In 1968 a filly named Dark Mirage captured the hearts and minds of the racing public when she became the first winner of what is now called the “Triple Tiara.”
Yet, unlike Sir Barton, Dark Mirage’s story has been all but forgotten. Is it because she was “only a girl”?
To say that the scruffy dark brown filly was a disappointment would have been the understatement of the year.
Impeccably bred by Duval A. Headley, the petite foal was by Persian Road II (1955), a son of the mighty Persian Gulf (1940). Persian Gulf’s sire, Bahram (1932), had won the British Triple Crown in 1935. Bred by HH Aga Khan III, who was noted for breeding some of the very best thoroughbreds of the early-mid twentieth century, Bahram’s stud career began brilliantly. Not only did he sire champion Persian Gulf in his first crop, but also Big Game, Parthia and Turkhan, all winners of prestigious Group 1 races in the UK, as well as over 400 other winners between 1940-41. When the Germans occupied France during WWII, the Aga Khan fled to Switzerland and Bahram was sold to the American syndicate of Walter P. Chrysler Jr., Alfred G. Vanderbilt II, James Cox Brady Jr. and Sylvester Labrot Jr. So it was that Bahram arrived in 1941 to stand at Sagamore Farm in Maryland and, later, at North Wales stud farm in Virginia. Prior to being sold to Argentina in 1946, Bahram sired winners of some 660 races, whose collective earnings exceeded 2 million USD.
The filly’s dam, Home By Dark (1959), was a daughter of Meadow Stables’ champion and 1950 HOTY, Hill Prince (1947) and her BM sire was a stallion called Sunday Evening (1947), a son of the legendary Eight Thirty (1936). Although Dark Mirage was her most prestigious offspring, Home By Dark also produced the stakes winners Gray Mirage and Bold Impulse. The former filly would go on to become an important broodmare whose progeny include the daughters Nobilaire, First Mirage and Mountain Sunshine, all of whom produced stakes winners. Another daughter of Home By Dark, Dusky Evening, produced the dam of Java Gold.
As well, Dark Mirage’s had other individuals in a pedigree that was loaded with talent : Princequillo (1940), Hyperion (1930), Bubbling Over (1923), Fairway (1925) and Swynford (1907) appeared within her first 5 generations. Further back, through Home By Dark, the tiny filly traced to The Tetrarch (1911), Domino(1891) and his descendant, the great Ben Brush(1893), sire of Sweep (1907) a Belmont Stakes winner who was also the BM sire of 2 Triple Crown winners: War Admiral (1934) and Whirlaway (1938).
The filly’s breeder, Duval A. Headley, the former trainer of Menow, hailed from a family that was itself American thoroughbred royalty. Hal Prince Headley, who owned Alcibiades and her son, Menow, the sire of the wonderful Tom Fool, was Duval’s uncle and the two formed a close training and breeding partnership.
Home By Dark’s little daughter had been small at birth, but even by the time she had matured, Dark Mirage only stood 15.1 hands and weighed a mere 710 lbs. (most horses weigh in at something like 1,000 lbs. when they go into training). None of which endeared her to Duval Headley. So it was that she went to Keeneland’s 1966 Summer Sale, where she brought $6,000 USD from racing enthusiast Llloyd I. Miller, described as a “real classy gent” by his trainer, the irascible Everett W. King.
In these days of stable tours and engaging trainers, Everett King would have been considered a complete misfit. He was a crusty character who had little time for such niceties.King ran a tough ship and no-one escaped his barbed tongue if they stepped out of line, be they human or horse. He liked the privacy of his stable and he loved his horses. Not a cotton-candy kind of love, mind you. More the kind built on respect.
Said trainer Leroy Jolley of the Plainview Lounge, a bar owned by King across from Belmont Park: “Kingie’s bar is some kind of tough joint. Joe Frazier and five bodyguards wouldn’t dare walk in there on a Saturday night. But Kingie is right there. He doesn’t back off from anybody. He’s the toughest 55 year-old guy I’ve ever met.”
When Dark Mirage arrived at King’s stable, he must have been rather surprised, since she was the size of a child’s pony and, as it turned out, a munchkin with a temper as fiery as his own. It was not so much that she’d been mistreated as ignored and she’d already learned a defensive repertoire that was designed to keep her safe from larger members of the herd. Training horses is enough like teaching to assume that, as happens in the classroom, the ones that fight you the most are the ones you never forget. Students that are difficult often are also responsible for teaching a teacher how to teach — if the teacher lets them. So we imagine it went, between the tough trainer and the “Tiny Tigress,” as she came to be known by her racing public.
The filly with the bay coat so dark that it looked black had an average 2 year-old season, making 15 starts with a record of 2-3-2. The attention Dark Mirage got had more to do with her size and some of the press even saw fit to write slapstick vignettes about her:
“…When horse trainer Everett King first looked into a stall at the yearling owner Lloyd I. Miller had brought to him, he though there had been a terrible mistake. The animal quivering in the corner looked less like it belonged in a stall than a kennel. Or a cage.
