A few weeks ago, Bill Mott sat in his office at Belmont Park and talked about his earliest racing memories, which centered on the weekly editions of The Blood-Horse that would arrive at his South Dakota home.
“I’m trying to think of the filly that used to be on the cover,” he said. “She weighed 750 pounds, she was by Persian Road II and her name was…” He paused, trying to remember. Then:
Mott’s memory, good though it was, wasn’t quite perfect. Dark Mirage didn’t weigh 750 pounds. According to contemporary reports, she weighed 710.
She was indeed by Persian Road II; her dam was Home by Dark, who, according to Steve Cady, had been born with no ears. Her deafness was one of several factors that contributed to the reaction when Home by Dark’s second foal, a filly, stepped into the sales ring at the 1966 Keeneland yearling sale. “Laughter rippled through the pavilion” when the filly appeared, wrote Cady. “Who in heaven’s name, the horse buyers wondered aloud, would want a little thing like that –a filly no bigger than a Shetland pony?”
Lloyd Miller did, apparently, paying $6,000—a “rock-bottom price” at the sale, wrote Cady.
By the end of 1967, Miller might not have completely regretted spending that $6,000—the filly had earned almost $20,000, after all. But her race record wasn’t exactly inspiring: 15 starts, two wins, three seconds, two thirds. She was beaten in her first start by more than seven lengths; in her next race, she went off at odds of 101-1. She finished second by two and a half.
By the end of 1968, Miller had a champion.
Forty-four years ago this month, Dark Mirage won the Mother Goose at Belmont en route to becoming the first filly to win the Filly Triple Crown, as the three-race series comprising the Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks was then called.
In 1968, Dark Mirage
ran in nine races. She won 10 of them. [OK, she was good, but not THAT good. Ran in 10 races, won 9. Still pretty impressive.] Eight of them were stakes races, including the Prioress, the La Troienne, and the Kentucky Oaks. Her margin of victory in the three filly Triple Crown races was a combined 28 lengths.
In winning the Acorn on May 25, Dark Mirage equaled the course record for a mile, 1:34 4-5, which had been set by Count Fleet.
Articles about Dark Mirage regularly mention her size: she is called a peanut, a midget, the “little campaigner,” described as “only a mite over 14 hands.” They also mention her heart, speed, and stamina, qualities that she would have needed to win the three filly races in less than a month. Following her late May win in the Acorn, Dark Mirage won the Mother Goose on June 8, and she swept the series two weeks later on June 22, in her most dominating performance of the series.
“Dark Mirage made the whole thing seem like a dream yesterday as she floated to a 12-length victory in the…Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont Park,” rhapsodized Joe Nichols. She could easily, he said, have beaten the track record of two minutes had she “been called on to exert herself.” That record had been set by Whisk Broom II in 1913 and equaled by Kelso in 1961.
“To those in the crowd who could get a look at what was going on—and the visibility at Belmont is hardly the best,” continued Nichols, “the sight of Dark Mirage moving along was almost poetic in its smoothness.”
Cady devoted a column to her, called “Some Ponies Can Grow Ten Feet Tall”; he noted that the Belmont Park crowd began applauding her at the eighth pole. “When she reached the finish,” he wrote, “ears cocked and neck bowed, she was galloping along with no more apparent effort than a saddle horse out for leisurely bridle-path canter.”
Said her trainer Everett King, “She’s just small—in everything except the one thing that counts: ability.”
Dark Mirage went on at three to win the Monmouth Oaks and Delaware Oaks, and she finished second that year in Horse of the Year voting, behind Dr. Fager and ahead of Damascus. At four, she returned to the races off a nearly seven-month layoff to win the Santa Maria Handicap by a neck. Her next start would be her last.
Dave Litfin in Champions described what happened in the Santa Margarita Handicap on March 1, 1969. “Bumped hard at the break,” he wrote, “Dark Mirage hesitated and then jumped onto a cellophane wrapper that had blown onto the track.”
She dislocated a sesamoid in her right front ankle, near an injury that she had suffered the year before. She was retired and scheduled to be bred to Dr. Fager, but the injury never healed properly, and according to Litfin, “’the Tiny Tigress’ with the big heart” was put down after surgery in July 1970. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Two years after her death, Art Grace in The Miami News recalled Dark Mirage. The mawkish allusion to Love Story doesn’t detract from the strength of his sentiment:
What can you say about a four-year-old girl who died? In the case of Dark Mirage, all you can say is that she was some kind of super girl, a tiny thing who ran her heart out every time she went to the post.
For more on the history of the Triple Tiara, check out this, which I wrote for Hello Race Fans.
Consulted and quoted
“Dark Mirage Wins Oaks To Gain Filly Triple Crown,” Joe Nichols. New York Times, June 23, 1968.
“Some Ponies Can Grow Ten Feet Tall,” Steve Cady. New York Times, June 23, 1968.
“Dark Mirage to Be Bred to Dr. Fager in Florida,” New York Times, April 12, 1969.
“Magazine’s Poll Names Dr. Fager Horse of Year,” New York Times, Nov 13, 1968.
“Queen died young, long live the King,” Art Grace, The Miami News, Feb 9, 1972.
“Boom Time: The 1960’s,” Dave Litfin. Champions, third ed. Daily Racing Form, 2011.
Dark Mirage’s Hall of Fame page
“Racing Resumes Today at Reluctant Belmont,” Steve Cady. New York Times, June 8, 1968.
“Dark Mirage Takes 6th in Row,” Joe Nichols. New York Times, June 9, 1968.