LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Trainer James J. Toner stood outside Barn 35 at Keeneland Race Course and tried to figure how Winter Memories, a 3-year-old filly with tenacious attitude and a graded stakes-winning resume, has captured the fancy of racing fans across the nation.
"You have a pretty gray horse and it just attracts people," he mused. "That's what it is; she's a beautiful gray horse and her running style is just electrifying, so she's picked up a lot of fans along the way."
Owned by Phillips Racing Partnership, whose John Phillips also owns Darby Dan Farm in Lexington, the New York-based filly is at Keeneland to contest Saturday's Grade 1, $400,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup. It's a turf event Toner won with her mother, Memories of Silver, in 1996 -- and he also took the 1993 edition with a filly named Tribulation.
On Tuesday, Winter Memories took a happy first gallop around the training track at the Lexington oval, floating over the surface with exercise rider Roger Horgan in the irons. Her marbled gray coat was shining and her stride was effortless and powerful. Toner proclaimed it an excellent start for her first morning back in Kentucky since winning the Grade 3 Appalachian Stakes here in the spring.
This return has been 71-year-old Toner's goal for Winter Memories all year, and had been expected to close out her 2011 campaign. But the trainer isn't ruling out a run in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf or the Breeders' Cup Mile in November if things go well over the weekend. His silver bullet is streaking toward the 1 1/8-mile Queen Elizabeth for 3-year-old fillies fresh off her first Grade 1 win in the Sept. 17 Garden City Stakes at Belmont Park. Six-for-eight lifetime, she's taken four of five starts this season.
"I'm just throwing that possibility out there," Toner remarked of the Nov. 4-5 Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs, "but let me get through this weekend. A lot would depend on what happens Saturday."
In four of her five races of 2011, Winter Memories has closed to win with a dramatic finish from far behind the leaders. A big, long-striding filly who needs plenty of room to run, she often winds up stuck behind other horses in the latter stages of a race. Those rooting for her are left holding their breath in momentary panic, but somehow she almost always winds up bursting through to victory. She lost only once this year, in the Grade 2 Lake Placid Stakes at Saratoga, finishing fourth after finding running room too late on the rail.
"Everybody says to me, 'how come she gets in so much trouble?' and I say, 'I don't plan it that way, I don't know why she gets in trouble!'" Toner said. "Every time, I can't believe this is happening again. But the last one was unbelievable; it was incredible, like 'I can't believe what I just saw!'"
After the Lake Placid, the connections replaced regular rider Jose Lezcano with jockey Javier Castellano. But even with a new pilot, Winter Memories got into the same kind of trouble at the back of the pack in the Garden City as the field turned for home. With horses impeding the path in front of her, facing what appeared to be insurmountable difficulty, she looped the entire field and kicked into high gear, streaking for the wire. She got there in the nick of time.
"She turns into the stretch and it's a wall of horses and I'm thinking to myself Not again, not after the Lake Placid, but she made such a move -- she was last, and then she was under wraps," Toner recalled. "That, to me, was the most incredible race of any horse I've ever had. You're going, 'Oh my god, we're going to lose,' and then 'Gasp! Wow! We won!'"
In races where she faces less difficulty to overcome, Winter Memories usually wins by a clear margin. Even at Saratoga this summer, when she took the Grade 2 Lake George Stakes after being checked and swinging out from the very back of the field, her explosive kick powered her past every other runner to a 3 ¼-length lead. This is why the trainer's pre-race instructions to Castellano will come down to one simple sentence on Saturday: "Just get her in the clear and give her a chance to run."
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Nothing indicated that Winter Memories was special when the slender gray filly arrived at Toner's Belmont Park barn in May of 2010. She had a big head, long legs, and that was about it.
"I looked at her and it wasn't one of those things where you could say, 'Oh my god, this filly's going to be something else,'" Toner said.
There were high hopes, of course. Memories of Silver, a Silver Hawk mare, had raced to victory in eight stakes, six of them graded, including the 1997 Beverly D. at Arlington Park and the Queen Elizabeth in 1996. There, she set a Haggin Course record of 1:45.81 for 1 1/8 miles with the victory. That time still stands as the oldest Haggin Course mark in Keeneland's record books.
"Her mother was like a pet," Toner recalled. "I would put my kids on her back and lead her up and down the shed row. But when she ran she was ready to run, she had her game face on. You didn't fool around with her then."
Memories of Silver took the Diana Handicap, the Ballston Spa Breeders' Cup Handicap, the Just a Game, the Nijana Stakes, the Robert G. Dick Memorial, and the Lake George. She shipped to California and finished third in two Grade 1 races there -- the Matriarch Stakes in 1996 and the Yellow Ribbon Stakes in 1997 -- and she was second in the Grade 2 New York Handicap in '97 and the Vinery First Lady Stakes in '98.
She's [Winter Memories] so spoiled, and she knows who she is. But she's given us a lot of fun so far; a little bit of a heart-attack here and there.
”-- Jimmy Toner, trainer of Winter Memories
In 2009, the trainer tried to walk the path he'd taken with Memories of Silver when Winter Memories' older sister, Recollect, came to his barn. They raced her eight times, at different distances, different tracks. She never won and ran for the last time at Remington Park in a maiden special weight worth just $26,500.
"I thought she'd be okay, but she never showed the determination that this filly showed," the trainer remarked. "She just wasn't there."
Toner also tried tougher competition with Winter Memories' half-brother in 2004. The Storm Cat colt named War Trace won the Choice Hill Stakes at Monmouth Park in 2004, but came up with some physical issues and never made it past a Grade 3 start.
Winter Memories was different. There was something about the slender gray filly that Toner couldn't get out of his mind, even after she'd been outworked by a stablemate on several occasions.
"She just kept trying," the trainer recalled. "I was working her on the dirt with an Unbridled's Song filly that was quite quick, and the other filly kept beating her all the time, but she never gave up."
This horse would pass Winter Memories by four lengths, but she kept going. The next time she'd beat her by three lengths, but the gray filly never stopped trying. It was early summer of her 2-year-old year when Toner opted to work her on the grass.
"When we got to Saratoga I worked her on the grass out there, and it was an eye opener, like oh my god, one of those deals," he said. "Some horses were way in front of her and she broke off and caught them by the time they got to the wire and went fifty-nine and change. I said, 'We've got something here.' We ran her first time at Saratoga and she had a little trouble in the race, overcame it, broke her maiden first time out, and boy, it's been a whirlwind ever since."
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As a 2-year-old, Winter Memories won the Grade 3 Miss Grillo Stakes and ran second in the Grade 2 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. This Saturday she takes on seven peers in the Queen Elizabeth, breaking from position three in race 9 with an estimated post time of 5:45 p.m. Runners such as More Than Real, Kathmanblu, and Summer Soiree will step up to compete against her, but thanks to previous victories in the Appalachian and the Grade 2 Sands Point Stakes on her resume this season along with the Lake George and Garden City scores, there's no doubt she'll be a prohibitive favorite at post time.
"This filly has a mind of her own," Toner said. "She's so spoiled, and she knows who she is. But she's given us a lot of fun so far; a little bit of a heart-attack here and there. As long as the outcome's good, I'll keep on taking it. She's a good horse, she really is; a special kind of individual. I don't think many runners could do what she's been able to do."
If Winter Memories wins, she'll be the first daughter of one of the QEII victresses to earn similar honors.
"Her mother was my favorite horse, she had such a personality about her and a way about her," Toner remarked. "To be as good as she was, you'd think, Wow, I'd never have another one as good as she was and then to have the daughter come back and do what she's doing, what are the odds?"
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.