Photo Credit: Jim Raftery–Jacinto Vasquez Aboard Christmas Past
“Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin.”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Many productions of Dickens’s classic portray the Ghost of Christmas Past as a woman, delicate yet strong, clad in a tunic pure white like snow, her figure shimmering light and dark like the glistening of a winter night’s sky. In the early 1980s, the light and dark dapples of a gray filly flickered with each stride of her elegant legs as she whipped by other horses on her way to the wire. Like her namesake Dickens character, the filly Christmas Past was a throwback to those closers of yore, horses that liked to run long and late like Triple Crown winner Omaha, Stymie, Forego, and Silky Sullivan.
Bred and owned by Cynthia Phipps, daughter of Pillar of the Turf Ogden Mills Phipps, this gray filly was a daughter of French champion Grey Dawn II and the festively named Yule Log. Grey Dawn II had been champion two-year-old in France, racing best at shorter distances, but siring a number of stayers, including Heavenly Cause, who won the Kentucky Oaks, Acorn Stakes, and Frizette Stakes in 1981. Yule Log was a stakes winner in her career on the track; in addition, she was by Bold Ruler, the sire of Secretartiat, and out of the mare Plum Cake, which made Yule Log a valuable broodmare prospect. Plum Cake was also the dam of Sweet Tooth, the 1977 Broodmare of the Year and dam of Alydar, second only to Affirmed in the 1978 Triple Crown races. Christmas Past, her dapples reminiscent of her champion father’s, was small and feminine, but within her delicate frame lay the stamina and speed necessary to do great things.
As a two-year-old, though, she took her time getting to the races, her first start coming in September 1981. Her trainer Angel Penna, Jr. was the son of the Hall of Famer Angel Penna, Sr., known for winning races in both Europe and the United States, including recent Hall of Fame inductee Waya’s victory in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. The younger Penna had gone out on his own in 1980; among his earliest owners was Phipps, who raced in the colors of Wheatley Stable, her grandmother’s stable which also had bred and raced Seabiscuit and Bold Ruler. Christmas Past raced twice at age two, coming in third in both races at Belmont Park. Penna took his horse down to Florida for the winter racing and that’s where Christmas Past began to shine.
In January 1982, Christmas Past made her three-year-old debut in a maiden special weight race at Hialeah Park, finishing second, and then went on to break her maiden by eleven lengths two weeks later. In early March, Penna entered the gray filly in the festively named Grade III Poinsettia Stakes, where she faced other stakes winners. The favorite Larida set a slow pace, allowing Christmas Past to stalk the front runners until the stretch, when Christmas Past blew by her to win by six lengths. The gray daughter of Grey Dawn II followed up that stakes victory with another in the Bonnie Miss at Gulfstream Park only three weeks later, with a similar stalking performance. There, she took advantage of another slow pace to pass the leaders in the stretch, taking the lead before jockey Jacinto Vasquez could even ask her to move. Her performance was so visually impressive that Christmas Past began to appear on the list of fillies in consideration for the Kentucky Oaks, but Phipps and Penna opted instead to send the filly back to New York for the Filly Triple Crown races.
There, she met Cupecoy’s Joy, the filly who had lead that year’s Kentucky Derby for the first mile before fading to tenth behind eventual winner Gato Del Sol. Her connections also had entered her in the Preakness Stakes, but scratched her at the eleventh hour, sending her to the Albany Stakes instead. Six days after her second-place finish in the Albany, Cupecoy’s Joy joined Christmas Past and seven others for the one-mile Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park, the first jewel of the Filly Triple Crown. Cupecoy’s Joy won the Acorn, breaking Ruffian’s stakes record for the mile. Christmas Past finished fifth. The two fillies would meet again in the Mother Goose nearly two weeks later.
The nine-furlong Mother Goose was a better fit for a late-running filly like Christmas Past. She preferred to have ground to run off the pace and then make her move, benefitting from longer and longer distances. This time, Christmas Past gave Cupecoy’s Joy a real challenge. Cupecoy’s Joy had run on the lead for the entire race, holding off Nancy Huang first and then a late-charging Christmas Past. The margin of victory was only three-quarters of a length. Could Christmas Past have caught the leader if she had had more track? That question would be answered in the final leg of the Filly Triple Crown, the Coaching Club American Oaks.
