Racing's curmudgeons, of which far too many exist, decry the lack of stars in their sport. Actually, racing in America boasts at least four horses with star power.
In addition to Funny Cide and Empire Maker, the top 3-year-olds on course to meet Aug. 23 in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, the sport features a pair of 5-year-old mares who've won 18 straight races between them. One is North America's reigning Horse of the Year. The other is an international star who last weekend made her first start in this country.
The Horse of the Year, of course, is Azeri, winner of 10 straight (eight Grade I stakes and two Grade II's). She has lost only once in 14 races. Based in California, Azeri has raced only three times outside her home state, and never farther east than Illinois.
The international star is Ipi Tombe, winner of the Locust Grove Handicap last weekend at Churchill Downs. It was her eighth straight victory, coming on three continents. Taking nothing away from Azeri, Ipi Tombe may be the best female racehorse in the world - and one of the best, of either sex, on turf.
Unlike Azeri, who has never raced against males, Ipi Tombe has raced against males nine times, and beaten them every time but once. The other difference is that Ipi Tombe competes on turf, and Azeri races on dirt. They're not likely ever to compete against each other.
Ipi Tombe is pronounced IPP-ee TOM-bee and means "where are the girls?" Barry Irwin, president of the racing syndicate Team Valor, which owns 25 percent of Ipi Tombe, provides this brief account of her history:
She was one of 468 foals born in 1998 in the African country of Zimbabwe. Her sire is Manshood, an unraced (because of injury) son of Mr. Prospector and the Storm Bird mare Indian Skimmer, a multiple Group I winner in Europe. Ipi Tombe's dam is Carnet de Danse, a granddaughter of Northern Dancer who won three races in England.
Ipi Tombe won three of four races against males in Zimbabwe, and then she won four of five races in South Africa. Four were against females, but the fifth, the Durban July Cup Handicap, was against males in South Africa's biggest race. She became the first 3-year-old filly to win the race since 1955.
At that point, an agent from whom Irwin had once bought a horse, contacted Irwin about possibly buying Ipi Tombe. Irwin, who lives in Kentucky, watched her races on tape, and then he and one of Team Valor's trainers, Elliott Walden, sold the idea to the heads of WinStar farm in Kentucky.
With Ipi Tombe valued at $750,000, WinStar bought half and Team Valor one quarter. The other quarter remained with the mare's original 22 African owners. The new ownership group sent its horse, already dubbed Africa's greatest, out into the world - to the Middle East.
In Dubai, she won three races against males, setting course records in two and a stakes record in the third. In her final start there, Ipi Tombe devoured males March 29 in the Dubai Duty Free, a $2 million stakes on the undercard of the Dubai World Cup.
She arrived in April at Walden's barn at Churchill Downs. In the Locust Grove, a Grade III stakes against females, Ipi Tombe, the 2-5 favorite, missed her break, rushed into contention, and then, at the head of the stretch under jockey Pat Day, bulled between horses and won by a half length.
Trainer Neil Howard, whose Quick Tip finished third, told the Louisville Courier-Journal: "The margin doesn't show what I saw, believe me. Everybody was whipping and driving, and [Day] was pulling up. ... That filly is magnificent."
Irwin says Ipi Tombe will race July 26 in the Diana Handicap at Saratoga, and then possibly Aug. 16 against males in the Arlington Million at Arlington Park.
Ipi Tombe is not nominated to the Breeders' Cup, and Irwin says he's not inclined to run her in that year-end series. Instead, he says, his goal is for her to clinch the Eclipse Award as top female turf runner before the Breeders' Cup - and then to race again next year at 6.
"I think she's so good that unless some unusual circumstance happens," Irwin says, "I just don't see her ever getting beat."
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