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Great Dame
She Was a Beauty, a Spirited Filly Who Ran Against the Best of the Boys--and Beat Them. By Kim Eisler
Comments () | Published May 1, 2002

In many ways, Jenny is a typical of the grandes dames in Middleburg's Hunt Country. She lives on a 400-acre farm with one of her two children, neither of whom quite lived up to expectations. She is surrounded by servants and attendants as well as newspaper clips from the days when she was the belle of the ball.

Even now, hardly a week goes by that an admirer doesn't appear at her driveway, asking for a moment of her time or a locket of her hair or to have a picture taken with her. Many bring gifts--often fruit baskets--although she'd rather have a peppermint.

As similar as she is to other well-to-do Middleburg matrons, one thing sets her apart: Jenny is the only resident of the Hunt Country who has won the Kentucky Derby.

In those days she went by her registered name, Genuine Risk. Looking at the mare today, one can only wonder what she makes of the 25 years of her life--a life of hope and triumph, controversy and lawsuits, frustration and disappointment.

When I visited Genuine Risk, she looked as grand as ever, if somewhat sleepy and a little swaybacked. Her most noticeable feature is the long white blaze that marks her head. Specks of gray now spot her chestnut coloring. But she looks good for her age, despite the scar on her right front leg.

Had Genuine Risk been born a colt, she would be nearing the end of a breeding career that would have produced hundreds of foals, many with names like Genuine This and Genuine That. Had she been a he, this filly might have sired several Kentucky Derby winners, just as her father did. The life of a Derby-winning colt is one of almost continual sex with the classiest mares found in the Kentucky bluegrass.

But Jenny, one of just three fillies to win the Kentucky Derby, was supposed to spend only a day a year in the breeding shed. The rest of the time she would be doing what she does now, romping around with seven other mares and a handful of foals. Jenny has no foal by her side; her most dependable companion is a stumpy, part-Shetland, part-Welch pony named Farnley Trilby.

She lives on the 400-acre Newstead Farm near Upperville owned by racing legends Bert and Diana Firestone. The human she loves to be with most, say her grooms, is the square-jawed Diana, a descendant of Johnson & Johnson founder Robert Wood Johnson; papers filed in a 1986 estate battle then put her worth at $75 million. There was a time when Mrs. Firestone would saddle up her prized mare and canter about the trails alongside Green Garden Road and Snickersville Pike. But today no one rides Jenny.

Bertram Firestone--no relation to the tire manufacturer--made a fortune building warehouses and industrial parks in the 1960s. Racing was his passion. He bought two farms in Ireland from the Aga Khan, then purchased Catoctin Stud outside of Leesburg in 1973. The following year he and Diana, who had her own horse farm in Fauquier County, were married, and they merged their farms into one operation at Catoctin Stud. Their 120 thoroughbreds rotated between Virginia and Ireland.

The Firestones were rich and well known, but they were overshadowed by another Virginia racing family, that of Charlottesville's Penny Chenery, who bred and raced Secretariat, the colt who won racing's Triple Crown in 1973. When Secretariat's breeding rights were syndicated for what was then a record $6 million, Bert and Diana bought shares entitling them to a mating with one of their mares each year.

Two years after Secretariat's feat focused the world's attention on thoroughbred racing, another event captivated the sporting world. In 1975 a brilliant filly named Ruffian and a colt named Foolish Pleasure, who had won the Derby a year earlier, ran a historic race at Belmont Park. It was the era of women's liberation, of Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, of the idea that women could do anything men could do. Ruffian was going to prove it.

The buildup to the race was tremendous. But the filly, owned by the Maryland family of Stuart Janney, broke her leg severely in the middle of the race. Instead of being draped in flowers in the winner's circle, she had to be destroyed and later was buried on the infield at Belmont Park. Ruffian's end, witnessed by a television audience of millions, made her the most beloved and tragic filly in the history of thoroughbred racing.

The following year Bert and Diana took their place at the center of the racing world with a two-year-old colt named Honest Pleasure, out of the same sire as Foolish Pleasure. The colt was trained by LeRoy Jolley, who had trained Foolish Pleasure and had earned the enmity of women's groups with some postrace remarks about fillies. Jolley was from an old Kentucky horse family, and he simply didn't believe in racing fillies against colts.

Honest Pleasure blazed through his two-year-old season and was the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. But on that first Saturday in May of 1976, Honest Pleasure was beaten by Bold Forbes. Bert and Diana's best hope failed to take any of the Triple Crown trophies.

