“The weather was bright and warm, the track fast, and the betting lively.”
So the New York Times described Alabama day, 1883.
So far, we’re running neck and neck with that day 129 years ago: it’s a glorious, perfect Spa morning, and the track is indeed fast. The betting will, we can assume, be lively—indeed much livelier, as those attending the 12th running of the country’s oldest race for fillies had a mere four races on which to wager; those here today for the 132nd edition of the race will have a whopping 11.
Three of those four 1883 races, including the Alabama, were won by Brooklyn’s own Dwyer brothers. Quipped the reporter, “Some of the followers of the Brooklyn stable were uncharitable enough to wish they had made an entry in the fourth race, so that the red and blue sash could have made a clean sweep.”
Their Alabama winner was Miss Woodford, whose full sister, Belle of Runnymede, had won the race the year before. By Billet and out of Fancy Jane, the Kentucky filly was purchased by the Dwyers purchased as a two-year-old and brought her to New York; she won the second Spinaway in 1882, one of few fillies to get the Spinaway/Alabama double.
Not all was magnificent in that Saratoga summer: on the day before the Alabama, two jockeys were “expelled” for some race-fixing shenanigans (oh, for the good old days of clean, honorable racing).
It seems that Doherty got McLaughlin to offer Spillman, the jockey who rode Fellowplay to-day, $500 to pull his horse, which he not only refused to do, but notified Green Morris, the owner, who brought the matter to the notice of the judges. McLaughlin, who is an excellent light-weight jockey, admitted his guilt. (New York Times)
Such nefarious behavior seems to have been quickly forgotten, though, in the glory of the Alabama, described as “practically a walk-over” for Miss Woodford.
She faced just two rivals, Bessie and Vera; the latter had won the Kentucky Oaks and proved to be Miss Woodford’s fiercest foe…at least for a while.
Vera clung to Miss Woodford’s withers to the third furlong post and then began to quit…the further Miss Woodford went the wider became the gap between the filly and her pursuers. At the head of the straight Vera went all to pieces…
Vera faded to third, and Miss Woodford’s winning margin was four lengths. Wrote Edward Hotaling, “Miss Woodford owned the Alabama.”
Miss Woodford would go to win 16 races in a row and 37 of 48 lifetime starts, but as competitive as she was on the track, Edward L. Bowen notes that she needed “extraordinary ability and constitution merely to deal with her owners…”
The Dwyers were not, shall we say, known for pampering their horses. Wrote Bowen, “They might well have run afoul of animal treatment sensitivities had they been around today.”
In fact, their demanding race schedule for Miss Woodford ultimately led to their esteemed trainer, James Rowe, Sr., to quit—no inconsequential decision, given the strength of the Dwyers’ stable. The brothers’ decision to run her in the Long Island Stakes—a best-of-three two-mile heats affair—was the last straw, reported the Times.
The fact that dissensions had arisen in the Brooklyn stable and the report that Jimmy Roe (sic), the trainer, had severed his connection with the Dwyers caused much of a sensation.
One might imagine a bit of a smug smile on the Dwyers’ faces when their filly “cantered past the stand the winner of the [first] heat by two lengths” and won the second by four lengths in “the greatest two-mile heat race of record.”
Miss Woodford finished out of the top three only twice in her 48-race career, and she earned $118,270, the first American Thoroughbred to earn over $100,000. At age 4 in 1984, she was a perfect nine-for-nine. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.
She won races at 1 5/8 miles and at seven furlongs; she won a match race over 2 ½ miles. In his chapter on Miss Woodford in Women of the Year, Bowen quoted Kent Hollingsworth:
Of trainers who spent more than a half-century racing or racing against good fillies, James Row Sr., John W. Rogers, R. Wyndham Walden, Green B. Morris, A. Jack Joyner, Tom Healey, and Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons each declared Miss Woodford the best filly of them all.
Quoted and consulted
Bowen, Edward L. “Miss Woodford.” Women of the Year: Ten Fillies Who Achieved Horse Racing’s Greatest Honor, ed. Jacqueline Duke. Lexington, KY: Eclipse Press, 2004.
Hotaling, Edward. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
“Miss Woodford’s Speed.” New York Times, September 21, 1884.
“On the Saratoga Course: A Great Day for the Dwyer Brothers.” New York Times, July 27, 1883.
“The Saratoga Meeting: Only One Favorite Wins.” New York Times, July 26, 1883.