982 was also the year of west coast star Landaluce who was undefeated in five starts and ran wicked fast times in sprint races. However, Landaluce's sudden death from a bacterial infection in November turned what might have been a close balloting contest into a one-sided emotional tribute. Their long-awaited competition at the track would never come to pass.
When the calendar flipped to 1983 Princess Rooney was touted as the overwhelming leader of the three-year old fillies, and possibly a factor among the three-year old colts. Still, Gomez resisted the idea of Princess Rooney running in the Kentucky Derby.
''Won't do it,'' he said. ''Anyone who runs three-year-old fillies against colts is just on a big ego trip.''
Still, on the day entries closed for the Derby in an impish move Gomez strolled into the racing secretary's office only minutes before closing time.
"Just to shake some folks up," Gomez said with a laugh. "They thought I was going to put her in. A few trainers' chins went down on their chests."
Before a record crowd of 54,601 Princess Rooney triumphed in the 1 1/8-mile Oaks by 1 1/2 lengths, stretching her unbeaten string to ten. But there were a few uncomfortable moments. The filly stumbled twice, at the eighth pole and again at the quarter pole. Both Bright Crocus and Bemissed looked as if they might run down the Princess in the stretch, but the gallant filly gutted out the victory.
PRINCESS ROONEY WINS THE 1983 KENTUCKY OAKS
Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs
"It was the worst race of her life," Gomez observed. "I knew we might be in for trouble because she hated the hard track (at Churchill Downs) from the moment she first set foot on it in late April. She didn't work good over the track, and in the Oaks she didn't run well.
"Wait a minute! I should have said, 'She didn't run well for Princess Rooney.' The horses in the Oaks had their chance. They tried to run with her from the start, and then they tried to catch her from behind. But they couldn't do it."
The Oaks performance foreshadowed the ending of her winning streak when she finished a well beaten second to Ski Goggle in the Acorn Stakes at Belmont on May 18. Afterwards Princess Rooney was diagnosed with a hairline fracture in her foreleg that shelved her for much of the season.
Tucker transferred the filly to trainer Neil Drysdale and by the summer of her four-year old campaign, Princess Rooney had rounded into top form once more.
Born in Surrey, England, Drysdale had tightened the girths on the winners of million-dollar races in countries around the world. The southern California based trainer began his storied training career under the tutelage of the legendary Charlie Whittingham in 1970.
Princess Rooney went on to win her final five career starts in 1984, including the Grade-1 Vanity with a sparkling time of 1:46 1/5 and an impressive score in the Spinster Stakes at Saratoga. On a sun-splashed day in November the beautiful nearly white filly stepped on to the track for a final time.
1984 BREEDERS' CUP DISTAFF
It was classic Princess Rooney. In the new championship day of racing, she sprinted away from the impressive field of rivals at the top of the stretch with an explosion of desire, class and acceleration to win the Breeders' Cup Distaff by seven lengths. Among those left in her wake was the brilliant champion three-year old filly Life's Magic. The stunning triumph cemented Princess Rooney's Eclipse Award as the champion older female.
Retired after the Breeders' Cup win, Princess Rooney was sold for $5.5 million, the third-highest price ever paid for a broodmare at that time. She was in foal to leading sire Danzig when Texan George Aubin purchased her at the 1985 Keeneland November auction. Princess Rooney turned out to be less than a success in breeding and ten years later was sold for $130,000 to the Gentry Brothers Farm near Lexington, Ky. in 1995.
Turning white in color, The Princess spent her final thirteen years at the Gentry farm, pensioned there since 2006. Her last foal, a Chester House colt named House of Words, was her last winner at the track. In August 2008, the Hall of Famer and champion was diagnosed with equine protozoal myelitis, a progressive and degenerative neurological disease of the central nervous system. She died October 8, 2008 at age 28, euthanized at the farm due to complications.
While Princess Rooney may have had a killer's instinct on the racetrack, back home on the farm she was a gentle and sweet mare to hundreds of foals.
"We've always had her babysit the fillies after we weaned them," said Matt Howard, the farm's general manager. "We'd stick them out in the field with her, and she always kind of adopted them until they became yearlings and we shipped them off for training. She was one of the most level-headed mares I've ever dealt with. She was always easy to deal with, and I'd love for that to have rubbed off on those fillies. She was just a remarkable horse and a joy to be around. I know she'll be missed, not just by me, but by all the guys who work on the farm and the fans who used to come visit her."
Princess Rooney is buried at the Kentucky Horse Park, near the graves of great race mares Allez France and Sefa’s Beauty. Other legendary Thoroughbreds buried at the Kentucky Horse Park include Man o’ War, War Admiral, Forego, Bold Forbes, and John Henry.