In the next two years two other horses, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, each won the three Triple Crown races, the last two horses to do so. Affirmed was the offspring of a popular stallion named Exclusive Native. When the Firestones went to the Kentucky horse sales in the spring of 1978, the breeding of the flashy colt from California was much on people's minds.

It was the Firestones' 14-year-old son, Matthew, then a military-school student, who first set his sights on a yearling filly sired by Exclusive Native. The filly's mother was Virtuous, a daughter of Gallant Man, who would have won the Kentucky Derby in 1957 had not jockey Willy Shoemaker, riding in his first Derby, misjudged the finish line and stood up in the irons too soon.

Mostly to indulge his son, Bert shelled out $32,000 for the filly and took her home to Catoctin Stud. Reflecting their uncertain feeling about the horse, the name they submitted for her to the Jockey Club--which must approve all racing names--was Genuine Risk. The Firestones had agreed that all their fillies would run under Diana's name and the colts under his, so Diana was registered as the owner.

As the yearling frolicked among the pastures south of the Potomac, nobody in the family thought Jenny was anything special. It was only after she was sent to the Firestones' trainer, the same LeRoy Jolley who had trained Foolish Pleasure and Honest Pleasure, that she began to show some promise. Most racehorses begin to run at the age of two; the two-year-old season prepares them for the big Triple Crown races, in which only three-year-olds can run.

Genuine Risk was striking with her barrel chest and a white blaze down her face. Soon the filly was running competitively with the colts in her morning workouts. It would have been unusual, however, for a filly to run for real against colts; even in most races today, fillies run against fillies and colts against colts.

After beating other fillies in her career debut, Genuine Risk entered two stakes races in New York. She won them and closed out the 1979 season with a four-for-four record, putting $100,245 into Diana's pocketbook: Jenny had already more than made back her purchase price. For six weeks over the winter of 1979-80, Genuine Risk came home to Virginia, taking long walks on the rolling hills along the miles of the Firestones' fences.

As Genuine Risk began training for her three-year-old season in Florida, Jolley had no thought of running her in the Kentucky Derby. He entered her in two races against other fillies in Florida, which she won impressively. When it seemed that no other fillies could challenge her, conversations began about how the filly might do running against the best colts in the Triple Crown. Jolley was not enthusiastic. He told Washington Post racing writer Andrew Beyer that Genuine Risk didn't have "the constitution to withstand a whole series of races."

Diana Firestone had dreams. Jenny was the best horse in their barn and their only ticket to the world's biggest race. No one thought she was as good as Honest Pleasure, but there were no Honest Pleasures entered in the 1980 Kentucky Derby. Perhaps the best horse in the country, the late-developing California-based Codex, had not been nominated to the Derby in time and so was ineligible for the big race.

Jolley agreed to try Jenny against the colts in New York's Wood Memorial, a steppingstone for horses preparing to run in the Derby. Genuine Risk finished third, 1H lengths behind the colt Plugged Nickel. Diana was sure that her filly could improve if she got another chance. Jolley didn't agree. Standing outside his barn at Aqueduct, Jolley declared that Jenny would not again run against colts.

The last thing Diana wanted to do was embarrass Genuine Risk in front of a crowd of 100,000 people and a worldwide television audience. And the fate of Ruffian was still on people's minds. So in April she accompanied Jolley to Lexington, Kentucky, to watch the Blue Grass Stakes, another prep race for potential Derby horses. The horse Jolley thought would win the race lost by 30 lengths, and the winner didn't scare either of them.

Finally Jolley relented, promising Diana that he would do his best to train Jenny for the Derby.

In entering Genuine Risk, Diana was bucking history. No filly had won the Kentucky Derby since Regret in 1915. That bit of trivia might be deceiving, Diana realized. The fact was that no filly had been entered in the race since 1959, and only a handful before that.

Seven years after the Bobby Riggs/Billie Jean King "battle of the sexes," the public remained fascinated by the idea of females competing on even terms with males. If a filly could turn in a faster time than a colt during morning workouts, what sense did it make that the colt would find a way to win in a race, as blue bloods like Jolley believed?

On May 3, 1980, a crowd of 139,000 showed up to see if a filly could beat the colts in the Kentucky Derby. Few were willing to put their money on her. Rockhill Native, off his win in the Blue Grass, was the favorite; Plugged Nickel was the second choice. Genuine Risk was a 13-to-1 long shot.

