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The seventh race, however, was the most memorable. Making her first appearance as a 3-year-old was the undefeated filly Princess Rooney, owned by Paula Tucker of Fort Lauderdale. By the end of last season Princess Rooney was regarded by many observers as the equal of the ill-fated Landaluce. She started six times as a 2-year-old and won her races by the staggering total of 56 lengths. Her major victories came last fall, when she won the East's two top 2-year-old filly races, the Frizette at Belmont and the Gardenia at the Meadowlands, by eight and 11 lengths, respectively. Yet Princess Rooney's first start of 1983 was not against other fillies but against seven colts, five of them stakes winners.
That wasn't the way Trainer Frank Gomez had planned it. On the Monday before the Florida Derby, Princess Rooney was scheduled to run against her own sex in the $97,200 Bonnie Miss Stakes. Heavy rains early in the day, however, caused Gomez to scratch the Princess. He sat in his office that morning looking through condition books for both Gulfstream and Hialeah, trying to find a race for his filly. None was available. Then he tried to talk Trotter into putting on an exhibition race on Florida Derby Day, but with 12 events already on tap, that, Trotter said, was impossible. But he mentioned that there was a $30,000 race on Saturday for 3-year-olds that hadn't won two races worth $8,500 since Dec. 1. So Gomez entered the Princess.
Princess Rooney stumbled coming out of the gate, righted herself and took the lead while looping the field at the top of the stretch. She won by half a length over Morganmorganmorgan in a most impressive performance, covering the seven furlongs in 1:23[4/5], only [1/5] slower than Slewpy ran his seven. Many experts suspected, and probably rightly so, that Princess Rooney was running at about 80% of her ability. Still, Gomez was making no predictions about entering her in the Kentucky Derby. "She's nominated to both the Kentucky Oaks and the Derby," he says. "There's a lot of time ahead." Until then, Gomez and his Princess can just sit back and watch the colts. If this is a year replete with 85-1 shots, the Princess might indeed run for the roses.
Gomez is based at Miami's Calder Racetrack, and Princess Rooney is the best horse to emerge from that track since it opened in 1971. It's always difficult to judge how good Calder horses are because the track has a synthetic surface covered with sand that makes the horses seem to bounce as they gallop. Many good Calder horses find it impossible to carry their form to other tracks. But Princess Rooney is not one of them.
After the Princess won her first four races there, she became the Queen of Calder. She ran in her first stakes race there in September, the seven-furlong Melaleuca, and won by a mere 12 lengths. John Pricci of Long Island's Newsday applied his handicapping system to Princess Rooney's Melaleuca victory and was impressed. "It was the fastest number I'd ever put on a filly," he says. "The track was slow that day, and for a filly to break 1:25 at Calder is exceptional. She ran a 1:23[4/5]. At the end of the year my figures showed that Princess Rooney was daylight ahead of Landaluce."
The two fillies, of course, never met, racing having lost a great attraction when Landaluce died in November of a bacterial infection. "It was horrible," says Gomez. "My heart went out to the Landaluce people. All they have to show for it is an Eclipse trophy and grand memories. I still have a magnificent filly to look at and race."
Princess Rooney is going to make the next two months interesting. She will take a parallel course to the colts, entering their races only when Gomez decides that the competition is so-so. Each decision will be carefully made, because, after all, her record is a spotless 7 for 7. Racing fans nowadays aren't accustomed to such success, particularly with the current crop of 3-year olds. The last major 3-year-old with such a record was Seattle Slew, who won the 1977 Triple Crown with a 9 for 9.
No matter what the colts and geldings do in the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby, it's Paula Tucker's Princess that people will be talking about. Will she or won't she?