Her very name seems to call for an exclamation point, for a hand gesture to punctuate that strong second syllable…maybe a touch of an Italian accent?
Or Firenzi. Or Ferenzi. In her long career on the track, her name was spelled all three ways, and probably others as well.
She was foaled in 1884, bred by Daniel Swigert, owned by James B. Haggin. Though she was born in Kentucky, she was known as a California horse, given Haggin’s Rancho Del Paso farm near Sacramento, to which she retired. In 1887, she won the Gazelle, run for the 116th time tomorrow at Aqueduct; she won 46 other races in a six-year racing career.
Racing historian Walter H.P. Robertson called her “invincible among members of her own sex at three.”
After [that] she was required by the unchivalrous conditions of the day to make her way as best she could in masculine company. It didn’t bother her a bit.
She won the 1888 Manhattan Handicap, giving 10-21 pounds to her rivals; according to the New York Times, even Haggin her owner didn’t think she could overcome the impost, an opinion apparently well-known to the public.
…he backed for a place only at 1 to 2. Because the Haggin money did not go on her to win was the reason why the public got such good odds as 7 and 6 to 5 against her…
Ah, ye of little faith, Haggin.
She certainly won the handicap yesterday in the easiest possible fashion, without turning a hair, and was as full of run as an egg is of meat.
Despite her many victories, one of her most famous races is one that she lost, and lost badly, apparently through no fault of her own. In her terrific book about the history of racing and breeding in Kentucky, When Kentucky Became Southern, Maryjean Wall writes about the 1890 Monmouth Handicap, in which jockey Isaac Murphy rode the talented mare so bizarrely that he was reported to be literally falling-down drunk in the saddle.
Wall quotes from descriptions in the New York Sun that have Murphy “listing to the left and clinging to the saddle” and “rolling out” of the saddle after the finish line.
With the benefit of more than a century of hindsight and research, Wall offers several explanations for Murphy’s behavior: he was ill, he’d been poisoned. Writing the next day in the New York Times, the local racing reporter wasn’t quite so generous.
[Murphy] rode Firenzi in the Monmouth Handicap, and that he did so was alone the reason for the ridiculous way in which she was beaten, finishing last in a field of horses that she should have defeated with but little trouble. Murphy’s disgraceful exhibition was due to overindulgence in champagne, a habit which has in times past gotten the better of him, but never to lead to quite so sad an exhibition of himself as he made at the track yesterday.
The writer suggests that Murphy was suffering the effects of a party given by the “Salvator Club,” a group that had made quite a bit of money betting on Firenze’s stablemate Salvator, and that, aware of the condition in which Murphy would be riding, put their money elsewhere in a betting coup.
The Times’ description of Murphy’s ride is similar to the Sun’s, with an added dollop of scorn and accusation:
…it was…apparent that the pull Murphy had had on the mare was one used to try and keep himself straight in the saddle…He pulled the mare’s head first to the right and then to the left, and hauled her all over the track.
Then…the crowd realized what was the matter and that it was an animated champagne bottle instead of the peerless jockey, Murphy, who had been riding the mare.
Though the same could not be said for Murphy, Firenze lost no credit in the loss, being named champion filly or mare for the fourth consecutive year. She raced 82 times in her life, with a record of 47-21-9 and earnings of $112, 471. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981.
A number of images of Firenze exist, including two that can be yours, or that might just make the perfect holiday gift for the racing historian in your life. Big spenders can head to E-bay for a 1947 oil painting from the George Ford Morris estate (it can be yours for a mere $29,999.99); those of more modest means might settle for an 1890 photogravure by Henry Stull for $3,600, which in my uneducated estimate is simply exquisite. (click the link above for a larger, better image)
“A Monmouth Sensation” New York Times. August 27, 1890. Web.
Firenze’s Hall of Fame page.
Firenze’s page at Pedigree Query.
“Firenzi Wins Once More.” New York Times. October 5, 1888. Web.
“Horses and Riders Down.” New York Times. June 17, 1887. Web.
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. Bonanza Books, 1964.
Wall, Maryjean. How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2010.
Top photograph in public domain, according to Valley Community Newspapers. “Rancho del Paso was once the world’s largest thoroughbred horse-breeding farm.” May 12, 2011. Web.