The starter's gun went off, and jockey Jacinto Vasquez held Jenny four lengths back from the dueling favorites. As he approached the turn, Vasquez gave her a tap of the whip, and she began making her move on the outside. But she was going too wide and began losing ground. The same thing had happened at Aqueduct, with the result that she hadn't been able to catch Plugged Nickel. This time, Plugged Nickel's duel with Rockhill Native took its toll. As they swept around the turn, Jenny passed the tiring Plugged Nickel and powered past Rockhill Native. There was a gasp from the crowd.

Before the Firestones could celebrate, a horse from the back of the pack began flying down the middle of the track. It was Jaklin Klugman, owned by the actor Jack Klugman. Its jockey, Darrel McHargue, moved up alongside Jenny with a quarter of a mile to go. "This is my Derby!" McHargue yelled.

Genuine Risk shifted into another gear, leaving McHargue and Klugman behind. Next came the hoofbeats of a new challenger, this one a colt named Rumbo. All the conventional wisdom of racing said that a good filly could not hold out against a charging colt in the stretch. But Genuine Risk ran the last quarter mile faster than any previous Derby winner except Secretariat--leaving Rumbo in her wake. Her winning time was faster than Spectacular Bid's, faster even than the time run by Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in 1977.

For all the science about how to pick a horse, 14-year-old Matthew's hunch about the blazed filly had paid off. The Firestones should have had every reason to feel confident about their chances to sweep the Triple Crown. Predictably, Jolley was skeptical that Jenny was tough enough to go in all three races. He wanted to skip the Preakness two weeks later and go directly into the Belmont. That would give Genuine Risk five weeks to recover from the Derby.

But Chick Lang, the head of Pimlico in Baltimore, where the Preakness is run, felt that if Genuine Risk skipped the race, the Preakness and thoroughbred racing itself would be damaged.

Nothing was more punishing to a young horse than to be pushed to run in three grueling races within a space of six weeks. The Triple Crown rigors had ended the career of many young horses. But the public had come to expect that the Derby winner would continue on in the series. Sure enough, Genuine Risk's victory set off a public clamor and reignited the fillies-versus-colts debate. It also raised a question: Who should be regarded as the greatest filly of all time, Ruffian or Genuine Risk?

Diana wasn't about to deny Genuine Risk the chance to become the first filly to sweep the Triple Crown. She was confident that Genuine Risk could beat the same group she had beaten in the Derby, especially after the discouraged owners of Rockhill Native and Plugged Nickel pulled their horses from the race. But there was Codex, the late-developing Santa Anita Derby winner trained by D. Wayne Lukas.

On May 17, Genuine Risk entered the starting gate at Pimlico the favorite. Codex was third choice in the wagering. He was being ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr.

As she had in the Derby, Jenny started cautiously in the Preakness and dropped down to the rail to get the shortest possible trip, with Codex just to her outside. As the horses went down the backstretch, Cordero decided it was time to move: He cooed to Codex, loosening the reins and asking the colt for speed. Vasquez watched Cordero's move and decided it was time for Jenny to go, too. He pulled out and followed Codex past the tiring front-runners. Codex opened a lead of two lengths, but Vasquez was unconcerned. From the reins he could sense Genuine Risk's power building. As they moved into the turn, Vasquez felt the surge and took Jenny around Cordero's outside flank. The crowd of 83,455 let out a roar as Genuine Risk prepared to fly by.

Cordero, sensing that he was beaten, jerked his reins and pulled Codex to the right. The two horses brushed, pinning Vasquez's whip between himself and Cordero, whose own flashing whip lashed Genuine Risk on the head. When the horses separated and recovered their strides, Codex was two lengths in front. He continued to lengthen his lead, beating the filly by five.

Bert and Diana were livid. Their initial fear was that Cordero's whipping might have put one of Jenny's eyes out. They looked up to the stewards' box, where racing officials had the power to disqualify a horse. When that happens, the word INQUIRY flashes on the scoreboard. Vasquez hustled off the horse and declared his intention to object. But in the stewards' box he got a cold reception. The stewards had never disqualified a horse in a race as important as the Preakness, and they had no intention of reversing the outcome on the track. The Firestones were incredulous. Said one member of their team, "One steward is blind, another deaf, and the other has been drinking too many daisies"--a reference to a Preakness drink called the Black-eyed Susan, a concoction the Baltimore Sun described as "a mix of three fruit juices, equal parts vodka, rum, and peach schnapps, and a dollop of something that could only be antifreeze."

The headline in the Washington Post the next day told the story: A LADY MUGGED.

When the owner of Codex was asked to view the tape of the race and comment, he refused. "We got the money," he said.

