Imagine a filly you can throw anything at ….. and she comes home in the money 126 times.
In his seminal book “Racing In America: 1866-1921,” W.S. Vosburgh confers pride of place to three of the greatest fillies to ever race in North America: the bay dynamo, Miss Woodford (1880), the diminutive great-grandaughter of Stockwell, Firenze (usually spelled “Firenzi” in racing texts of the day) who was born in 1884, and the pride of the Buckeye State, Imp (1894). Vosburgh wasn’t noted for handing out compliments blithely. He served as a track official, as well as establishing himself as an authority on thoroughbred conformation and bloodlines. Vosburgh’s assertion that Miss Woodford, Firenze and Imp swept all before them is not to be taken lightly, since he was committed to the development of the American thoroughbred and noted for his shrewd analysis of the champions of the day.
Imp was bred and owned by D.R. Harness of Chillicothe, Ohio, a horseman distinguished by the victory of his General Duke (1865) in the 1868 Belmont Stakes, a success story of the then McConnell-Harness Stable in which he was part owner. Imp was an ungainly foal, but in spite of this Harness kept her, perhaps because she was bred in the purple. A direct descendant of both the Darley Arabian and Eclipse, Imp’s sire was the British stallion Wagner (1882), a grandson of Prince Charlie (1869), who traced his roots back to Blair Athol (1861). Prince Charlie’s best progeny was undoubtedly Salvator (1886), although Exterminator(1915) also traced back to him on the distaff side. Imp’s dam, Fondling (1886) who only raced once before sustaining a career-ending injury was a Harness homebred. The mare traced back to Lexington (1850) through her granddam, Kitty Heron (1875), who was by another Harness champion, Chillicothe (1867).The black filly with the white star on her brow was Fondling’s first foal.
Harness turned Imp over to trainer Charles E. Brossman, another Ohio native, even though he doubted that she had any real talent. Imp had an eccentric personality — going to work, she appeared indifferent. Once urged to breeze, her leggy, developing body took time to gather and organize itself. And when she ran, Imp kept her head low to the ground, loping along in a seemingly half-conscious state. Had he known about the idol of Hungarian racing, KINCSEM (1874), Harness might have seen Imp’s odd sensibility and running style as a precursor of greatness.
It was probably just as well that there weren’t high expectations for Imp, since her juvenile season gave no hint of what was to come. The filly did, however, manage to win 4 of her 11 starts.
The three year-old Imp was a stronger, fitter filly who had filled out enough to persuade her trainer to step up her racing schedule: between April 1 -November 15 she went to the post 50 times, averaging 3 starts about every two weeks. In her final race of the year, the rich Lakeside Handicap, Imp won by 15 lengths. Throughout 1897, she had run in everything from sprints to longer courses, her best performances being 1:13 1/4 (6f) and 1:26 3/4 (in a dash @ 7/8). Even though she carried enough weight that an impost of 90 lbs. was considered “a feather,” Imp was in the money 35 times, winning 14.
Following a brief rest, Imp returned in 1898 looking so superb that she was described as “…one of the fanciest pieces of horseflesh ever seen” and “the Ohio mare with the black satin coat.” Trainer Brossman, who split all winnings with owner Harness, had mapped out an even more arduous campaign for his four year-old star. And Imp obliged, winning her first 4 starts over distances of 5 1/2f to 1 mile 50 yards. Carrying imposts as high as 119 lbs., she nevertheless set a track record going the mile and fifty. Brossman, described by Vosburgh as “a man of talent and education, who brought her [Imp] through a campaign that reflected the greatest credit to him” was beginning to wonder whether the West could offer his mare the kind of competition that builds a thoroughbred’s stamina.
Sure enough, in less than two months, Imp had captured 10 of 11 starts. At this point, she had run out of any serious opposition, prompting Brossman to bring her to New York where, for the very first time (in the New York Times) she was hailed as “The Queen of the West.” The aim was for The Queen to capture The Suburban, which carried the exceedingly rich purse of $10,000. Handicapped by 102 lbs., plus another 4 for a recent victory at Sheepshead Bay, Imp went to the post. A sixteenth of a mile from the wire, it appeared that she would win it. But just as suddenly, the great black body began to tire and she finished sixth, even though she was only beaten by less than 4 lengths.
However disappointed he may have been, Brossman was quick to start her again and the track officials were as nimble: Imp ran carrying 135 lbs. in a race she very likely could not win since, to quote one observer, “…she found the burden too troublesome.” Imp’s trainer was sufficiently enraged by her impost to ship his entire stable to Chicago. Once there, the Queen of the West continued to race: in her two final starts of the year — run back-to-back in November — Imp carried 125 lbs. to place and then bounced back the very next day to take the Lakeside Handicap in what the chart noted as “…a common canter by 6 lengths.” At the close of her 4 year-old season, Imp had started 35 times, winning 21, with 6 seconds and 3 thirds. She was given a rest while Brossman plotted her 1899 campaign, the crowning jewel of which was to be a win in the rich Suburban.
