Three minutes remained before the break from the starting gate in the $141,500 Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont Park last Saturday when a marvelous, if fractious, filly named Cupecoy's Joy caused a scene for the third time in five days. Her substitute jockey, Jorge Velasquez, had dismounted because the saddle was loose and was standing with arms folded as three assistant starters performed the precarious task of tightening Cupecoy's Joy's girth. Kicking and tossing her magnificent head, she danced the men the width of the racetrack before they were able to complete the job. When she was finally loaded into the gate, Cupecoy's Joy got away smartly and ran a magnificent race, but one she seemed destined to lose.
The Coaching Club American Oaks is the most important race for 3-year-old fillies in this country. Win it, and major races get named after you: e.g., the Wistful, Top Flight, Black Helen, Vagrancy, Next Move, Level Best, Twilight Tear, Dark Mirage, Shuvee, Lamb Chop, Ruffian. If there is a shortcoming with the Coaching Club American Oaks, it's that at 1½ miles the race is really too long for fillies in this day and age, horses not generally being bred in America to go that distance. Still, the Coaching Club is a prize to covet and plan for, if only because it's the third leg of New York's Triple Crown for fillies, preceded by the one-mile Acorn Stakes and the 1‚⅛-mile Mother Goose. Five fillies have won the New York Triple; six others have failed after winning the first two legs.
When the gate opened Saturday, Cupecoy's Joy shot to the lead and opened up as much as six lengths down the back-stretch. She was facing the best 3-year-old fillies in the country, the winners of major stakes in California, Arkansas, Kentucky and New York. Cupecoy's Joy stayed in front until the turn for home, where the beautifully named Christmas Past (by Grey Dawn II from Yule Log) moved alongside, then pulled away in the stretch to win by six lengths. Cupecoy's Joy finished second, a brave nose in front of Flying Partner. But the outcome of the race wasn't the case of a freight train passing a hobo.
Christmas Past entered the CCAO with only eight races behind her. She bloomed in Florida during the winter and was so highly regarded by her owner, Cynthia Phipps, and her trainer, Angel Penna Jr., that a few weeks ago they considered supplementing her (at a cost of $20,000) to run against colts in the Belmont Stakes. Instead they chose to compete with fillies in the Acorn and Mother Goose, both of which Cupecoy's Joy won. In the Acorn, Christmas Past lost by 9½ lengths, but in the Mother Goose the margin was only three-quarters of a length. "I thought if we were going to beat Cupecoy's Joy it would be in the Oaks," Penna said afterward, "because my filly loves to go a distance, and while the first two races were around one turn, the Oaks was around two."
What cannot be determined is the effect several bizarre incidents involving Cupecoy's Joy had to do with the out-come of this race. While training on' Tuesday, she flipped over backward on the Belmont track. Cupecoy's Joy is a hyper filly and a mean one as well. She will eat anything a goat would, and her excess of high spirits during morning workouts are legend. On Thursday she slammed into another horse on the track and ran off, breaking through the giveaway rail. The price of that misadventure was three stitches in her left knee. Because of rules restricting the use of drugs before a race, no antiseptic or anti-inflammation medication could be used. Adding to the melodrama, on the day Cupecoy's Joy won the Mother Goose her regular rider, Angel Santiago, was hospitalized after a spill, and both her regular exercise rider and her groom were either fired or quit in the days leading up to the Oaks.
The whole country got a glimpse of Cupecoy's Joy on TV in the Kentucky Derby, in which she was the lone filly competing against 18 colts. Although she finished 10th in Louisville, Cupecoy's Joy led for a very fast and interesting mile. Much had been made of the girl vs. the boys angle, but with Cupecoy's Joy, running against colts is commonplace. In her 19 lifetime starts, she has taken on colts eight times, and has done extremely well, winning once, finishing second three times and third twice. This remarkable record may partly explain her extraordinary popularity. After Cupecoy's Joy won the Mother Goose, the Belmont Park winner's circle was choked with well-wishers. "Maybe I know six of the people in there," says co-owner Roberto Perez. "No, maybe eight." A chant went through the second floor of the grandstand and clubhouse: "Cupecoy, Cupecoy, Cupecoy; Joy, Joy, Joy."