The debate was all over the sports pages for weeks, fueled by Diana's decision to have a lawyer challenge the stewards' ruling and try to reverse the results, at least as far as the purse was concerned. The wagering pools already had been dispensed to Codex bettors.

If the commission reversed the outcome, Diana announced, the $500,000 purse would go to charity. All she wanted was a chance for Jenny to win the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes in New York three weeks later. But a week before the Belmont, the Maryland Racing Commission ruled that it would not overturn the stewards' decision. If Genuine Risk was to win redemption, it would have to be on the track at Belmont.

At the post-position Belmont draw, Genuine Risk and Codex drew side-by-side starting stalls. Cordero tried to make a joke of it. "Maybe they'll kiss and make up," he said.

Bert and Diana were in no mood for jokes. In running Jenny in the Belmont, they already had made racing history. Genuine Risk was the first filly to ever start in all three Triple Crown races.

In the end, the gallant filly did win a measure of redemption in the Belmont. She beat Codex. But on a rainy afternoon in New York, a mud-loving 53-to-1 freak of a horse named Temperence Hill beat them both. Jenny's runner-up finish gave her a first and two seconds in the classic series.

As a four-year-old mare, Genuine Risk ran three more times, winning twice and finishing third once, all against other fillies. But before a race in New York, Jenny broke free in her barn and took off around the backstretch. By the time handlers were able to stop her, she had run into a fire hydrant and opened a gash in her left front leg.

LeRoy Jolley called Diana to give her the news. Jenny's racing career was over.

For an industry as fascinated with breeding horses as with racing them, this turn of events wasn't altogether disappointing. Diana already knew what she wanted to do with Genuine Risk. She would send her to Kentucky to be bred to Secretariat, to whom the Firestones had breeding rights. It would be the first mating ever of two Kentucky Derby winners. Their offspring could become the most valuable horse in history.

On April 15, 1982, Jenny made the trip to Kentucky for her mating. Secretariat was walked into the breeding shed at Claiborne Farm outside Lexington. While Genuine Risk waited outside, grooms brought in a teaser mare to get Secretariat in the mood. In a few moments, the teaser was taken out and Jenny took her place. In another few moments, the deed was done. Jenny was put back in the van and brought home to Virginia.

Diana expected that Jenny would give birth on March 21, 1983, assuming her gestation period was the usual 340 days. But the target date passed with no foal. Diana refused to let herself worry. Delays of up to a month, especially for a first foal, were not considered unusual or dangerous.

Late at night on April 3, Diana got the call that Jenny was going into labor. The vets were summoned as the filly struggled to produce what a New York Times writer called "the most eagerly awaited birth in the history of American racing."

Finally a chestnut colt was pulled from Jenny's womb, but it did not stand. Jenny nickered for the foal to get up, but it wouldn't. Nearly an hour passed as Jenny hovered over it. Then, brood-mare manager Buck Moore said later, Jenny did what mares do in that situation: "What they do is begin to cover it up. They will shove the straw over to cover it up. She did that. She knows. Then I took the foal."

The farm issued a terse press release. "Genuine Risk delivered a stillborn colt at 3:10 AM, April 4. She was three weeks overdue, which is a common occurrence, and this tragedy was completely unexpected. The mare is doing well and has suffered no ill effects."

Diana was crushed, but there was no time to wallow in grief. Jenny was booked to be bred again, this time to a stallion named Nijinsky II. But Diana was determined that Jenny's first offspring would be by Secretariat. She canceled the mating with Nijinsky and made arrangements to breed Genuine Risk with Secretariat a second time. Once again Genuine Risk made the trip to Kentucky. This time she didn't become pregnant.

After two disappointments, the idea of breeding her to Secretariat was abandoned. Bert suggested that Jenny be sent to Ireland, where perhaps the climate and grass might be more to her liking. Forsaking the idea of a name stallion altogether, the Firestones decided to breed Jenny in Ireland to one of their own stallions, a good runner named Cure the Blues who already had sired dozens of successful racehorses.

For two seasons, Jenny was bred to Cure the Blues. But while almost every other mare at the Firestones' Irish ranch produced and nurtured a foal, Genuine Risk came up empty both times.

When a sportswriter visited Jenny in 1985, the situation was so sad that the most optimistic note he could strike was "At least she is alive. That's more than can be said for Codex, who last August died from stomach ailments. . . ."

For 11 years, breeding season came and went without Jenny's getting in foal. Bert and Diana began to dread spring, when the inevitable queries from reporters and friends would come. Was Genuine Risk in foal? The answer always was no.