‘Did you trap it or buy it?’ King demanded. ‘She’s just little. She’s a filly,’ he was told. ‘I can see that,’ snapped King. ‘But a filly what?’
‘Back home,’ he added, ‘we make stew out of bigger varmits than that. What do you feed it – cheese? Put it in a room and every woman there would jump up on a table and holler. Better not let it out or the rooster might eat it. Or if it gets in the chickens a farmer might shoot it. And put a collar on it or they’ll take it to the pound.’
They named the filly ‘Dark Mirage’, and for days, they kept checking it for antlers or to see if it chased cats.
‘Our biggest worry was someone would step on it’ King recalls. ‘We told the boys before they stuck a pitchfork in a pile of straw, to blow on it first and see if Dark Mirage was under there’………”
Jim Murray of the The Los Angeles Times (1969)
It’s doubtful that King ever read this kind of story or, if he did, he treated it as nonsense. The trainer had seen a spark in his tiny filly that made him think her second racing season might be different. If anyone would know, it would be Everett King, who had a reputation for being particularly excellent with fillies. The other thing King knew about was a thoroughbred’s heart — and he knew that a big heart could come wrapped up in a tiny package.
Dark Mirage’s 3 year-old campaign began in defeat, in March at Aqueduct, where she finished fourth, 7 1/2 lengths from the winner under jockey Ron Turcotte. It would be the final defeat of her career.
After this race, it seemed as though Dark Mirage had gone to bed a girl and awoken a woman. Something had clicked and the click might well have come in the form of a 25 year-old brunette called Tuesdee Testa, who was the wife of King’s stable manager, Al. The young woman who wanted to ride professionally and who would become the first woman to ever ride competitively at a major American racetrack (Santa Anita), was Dark Mirage’s regular exercise rider and buddy, the one who walked her, fed her and often groomed her. Tuesdee loved her Tiny Tigress and they established an instant rapport, in part because a woman who wanted to be a professional jockey in the 1960’s and a thoroughbred no taller than a pony shared a lot in common: the need to fund the courage to realize their destinies in the face of huge obstacles.
At a time when (male) jockeys boycotted races where female jockeys were riding and the presence of a woman in the post parade drew hisses and worse, Everett Kelly had nothing but praise for Tuesdee “I’ve had a few riders, and I’ve never had one as good as she is at the beginning. She has better hands and knows more about handling horses than Sammy Boulmetis did when he was starting out…she can do it all.“ (NOTE: Samuel L. Boulmetis Sr. , born in 1927, was a skillful jockey who was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1973. Of all the horses Boulmetis rode, the best was the great mare Tosmah, whom he guided to no less than 7 major stakes victories against fillies and colts.)
Dark Mirage’s transformation made itself known in her next race — a 7f allowance. She literally walked away from the rest of the field, winning by 9 lengths. King then raced her in the Prioress, where she again prevailed, followed by the La Troienne, where she scooted across the finish 3 lengths ahead of her rivals. Manuel aka “Manny” Ycaza was now her permanent jockey and under his guidance, Dark Mirage would win another 6 consecutive races. In the Kentucky Oaks, the talented Ycaza and the “mighty mite” won by 4 1/2 lengths, going away.
The original Filly Triple Crown was hosted at Belmont Park from 1957-2002 and again from 2007-2009. In 1968, it was comprised of the Acorn Stakes, the Mother Goose and the Coaching Club American Oaks. King figured his little girl was ready to step into the line of fire. By the time she ran in the Acorn, Dark Mirage was very fit — and showing an irrepressible spirit around the barn. Her day was not complete without harassing her team. But now Dark Mirage showed no meanness; instead, she had graduated to becoming an equine prankster. Growled the trainer to a journalist, “You just can’t turn your back on her these days. You gotta watch her all the time.” Had she not had the benefit of an experienced rider in Tuesdee and a savvy trainer, keeping Dark Mirage happy within herself throughout the Triple Crown trail would have been impossible. But, as things turned out, Dark Mirage and Manny Ycaza made the their race to stardom look like a walk in the park.
In the Acorn and the Mother Goose, Dark Mirage set new track records, equalling the Belmont track record in the Acorn. In the CC American Oaks, she put on a performance for the ages. Taking the lead midway, Dark Mirage doubled her distance from the other fillies all the way home. At 6 furlongs she led by 3, at the mile by 6 and at the wire, by 12. Ycaza hardly moved in the saddle and Dark Mirage sailed to victory in 2:01.4. It was the fastest CC Oaks ever clocked and the fans roared her home from the eighth pole to the finish. Wrote Steve Cady in the New York Times, under the header Some Ponies Can Grow Ten Feet Tall : “…When she reached the finish, ears cocked and neck bowed, she was galloping along with no more apparent effort than a saddle horse out for leisurely bridle-path canter.”