Imp seemed to find it tough going at the start of her 5 year-old season: it took her seven attempts before she found her way into the winners circle, four weeks before the Suburban Handicap. Running under the highest weight and giving 17-35 lbs. to her competition, she nevertheless won a 9f. race at Morris Park by a length going away. Were she running today, Imp probably wouldn’t even have been started in the Suburban, but Brossman not only started her, he ran her five more times at Gravesend before she appeared on the track at Sheepshead Bay to make her second attempt at a race that had never been won by a filly or mare before.
Her groom, Tom Tandy, never doubted that she would win and was her greatest fan. Tom knew his big black mare better than anyone and the kind look in Imp’s eye whenever Tom is near speaks louder than words. He was the man who washed her down, hot-walked her, fed her and travelled with her from track to track. His life was a hard one but Imp must have brightened it with the kind of glow a man carries when he’s loved a champion thoroughbred. The little we know about Tom comes, once again, from W.S. Vosburgh whose shrewd eye missed very little when it came to horses and the people around them. It was the groom’s habit to stand close to the rail when Imp ran and, as the field streamed by, he would shout to her jockey, ” Let her sleep! Don’t wake her up!” — a reference to Imp’s deceptive, somnolent racing style that nevertheless allowed her to pick off the competition and get home well ahead of most of the field. W.S. Vosburgh goes on to say that as Imp became a racing idol, Tom Tandy was sought out by racegoers, punters and sports writers alike. (NOTE: In fact, Vosburgh never referred to Imp’s groom by name, although the New York Times [December 23, 1900] names Tom Tandy as Imp’s “rubber” and associates him directly with the call to “Let her sleep,” adding that Tom’s view was that Imp did her best running when “sleeping.” The same article goes on to say that when Imp heard Tom calling out the familiar phrase she quickened and usually won. In another account of the great mare’s career, her groom’s name is given as Heber. This kind of confusion isn’t unusual when we look into the past. It is possible that Heber and Tom Tandy were both close companions of Imp. It’s also possible that the source of the Heber account was mistaken. What we do know is that Tom Tandy is the groom most pictured with Imp.)
The cast of the 1899 Suburban was the cream of the East: Bannockburn (1895), Warrenton (1895), Previous (1895), Black Candle (1895) and the great Banastar (1895), who had already defeated the Queen of the West twice that year, in the Toboggan and the Metropolitan Handicap, respectively. Happily for her connections, Imp was given an impost of only 114 lbs. which was fortuitous given the events of that day.
The track was a hub of activity well before the Suburban was run and would, in fact, break attendance records. Although many of the racing elite were in absentia, the crowd swelled and betting reached an almost hysterical peak before the horses paraded onto the track. Imp ambled out, the handsome Nash Turner on her back, her black coat gleaming. She cut a stately figure in spite of her habitual look of being half-asleep. Those seeing her for the first time might very well have wondered what all the fuss was about, but what they didn’t realize was that when the sleepy lady was awoken she made her competition look as though they were swimming in treacle.
At the starting point, things went amuck as W.C. Whitney’s George Keene (1895) threw a fit that had an onerous effect on the champion colt, Banastar. The filly Briar Sweet (1895) added to the chaos. It took eight tries before the field was sent on its way, a delay of almost 45 minutes. Between starts, Turner opted to rest one leg on a fence post, thus lightening Imp’s burden significantly.
At the break, Banastar was left at the post and once off, bolted sharply, ruining his chances of winning. His jockey, Maher, pulled out his whip and began beating the colt over the head so savagely that he would be fined $200 and banned for 10 days by the track officials for abusing his mount. (Whitney’s George Keene was banned for the whole race meeting, on the grounds that his trainer had “…failed to teach him to break properly, as other horses were taught to do.”)
Incredibly, two of the triad of trouble-makers — Briar Sweet and George Keene — led at the mile turn, with Imp and the colt Filligrane in stalking position right behind them. At this point, Turner saw that he needed to move Imp off the rail, and digging his heels into her they moved to the outside and at the leaders. Imp, with Nash flapping the reins and working her furiously, was ahead at the final turn when Bannockburn came calling. But, as it was described in the New York Times, “…Imp…seemed to have the wings of the wind to help her busy feet along.” The Queen of the West “…came on with a marvellously easy stride that ate up space rapidly and acting as though she could go a couple of miles further, should that be necessary” Imp turned for home, 2 lengths in the lead.
Turner’s eyes were riveted on the finish line. Just as Imp reached it, there was a loud crash: spectators in the infield had torn down the fence and were pouring onto the track. Even though the first three horses were across the finish, a wall of oncoming horses bore down on fans streaming towards the winner. There was much screaming and blowing of whistles but, miraculously, neither person nor horse was injured.