But the Firestones kept trying. Explanations for Jenny's failures abounded. Chief among them was the notion that for a young filly to be successful against colts, she had to share their masculine qualities. People pointed out that Regret, the first female Derby winner in 1915, also failed to produce any significant offspring.

Diana refused to believe it. After all, Jenny had delivered a foal--it just hadn't lived. She was convinced Genuine Risk eventually would succeed.

In 1992 Jenny was shipped to Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky. There she was bred to a stallion named Rahy--not a great racehorse but a stallion with a good record of getting mares in foal. The Firestones left Jenny there to let the experienced Kentucky veterinarians oversee the process.

The mating went well; soon it was clear that Jenny was pregnant. A well-known horse veterinarian, Jim Becht, made it his business to see that Genuine Risk delivered a live foal.

As the 340-day mark approached, Becht began scanning the fetus by ultrasound. On Saturday, May 15, he noticed that Jenny's heart rate had plummeted and figured she was going into labor.

At the moment Jenny was arriving in distress at the equine hospital in Kentucky, the entries in the 1993 Preakness were being loaded into the starting gate. Superstitious attendants at the hospital noted that it had been an unlucky 13 years since her Preakness mugging in Baltimore.

At the hospital, Jenny was sweating and nervous. Becht slipped a syringe into her neck and injected 15 units of oxytocin to induce delivery. A crew from the farm arrived to help, and 35 minutes later a colt was delivered. At the age of 16--when many mares have been retired from breeding--Jenny had done it.

At 6:30 PM, as the dignitaries of the racing world were leaving Pimlico Race Track, the foal stood up and began nursing. Becht gave Jenny a colostrum supplement to make sure the foal got enough milk.

The following morning, headlines blared: IT'S A BOY!

But even as the public rejoiced in Jenny's motherhood, a crisis was developing. For the first 24 hours, everything had been perfect. Jenny was a good mother, and the foal was nursing happily. But on Sunday night the foal began showing signs of distress. The newborn colt was rushed into surgery, where a baseball-size lump was removed from his colon.

On National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Three Chimneys Farm man-ager Dan Rosenberg told Linda Werth-eimer that the colt was okay. "He doesn't feel great . . . but he's comfortable, and all his vital signs are normal." Jenny, he reported, was "wonderful. She is a great mother."

A few days after the birth, Bert and Diana flew to Kentucky to see the new baby. Jenny, as always, showed excitement at seeing Diana, who could not hold back her own tears.

The Firestones registered the colt with the Jockey Club as Genuine Reward. There was every reason to be optimistic about the foal. Rahy may not have been the Firestones' first, second, or even third choice for a sire, but he had won several big races at California's Hollywood Park.

When Genuine Reward turned two, the Firestones sent him to the nation's best trainer, Bill Mott, who guides the career of some of racing's biggest stars.

It didn't take Mott long to realize that there was a problem not uncommon to horses even of regal breeding. Genuine Reward couldn't run a lick.

Mott and Diana talked about what to do. The colt certainly wouldn't contend for the high-profile three-year-old races. The Firestones could sell him to somebody who wanted to race him at minor tracks in so-called "claiming races," where cheap horses are put up for sale. But Diana couldn't bear the thought. She would rather not race Genuine Reward than risk humiliating Jenny again. So Genuine Reward was packed off to Eagle Point Farm in Ashland, Virginia, to sire foals in hopes of creating a Derby champion sometime down the road.

Genuine Risk had one more foal before she was retired from breeding. This time she was bred to Chief Honcho, who had won stakes races in New York. The foal she delivered was named Count Our Blessing. But like his older brother, Count Our Blessing had no interest in racing.

Last fall, Diana decided it was time to bring Jenny home for good. The two had developed a close relationship since Jenny first came to Virginia 20 years earlier. Now it wasn't uncommon for Diana to saddle up her Derby winner and take off through the Hunt Country trails.

Now Genuine Risk is too old to be ridden. She passes her time frolicking in the fields under the Blue Ridge Mountains with the pony Farnley Trilby at her side. Count Our Blessing lives in a nearby stall. He's learning to be a jumper.

Genuine Reward, still living at Eagle Point Farm, has sired a dozen or so babies--Genuine Wish, Genuine Snark, Genuine Master, and even Genuine Tiger. One of them, Top Reward, has won a race. It wouldn't surprise anyone if the mother who waited 13 years to have a baby is one day listed among the ancestors of a Kentucky Derby winner.

As with everything about Genuine Risk, it may take a while.

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