Hall of Fame profile: Bayakoa

Bayakoa in the winner’s circle after the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff

at Belmont Park, Laffit Pincay, Jr., up (NYRA photo)

By SAM LUDU

Bayakoa, the brilliant high-speed, high-strung Argentine-bred mare, won the 1989 and 1990 Eclipse Awards for outstanding older female horse, the first back-to-back winner of the division championship since Shuvee in 1970 and 1971. In those two stellar years, Bayakoa won 16 of 21 races, 12 of them Grade 1 events, including two Breeders’ Cup Distaffs, in five states, in main-track conditions ranging from fast to sloppy. At her peak, Bayakoa was a relentless running machine who thrived on the lead and dared her usually small number of pursuers to match her velocity.

In her first year of racing, in 1987, Bayakoa won three of eight races in her native land, a mixed campaign of dirt and turf events that culminated in a 12-length victory in the 1,600-meter Grade 1 Gran Premio Palermo in the mud.

Bayakoa was then purchased by trainer Ron McAnally for $300,000 on behalf of native Kansans Frank and Jan Whitham and sent to California to race under McAnally’s care the next year.

In her first race in North America, a one-mile turf allowance event at Hollywood Park, Bayakoa won under a hand ride but was “vanned off due to heat prostration,” noted Daily Racing Form, a near collapse that was triggered by a enervating nervous energy that would manifest itself on other occasions, including her next start at Canterbury Downs when her agitation again took its toll and she finished sixth.

Bayakoa’s 1988 season ended five races later and showed two victories and two seconds in seven starts, a modest turf-and-dirt record that hardly augured the kind of dominance she would enjoy the next two years on dirt tracks from coast to coast.

After an easy 12-length, gate-to-wire allowance victory at Santa Anita in her 1989 debut, an again unruly Bayakoa lost her first U.S. graded stakes test, breaking through the gate before the start and stumbling during the race.

Her next five races, however, stamped her as a horse to be reckoned with, one who could now consistently achieve sufficient self-control to conquer her opponents rather than herself. Under jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., who would ride her in 20 of her next 22 races, Bayakoa won five consecutive Grade 1 handicaps, including the Santa Margarita, Apple Blossom, Hawthorne, Milady, and Vanity, under increasingly heavier imposts.

Before the Apple Blossom, Bayakoa “went crazy when she saw the starting gate,” Pincay said, “the worst she’d even been.” But when the gate opened, Bayakoa got down to business, leading at every pole and defeating the accomplished filly Goodbye Halo by four lengths.

In the Hawthorne at Hollywood Park a month later, Bayakoa whipped Goodbye Halo again, this time by 4-1/2 lengths, running the mile in 1:32 4/5, only 3/5 of a second off Dr. Fager’s world record and the fastest dirt track mile ever run by a mare.

After a front-running 3-1/2-length triumph as the highweight in the Ruffian Handicap at Belmont Park in the fall, Bayakoa, in her last two races of the year, emphatically eliminated any lingering doubt about who was the current queen of American Thoroughbred racing.

In the nine-furlong Spinster at Keeneland, Bayakoa blew out of the gate and proceeded to increase her advantage at every pole, ultimately thrashing five challengers, including Goodbye Halo, by 11½-lengths in 1:47 4/5.

In the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Gulfstream Park, Bayakoa faced a unique challenge — a “relay team” of four D. Wayne Lukas-trained fillies, three of whom were entered to wear down Bayakoa to set up the strong closing kick of champion filly Open Mind. Midway down the backstretch, however, after a surprisingly moderate pace, Bayakoa powered away from Wonders Delight, the only Lukas charge who had put a head in front of her, and went on to a decisive, driving victory over the fast-closing Gorgeous, another gifted arch-antagonist.

The next year, in 1990, Bayakoa began where she left off. She took the Santa Maria Handicap at Santa Anita by 3-1/2 lengths under Chris McCarron, who was subbing for an injured Pincay, and then won her second Santa Margarita, this time in the slop by six lengths, again under McCarron.

“I used to say that Glorious Song and Lady’s Secret were the best fillies I ever rode,” McCarron said after the Santa Margarita. “But this one might be the best now.”

After a pair of losses — the Santa Anita Handicap against males, her third Grade 1 race in a month and her first and only attempt at 10 furlongs, and the Apple Blossom to Gorgeous — Bayakoa righted herself by taking both the Hawthorne and Milady at Hollywood Park, each for the second straight year.

Bayakoa finished her second championship year with three straight wins, the first, a nose victory over Fantastic Look in the Chula Vista Handicap at Del Mar while carrying 127 pounds to the runner-up’s 113 pounds. Five weeks later she copped her second Spinster in a row, defeating Gorgeous by three lengths in 1:47, a new stakes record and just a 1/5 of a second off Keeneland’s nine-furlong track record.

The final victory of Bayakoa’s extraordinary career, in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Belmont Park, was indelibly marked by tragedy when her only genuine rival, the great Go for Wand, suffered an ultimately fatal breakdown in deep stretch, after the two had dispensed with five contenders early on and dueled with a grim, unyielding intensity to the sixteenth pole.

In the spring of 1991, after a trio of losses, in stakes she had previously ruled, Bayakoa was retired, her place secure as one of the great mares in the history of Thoroughbred racing.

A year after Bayakoa’s death in 1997, Pincay, who had already ridden his share of future Hall of Fame distaffers, including Desert Vixen, Gamely, and Susan’s Girl, was unequivocal when placing Bayakoa in his personal pantheon of female champions.

“She is the best filly I ever rode,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind.”

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