The Coaching Club American Oaks dates back to 1917, a race conceived to mirror the Epsom Oaks in England, much as the Kentucky Derby was modeled after the Epsom Derby. The race has been run at a variety of distances, from its current distance of a mile and an eighth to its longest of a mile and a half. In 1982, the Oaks was a mile and a half, which Penna felt was the ideal distance for Christmas Past to beat Cupecoy’s Joy. The gray daughter of Grey Dawn II sat chilly in fifth, waiting until the final turn to make her move. With a quarter of a mile left in the race, Christmas Past overtook the front-running winner of the Acorn and the Mother Goose to spoil Cupecoy’s Joy’s bid for the Filly Triple Crown.
Chirstmas Past faced fillies three more times in 1982, winning the Monmouth Oaks and the Ruffian Handicap before trying the boys in the mile and a half Jockey Club Gold Cup. That field included Lemhi Gold, winner of the Marlboro Cup; Woodward Stakes winner Island Whirl; and Timely Writer, winner of the Florida Derby among other Grade I stakes wins. The race ended tragically, as Timely Writer broke down with a half-mile left, collapsing to the track. Two other horses fell as a result; both Timely Writer and Johnny Dance were euthanized as a result. Christmas Past managed to avoid the trouble, finishing third behind Lemhi Gold and Silver Supreme. Penna gave the filly a rest after the Gold Cup, opting to wait until February to bring Christmas Past back to the races.
The gray filly returned to the track as a champion after winning the Eclipse Award for Champion Three-Year-Old Filly, beating out fillies like Cupecoy’s Joy for that honor. At four, Christmas Past won her first race of 1983 by five lengths, Penna using that allowance race as a tune-up for the Gulfstream Park Handicap. Two weeks later, she faced the boys again, the only filly in a field of twelve. She carried 117 pounds, but she should have been the race’s high weight after the Daily Racing Form named her their high weight for her sex and age in their Free Handicap. Instead she went off as the second highest weight in the race, with Rivalero carrying three more pounds.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Christmas Past was tenth on the backstretch, moving to the outside to take her shot at the leaders. In the stretch, Crafty Prospector took the lead, Rivalero a neck behind. Christmas Past was still to the outside, turning on the speed as the field thundered toward the finish. With only a sixteenth of a mile to go, she caught Crafty Propspector, sticking her nose out in front at the wire. This daughter of Grey Dawn II and Yule Log had beaten the boys finally, demonstrating why she took home the title of best three-year-old filly of 1982. That victory was to be her last start.
Though Christmas Past was racing sound at the time, the filly had a series of minor physical ailments, including several incidents of respiratory bleeding, that made Angel Penna, Jr. hesitant about future starts and higher weights. She had proven so much on the track already so Phipps opted to retire Christmas Past to the broodmare life. Over her lifetime, Christmas Past produced ten foals, including seven starters and five winners. Despite her own purple pedigree, the gray daughter of Grey Dawn II did not have a foal as great as herself, likely a result of the stallions chosen for her. Her daughter Christmas List did produce a stakes winner in Check It Twice.
In 1983, Christmas Past became part of the Aiken (SC) Thoroughbred Hall of Fame; she had started her training in Aiken under the tutelage of Jack Warner. Phipps continued the holiday theme with Christmas Past’s foals, with names like Christmas List, Be Bright, Boxing Day, and Wrapped. Cynthia Phipps died from injuries she sustained in a fire in her Manhattan apartment in 2007. In 2008, Christmas Past was euthanized at age 29, old age taking its toll. Over her career, she won at a variety of distances, beating both fillies and colts, and taking home classics like the Coaching Club American Oaks. This holiday, as you celebrate with friends and family, as you look forward to 2020 and another year of great racing, I hope you will take heed of Christmas Past and remember a filly that gamely faced both sexes and thundered home in front of some of the best of her generation in the process.