Mr. Lloyd’s pint-sized filly had won the 3 races of the Triple Crown for fillies by a combined margin of 28 lengths.
Here is an album of Dark Mirage’s Triple Crown, concluding with film footage of the races themselves. The quality of the video is not great, but it does enable readers to see this fabulous filly in action.
The very first winner of the Triple Crown for fillies made her next two public appearances in the Monmouth and Delaware Oaks. Dark Mirage won the former by 4 lengths. The latter was almost an honorary race, given the fact that Delaware suspended betting (because the filly was a pro at creating huge minus betting pools every time she ran) and Dark Mirage won it by 2 lengths. Shortly after the Delaware Oaks, the Tiny Tigress came up with a minor ankle injury and was given some R & R for the remainder of the season. It surprised no-one that she won Champion Three-Year Old Filly honours as 1968 came to a close.
Once the injury had healed, King shipped his Queen out to California, where she would begin her 4 year-old campaign. Rumours were already flying as to her “first date” once she was retired. Speculation was that Dr. Fager topped the list and this only added to her cachet as the West Coast eagerly awaited Dark Mirage’s racing debut.
The Santa Maria Stakes were chosen as a good season opener for the Triple Crown winner. Princessnesian, an older mare, was also entered, but the connections of Gamely avoided her. The Santa Maria showed the racing world that Dark Mirage hadn’t lost any of her determination or ability: walled in by other runners, jockey Eddie Belmonte finally found an opening and the filly dived through it and into the clear, leaving Princessnesian — who went on to win the 1969 Hollywood Gold Cup against the colts — a head too short at the finish. A small margin of victory, to be sure. But considering the rough trip, it felt as good as a length. In this footage, Tuesdee Testa is shown aboard her favourite thoroughbred just prior to the day of the race.
On February 26, 1969, Tuesdee Testa made history riding the Everett King- trained Gallarush at Santa Anita, becoming the first woman jockey to ever ride at a major American race track. She and Gallarush finished last, but Everett King didn’t see it as a blemish, asserting that Tuesdee didn’t have enough “quality” under her to do any better. On March 1, 1969, Tuesdee was back in the saddle again and won aboard Lloyd Miller’s Buz On. And even though horse and jockey had been roundly booed in the post parade, when it was all over King was quick to point out that even the immortal Eddie Arcaro hadn’t won his first race in only his second start. It should have been a day that Tuesdee would remember as the realization of a dream. But it didn’t turn out that way.
Dark Mirage, running in the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap the same day, carrying an additional 130 lbs. over a sloppy track, broke down.
Here’s Leon Rasmussen’s account in the Thoroughbred Record (March 8, 1969):
“…Not enough can be said for Belmonte. As soon as he sensed Dark Mirage was not right he began to ease her and when they stopped, he quickly jumped off, took off the tack and held the filly’s injured right foreleg in his hand until the horse ambulance arrived.
The trouble began at the start, when Sinking Spring, breaking from next to the outside in post position 9, veered sharply toward the rail. As a result, Dark Mirage, breaking from post position 5, was severely jarred. Belmonte immediately took hold of Dark Mirage ‘ to give her some confidence. When she changed her lead going to the turn, I thought something was wrong and when I asked her to run a little bit and she had nothing, I knew something had happened.’
Adding to the trouble at the start was what looked like a large piece of cellophane paper — perhaps a Baggie — which had blown onto the track at the clubhouse turn. Swiftsure Stables’ Hooplah, who was setting the pace at the time, tried to jump it, and Dark Mirage , who many thought had stumbled shortly before, also tried to jump the paper.”
Everett King ran to his filly, Tuesdee at his heels.
At first, it looked as though the dislocated sesamoid in her right foreleg would heal. Only 2 days after the race, King reported that the filly was walking on the injured leg, albeit gingerly. The trainer expected her to race again. So Dark Mirage was put into a cast and, with the constant attention of a stellar veterinary team, began the long road to recovery. Her owner announced her retirement and, as had been anticipated, she was booked to Dr. Fager.
The problem was that the new injury was near one that had sidelined the filly at the end of her 3 year-old season. Dark Mirage fought gallantly, but her body just couldn’t do it. The bones refused to heal and the filly’s good foreleg began to buckle under the extra weight. After still another round of surgery, it became clear that nothing else could be done for Dark Mirage and she was put down in July, 1969.
The Tiny Tigress was buried at Tartan Farm (now Winding Oaks Farm) in Ocala, Florida. Nearby lies the grave of Dr. Fager, who was to be her first suitor.
Dark Mirage was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974: http://www.racingmuseum.org/hall-of-fame/horses-view.asp?varID=55