Firenze!

Firenze!

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?

Firenze!

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.

National Museum of Racing, Keeneland-Cooke

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 SensationNew 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.

10 thoughts on “Firenze!

  1. That’s absolutely incredible – 47 wins.

    Teresa, I love these stories on past greats. The recent articles on Kelso, Discovery, and this one make for some very interesting reading. Thank you so much for these!

  2. What many don’t know about Firenze is the fact that what is now the Personal Ensign (Grade 1) was originally run as the Firenze. It was run as such through 1985 at Aqueduct with its last incarnation as such being a Grade 2, $75,000 added race in December, though it did have quite a history as I found out. The Firenze was renamed for John A. Morris when it was moved to Saratoga in 1986 to replace the Delaware Handicap (which Saratoga took over for three years from 1983-’85 after Delaware Park closed for one year following the 1982 season before that race moved back to Delaware Park and had been the feature of the final Saturday at Saratoga during its three-year run there) and later was renamed again to honor Personal Ensign.

  3. The mixup in the spelling of Firenze’s name began when Mr. Haggin decided to name her after her grandmother on her dam’s side, Florence. He came up with what he thought was Italian for Florence, i.e. Firenzi. He later discovered that there should be an e rather than an i at the end, and had the name changed to Firenze. Unfortunately, the charts were slow to pick up the change, and even the stud books kept the original spelling after she retired.
    In regard to Mr. Gekko’s comment, there was a stakes at one of the downstate tracks named the Firenze in her honor. It was given that name while Firenze was still running, and she actually won the race. To compound the confusion, the race was named with her corrected name, and the winning horse’s name was spelled the old way.

  4. Allan:

    That may have been the same Firenze Handicap that is now the Personal Ensign at Saratoga that I was referring to. I happen to remember when the race was first renamed for John A. Morris in 1986 to replace the Delaware Handicap at Saratoga before being renamed again for Personal Ensign.

  5. Lovely research, and commentary.
    My father (trainer JPConway) won the race twice, once with a filly named Carolyn A (named for Eddie Arcaro’s daughter), a LA Derby winner, and one of the few fillies to defeat Gallorette; then with Catherine’s Bet, a filly who I rode and walked regularly (she defeated Water Malone that day).
    Personally, I regret the name changes of this and many races.

  6. Walt,
    The Firenze Stakes that you were discussing began in 1948 at Jamaica Race Track. The Firenze Stakes I was discussing was held for only two years. 1888 and 1889,at Jerome Park and was won by Firenzi (note, with an i) both years.

    Allan Carter

  7. Thank you so much for taking the time to put these stories together. Thoroughbred history fascinates me, and there are so many stories I fear that have fell through the cracks, which is a shame. So kudos to you, and please keep them coming. They are of real value to generations past, present and future.

  8. Thanks, everyone, for the information you’ve added and Helen, how great to hear those personal memories! Thanks for sharing them.

    Linda…that was hilarious!

    I am always happy to hear that people other than I are interested in these old stories and horses and people. I have such fun digging them up and reading through the old accounts…thank you so much for reading.

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