Imp had not only won the Suburban, she also became the first filly/mare to do so AND she ran the fastest 10f in the stakes’ history, cruising across the finish in a time of 2:05 4/5. Harness, Brossman, Tom Tandy and other Ohioans present fairly ripped out their lungs cheering her into the winner’s circle to the tune of “My Coal Black Lady,” played by Lander’s uniformed band. (NOTE: Different accounts differ as to when “My Coal Black Lady” was first played. The New York Times reported that Turner was lifted up on the shoulders of the crowd to the tune of “All Hail The Chief.” Presumably, Lander’s band could have played both tunes that day. Regardless, it is around this time that Imp and the song that was to become her theme are first associated.)
After the Suburban, Imp would often be called “The Coal Black Lady” and her theme song accompanied her into the winner’s circle every race thereafter. Below is an old music box playing “My Coal Black Lady” as it sounded in the late 1800’s.
Although she struggled in two of her next three starts following the Suburban, by June of 1899 Imp was back in form. Remaining in the East, the Coal Black Lady gave Landers and his band lots of opportunity to play her song. In 14 starts, Imp won 8. Her brilliance flashed again in the Brighton Handicap, where, giving weight to champion colts Ethelbert (1896) and Bangle (1895), she came home in 2:05 2/3, smashing still another stakes record. Imp and her connections were now racing royalty and the handsome mare had groupies who followed her from track to track. Newspapers swelled with stories, gossip and rumours about Imp and her entourage, at times to their despair. Brossman came in for much criticism over the fact that he seemed to pick second-rate jockeys to ride the mare, to which he retorted, “I pick jockeys who will ride Imp exactly as I tell them.”
But Imp wasn’t quite finished with her 5 year-old campaign. In what was the best racing season of her career, she won the Ocean Handicap with ease and, carrying 128 lbs., went on to annex the Turf Handicap. One of her final races was the Double Event, involving two races at 10f and 12f, respectively, run at Gravesend over a span of a few days. Since its beginnings in 1886, only three horses — Kingston (1884), Lamplighter (1889) and Ben Brush (1893) — had managed to win it, all champion colts. In 1899, Imp became the fourth — and the first filly/mare — to win the Double, under the guidance of jockey Pete Clay. She concluded her 5 year-old season by winning the Islip and with that win, completed a year of racing that had put paid to the very best thoroughbreds racing in New York state with a consistency that was stunning, earning her Horse of the Year.
It would be fair to say that Imp’s 6 year-old season was a roller coaster ride. The black mare with the whimsical personality and heart of a lioness was no longer a girl — and she had already gone to the start an astonishing 122 times. Her 1900 season began with a string of defeats, in part as a result of carrying weights as high as 133 lbs. and of meeting colts and fillies that were half her age. There were other times when she was absolutely brilliant — at Aqueduct where, having given the advantage to the superstar Jean Beraud (1896), easily the best colt that season, Imp pushed him so hard that he only managed to beat her by a whisker. And in her return to run in the Brighton Handicap, she set a sizzling pace, losing to Ethelbert by the tip of her nose.
That year, Imp smouldered in the Advance Stakes, which she won by 30 lengths, setting a new American and world track record going 1 3/4 miles. The final win of her career came in the Mahopac Handicap, although she continued on, always valiantly, facing whatever conditions were thrown at her. The press began to refer to her as “The Old Mare” and pressure was put on trainer and owner to retire her.
By the time she was led off the track for good in 1901, this amazing mare had started 171 times with a career record of 62 wins, 35 seconds and 29 thirds and earnings of $70,119 (approx.). It was hard, hard work for total earnings that, by 1951, were six times less than for a winner of just one race of the calibre of the Suburban Handicap. Today it seems even more unreal.
Imp set records over 1 1/16, 1 1/4, 1 1/2 and 1 3/4 miles and defeated the most important colts of her era. But her most important contribution was undoubtedly to the sport itself, which she made thrilling for punters and fans alike, race after race.
In 1965 Imp was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.
Below, a golden oldie of the running of the Gravesend Cup (Brooklyn Handicap) at Sheepshead Bay in 1904, won by The Picket (1900). Note how long it takes the track officials to line the horses up…..and we wonder if the cameraman was buried under the dust as the horses rushed by. It sure looks that way! Imp had been retired by then, but the footage still gives viewers a look at Sheepshead Bay as it was when The Coal Black Lady raced there:
Vosburgh, W.S. Racing In America: 1866-1921. NY: The Jockey Club.
O’Keefe, John. The Queen of the West in Turf and Sport Digest, 1952.
Duke, Jacqueline, ed. Women of the Year. Lexington, Kentucky: Blood-Horse Publications, 2004.
Archives of the New York Times, and the San Francisco call (Library of Congress)
A very special thank you to the staff of the Ross County Historical Society for permission to include photographs of Imp from their collection in this article.