“Keeneland Library Cook Collection.” – Nellie Morse
By Jennifer Kelly
Swiss Skydiver made history in the 145th Preakness Stakes, beating Kentucky Derby winner Authentic in a stretch duel reminiscent of Easy Goer versus Sunday Silence and Rags to Riches versus Curlin. In recognizing this girl power moment, we are reminded of the list of other Preakness winning fillies, including Nellie Morse (1924). In the year that brought us the tragic and immortal story of Black Gold came a filly who proved to be as tough as nails in more ways than one, overcoming an uncertain beginning to make history on the racetrack and then again in the breeding shed.
Sometimes the best stories in racing start in the most humble places.
He’s a Funny Guy
By 1921, Jack Keene had had enough of La Venganza. The breeder, whose farm soon would become a world famous racetrack, was ready to disperse of this particular broodmare, who had not produced much despite foaling a fair stakes winner for her previous owner, mining millionaire James B. Haggin. Keene gave the eighteen-year-old La Venganza to a nearby farmer, but only on the condition that the foal she was carrying, by Belmont Stakes champion Luke McLuke, would be returned to Keene as soon as it was weaned.
Months later, Keene returned to check in on La Venganza and her foal, discovering that his erstwhile broodmare had given birth to a lovely filly – on a tobacco farm strewn with dangerous equipment. As long as the filly remained on the property of this now-anonymous farmer, she and La Venganza needed to be kept in the barn rather than turned out lest either meet with injury in such a place. The next year, Keene figured that this “hothouse filly” would be no good on the racetrack so he brought La Venganza’s filly to Saratoga for the 1922 yearling sales. There, she sold for $2,000 to Harry Conway Fisher, a gentleman better known as “Bud.”
Though he was just starting out as an owner, Bud Fisher was not new to horse racing: his Mutt & Jeff comic strip had grown out of his daily A.Mutt comics that once graced the sports pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, sometimes touting picks for that day’s races. The money he had made from the syndication of Mutt & Jeff enabled him to start buying and racing horses, including the aptly named Mr. Mutt and that La Venganza filly that Fisher named for his mother, Nellie Morse.
At two, her somewhat dubious beginnings didn’t seem to keep Nellie Morse from developing into a good racehorse. She ran twenty-two times in her juvenile season, winning the five-furlong Fashion Stakes at Belmont Park and finishing second in the Matron and the Spinaway Stakes. Her trainer Alex Gordon thought so highly of her that she was nominated for both the Kentucky Oaks and the Pimlico Oaks, now known as the Black-Eyed Susan. In between those two starts, the filly made an interesting pit stop, a race that put her in rarified company.
The Girl’s Got Something
The Pimlico Oaks was nascent yet prestigious as a stakes race when Nellie Morse took to the track with five others for the 1 1/16-mile test. On a sloppy track, she ran just behind the front runner Relentless, making a move for the lead around the half-mile mark. Her length-and-a-half lead shrunk as Relentless, carrying eight pounds less, came on again and almost caught Nellie Morse in the stretch. The Fisher filly held on to win by a head, joining fillies like Cleopatra and Milkmaid on the list of past Pimlico Oaks winners. Five days later, on May 13th, the filly represented Fisher again at Pimlico, this time in the Preakness Stakes.
Mr. Mutt had been cited as Fisher’s Preakness candidate, but a muddy track meant that he was a no-go for the Preakness. Instead, trainer Alex Gordon sent Nellie Morse, fresh off her victory in the Pimlico Oaks, as the lone filly in a field of fifteen. The track was the wettest that many observers had ever seen, but, much like in the Oaks, Nellie Morse thrived in the slop. At the start, she avoided Big Blaze, who swerved outward from his inside post position, and took up a position six lengths behind Sun Flag. As they entered the final turn, Sun Flag began to tire, signaling Nellie Morse’s opportunity to take the lead. She was alone as they entered the homestretch, two lengths in front, but then the late-running Transmute made his run at her, shortening the distance between them. Two taps from jockey John Merrimee and Nellie Morse dug deep to pull away from Transmute, winning by a length and a half. She was the fourth filly to win the Preakness and the second to win since the race had been renewed in 1909. Her prize was the $54,000 purse and favoritism in the Kentucky Oaks, nearly three weeks hence.
Fisher, who thought the Preakness was the following day, was at sea when Nellie Morse won and found out after the fact, exultant that his filly won that classic but disappointed that Mr. Mutt had to be scratched. Hopefully, Mr. Mutt’s second place finish in the Belmont Stakes and then his win in the Saratoga Cup that August soothed his regret.
On May 31st, Nellie Morse was at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Oaks, the favorite in a field of eight. On a fast track, she stalked the front runner Ohone until that filly faded after six furlongs. Nellie Morse then took the lead until the top of the stretch, when Glide began her drive for the lead. In the last sixteenth of a mile, Glide swerved into the paths of at least three horses, including Nellie Morse, causing them all to check in the midst of their stretch drives. Glide slid under the wire two lengths in front, but was promptly disqualified for interference. That moved second place finisher Princess Doreen up to first and then Nellie Morse from third place to second.
That interference from Glide cost Nellie Morse the Oaks and her chance to follow up on her sensational performance in the Pimlico Oaks and the Preakness Stakes. By September, unable to maintain that winning form, Nellie Morse took a break until 1925. The best she could do as a four year old was a couple of second place finishes before she was retired in late June 1925.
For Fisher, Nellie Morse produced a couple of foals by his stallion Sporting Blood, but neither were horses of note. In 1931, Fisher wanted to send her to Man o’ War, but that icon was unavailable so he was given the opportunity to send her to American Flag, a son of Man o’ War, instead. That same year, Fisher decided to liquidate his holdings as he was stepping away from both his work on Mutt & Jeff and from horse racing. At same time, Warren Wright was buying horses as he worked to build Calumet Farm into a thoroughbred racing and breeding powerhouse. He bought Nellie Morse at Fisher’s dispersal sale for $6,100, adding the Preakness winner to his fledgling broodmare band. The next year, she foaled filly, Nellie Flag. At two, Nellie Flag became Calumet’s first champion, and then, at three, she would attempt a run at the Triple Crown classics herself, coming in fourth in the 1935 Kentucky Derby and seventh in the Preakness Stakes, both behind Triple Crown winner Omaha.
As a broodmare, Nellie Flag extended the great genetics that brought her dam a Preakness. From their bloodlines came Nellie L., the 1943 Kentucky Oaks winner; Bet Twice, the 1987 Belmont Stakes winner; and Bold Forbes, who won both the 1976 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
Now, nearly a century after her Preakness, Nellie Morse lives on both as one of the rare fillies that bested the boys in a Triple Crown classic and as the matriarch of a family that includes still more classic winners. Like Rachel Alexandra and Swiss Skydiver, her 21st century counterparts, the name Nellie Morse is another nod to the tenacity and grit of girl power on the racetrack.