But Cupecoy's Joy is more than a favorite of the fans, particularly Latins. She's also the first female star to emerge from New York State's burgeoning and controversial breeding program. The production of horses to run for purses for homebreds at the state's four racetracks (Aqueduct, Belmont, Saratoga and Finger Lakes) has expanded so greatly that it may very well be out of hand. Consider this: In 1972 fewer than 200 horses were foaled in the state; this spring more than 3,000 hit the ground. Untold millions have been spent for farms and fencing, and today there are at least 325 breeding farms. Very soon the breeders of New York may produce a colt and filly for every garage in the state.
Because of the amount of purse money allotted strictly for New York State horses (more than $10 million in 1982), Cupecoy's Joy began her career last July at Belmont in a maiden race restricted to New York-breds. Competing against fillies, she romped to an eight-length victory. Next came a second-place finish in a stake for New York-breds (The Empire) at Saratoga, one length behind a colt, Salute Me Sir. Of the eight races she ran as a 2-year-old, seven were against New York-breds.
In early January, people began to talk seriously about Cupecoy's Joy when she met the top New York-bred colt, Ask Muhammad, in the Montauk Stakes at Aqueduct and won by a nose. Following three excellent races in New York, she was shipped to Latonia in March for the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes and ran a fine third against colts. Then came the Kentucky Derby. Many thought that Cupecoy's Joy would run in the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby, but when she drew post position No. 1 in the Derby, that settled the issue. "I have had a lot of bad horses in my life," says Perez. "How many chances does anyone ever get to run in the Kentucky Derby? We took our shot. Cupecoy's Joy had a horrible time in the paddock. We weren't ashamed of her Derby performance at all."
The ownership of Cupecoy's Joy, as listed on official racing programs, is Ri-Ma-Ro stables, reflecting the first names of the three daughters of co-owner Robert DeFilippis. He's in the construction-equipment rental business in College Point, N.Y., while Perez is an asphalt manufacturer in Whitestone, N.Y., who came to this country from Argentina 22 years ago. And what or who is a Cupecoy? When the mating of Northerly and the Argentine mare Lady Abla produced the filly, the owners cast about for a name. DeFilippis had recently bought a condominium on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, in an area called Cupecoy. Thus Cupecoy's Joy. "The people are all jumping up and down down there now," says DeFilippis.
Perez imported Lady Abla from Argentina several years ago and tried her in a few races, but she broke down, so he looked around for a stallion to breed her to. "I wanted Northern Dancer," Perez says, "but we couldn't get him, as you might imagine. So we bred her to a son of Northern Dancer, Northerly."
That's where Frank (Pancho) Martin enters the Cupecoy's Joy saga. The Cuban-born Martin is "the king" of New York horse trainers, having led them all in races won for the last nine years. Sometimes gruff, often sentimental, he works day and night at his occupation. It has even been said of him that "He thinks like a horse. He can read their minds." Martin began training horses at Oriental Park in Havana when he was still a teenager; now 56, he's been around racetracks for 43 years. It was Martin who trained Northerly, a good but certainly not a great horse, in the '70s. Northerly, who won seven of 37 starts and $183,244, was a difficult horse to train, and many feel that it took a man of Martin's ability to get him to do so well. "That's one of the main reasons Cupecoy's Joy is so popular with Latin-speaking people," says Perez. "So many at the track associate Martin with Northerly, particularly the Latin people who have worked with or are close to Frank. It's interesting and it's also romantic, the way we often are."
Although Martin looms large in the Cupecoy's Joy story, the filly's trainer is Alfredo Callejas, an Argentine like Perez, but one who speaks almost no English. Years ago, Callejas used to train for Perez in Buenos Aires, and when Perez brought Lady Abla to the U.S., he also brought Callejas. The Argentines have done very well with their difficult filly, and they seem to have a golden future.
"We already have an offer of three million dollars for Cupecoy's Joy and have turned it down," says Perez. "She means more than that to us. Cupecoy is getting a lot of mail now. Most of it says, 'I love you.' "
Certainly the value of Cupecoy's Joy didn't diminish after the Coaching Club, because her race was brilliant, all things considered. At the moment nobody knows what her next race will be, but when she hooks up with Christmas Past again it will be something to behold. And keep in mind the fact that there are no more 1982 races for 3-year-old fillies at 1½ miles.
In the Oaks, distance-loving Christmas Past overtakes Cupecoy to win by six lengths.
Co-owner Perez gives Velasquez a prerace hug.