About an hour before Princess Rooney was to run in last Friday's $180,700 Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at Churchill Downs, trainer Frank Gomez felt a tug on his sleeve as a friend whispered into his ear, "Somebody has bet $170,000 to show on your horse."
Two things quickly went through Gomez' sharp mind: 1) If Princess Rooney doesn't finish at least third, somebody will dig a hole and put me in it, and 2) If the guy that bet the $170,000 on her knew what I know, he wouldn't have put down a nickel.
Happily for Gomez, Princess Rooney won the 1?-mile Oaks by 1� lengths, before a race-record crowd of 54,601, and stretched her unbeaten string to 10, a remarkable streak. The bettor who put down the $170,000 collected a profit of $17,000 from the Oaks—as well as a few uncomfortable moments. The filly stumbled twice, at the ?ths pole and the quarter pole, and drew from the Daily Racing Form's chartcaller the remark, "Princess Rooney, racing in uncharacteristic uneven fashion...." Bright Crocus and Bemissed both looked as if they might catch the Princess in the stretch, but in the final 20 yards she got about her business and appeared to be drawing off. "It was the worst race of her life," Gomez said later, "but I have a feeling that if they didn't beat her today, they'll probably not beat her this year."
Princess Rooney's Oaks win baffled some observers because she has set such high standards for herself that she's expected to gallop off with every race she enters by the length of the stretch. The ultimate sign of excellence in a racehorse, however, is to win when things go wrong. "I knew we might be in for trouble," said Gomez, "because she hated the hard track at Churchill Downs from the moment she first set foot on it in late April. She didn't work good over the track, and in the Oaks she didn't run well. Wait a minute! I should have said, 'She didn't run well for Princess Rooney.' The horses in the Oaks had their chance. They tried to run with her from the start, and then they tried to catch her from behind. But they couldn't do it."
One of those who tried was sixth-place finisher Brindy Brindy, who attempted to outrun the Princess in the early going. Brindy Brindy was the winner of the $281,800 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park in early April, a top filly race. After the Oaks, Brindy Brindy's trainer, Jack Van Berg, said, "Princess Rooney is a super horse. People who thought they could outrun her must have been drinking. And I must have been one of them."
For weeks—even months—before the Oaks there had been speculation as to whether the Princess would run with the fillies on Friday or in Saturday's Kentucky Derby against the colts. She was nominated to both races, and many racing people thought that, considering the confused 3-year-old picture, Princess Rooney might even be the best bet for the big race. There's a goodly amount of pixie in Gomez, and on Thursday morning, the day entries closed for the Derby, he walked into the racing secretary's office only minutes before closing time. "Just to shake some folks up," he said. "They thought I was going to put her in. A few trainers' chins went down on their chests."
Actually Gomez had nominated his filly to the Derby more as a favor to Churchill Downs—for publicity purposes—than anything else. "I'd never do that again," he says now. "Every day it seemed I'd get asked a' hundred times about running Princess Rooney against colts in the Derby."
There was a basis for thinking she might do well against the boys. In her only start against colts—an allowance race at Gulfstream Park—Princess Rooney had defeated Morganmorganmorgan, a horse not nominated to the Kentucky Derby. After losing to Princess Rooney, Morganmorganmorgan won the Tampa Bay Derby by defeating Slew O' Gold, who ran a fine fourth in the Kentucky Derby, beaten by only three lengths.
But Gomez had a strong reason for running the Princess on Friday. "Thirty-two fillies have run in the Derby," he said, "and only Regret  and Genuine Risk  have won. Those are long odds. Somewhere down the road I might run her against colts, but for now she will run against fillies. Let me spell that: F-I-L-L-I-E-S." Nobody can say how the Princess would have fared in the Derby, but if she'd run in the same manner she did in the Oaks, she would have been in trouble. "I truly believe, though," Gomez says, "that from here on she'll improve. I don't think she has run her best race yet."
On Monday, Princess Rooney left Kentucky for Belmont Park, a track she likes very much, and her next three races: the Acorn (May 28), the Mother Goose (June 18) and the Coaching Club American Oaks (July 9). "Her object all along has been those races in New York [the Triple Crown for fillies], and I've got some work to do on her," says Gomez. "There's something going on in her head that I have to figure out. We'll work with that and clear it up. In their own way, all great women are mysterious."