By Teresa Genero

1944 Acorn winner Twilight Tear was the first filly Horse of the Year
The filly with the melancholy name brought a lot of smiles to the faces of her owners and her fans. 

One of many champions who carried the devil’s red-and-blue silks of Calumet Farm in the 1940’s, Twilight Tear shared a barn with the 1944 Preakness and Kentucky Derby winner, Pensive.  You’d think that a colt who came within a head of winning the Triple Crown would be the star of the shedrow.  Pensive, however, didn’t get a sniff in year-end honors while Twilight Tear racked up three of them including Horse of the Year, the first of her sex to be so voted. 

A well-balanced bay with a single white sock on her left hind foot, Twilight Tear was among the first foals by Bull Lea, who also sired three other Horses of the Year for Calumet that decade: Armed, who defeated Triple Crown winner Assault in a 1947 match race; 1948 Triple Crown champion Citation, and Coaltown, who emerged from Citation’s shadow in 1949 to win 12 of his 15 starts, setting several records in the process.

Even as a weanling, Twilight Tear was blessed with a sweet, placid disposition that would later lead racing commentator Tom O’Reilly to dub her “Sleepy Time Gal.” She underwent her early training behind the classic white post-and-rail fences of Calumet, under the supervision of Ben Jones, who in 1941, the year Twilight Tear was foaled, saddled Whirlaway to the Triple Crown and the first of two Horse of the Year titles. A precocious two-year-old, Twilight Tear won four of six races to share juvenile filly championship honors with Durazna, but as impressive as was her first year on the track, her sophomore season could be called nothing less than dominant.
Jones spotted Twilight Tear ambitiously in her sophomore début, entering her in the Leap Year Handicap, in which she finished third to older males at Hialeah. Three straight allowance victories ensued, all at six furlongs, leading “Plain Ben” Jones to contemplate starting her in the Kentucky Derby. But when Pensive was chosen to carry the Calumet colors at Churchill Downs, Twilight Tear was packed off to Pimlico, where she would win the Rennert Handicap “as rider pleased,” according to the Daily Racing Form chart-caller, and also the Pimlico Oaks.

Next stop: Belmont Park. Twilight Tear’s Acorn was run on May 17, 1944.  Nine fillies lined up to challenge her, but there was little doubt in the public’s mind that it was Twilight Tear’s race.  “Susie,” as she was called in the barn, went off at 1 – 20, and of the $366,012 was bet on the race, $231,812 was bet on the Calumet filly.  Galloping to a 2¼-length victory under Conn McCreary, she had “speed to spare.” 

Wrote William D. Richardson in the New York Times: “As expected after the previous performances of the bay-coated daughter of Bull Lea, it was no contest once the Calumet Farm filly took the lead entering the stretch.”

Ten days later, she romped to a four-length win in the Coaching Club American Oaks, and then traveled back to Chicago where she added the Princess Doreen and the Skokie Handicap (against the boys) to her resumé.
At Washington Park on July 17, 1944, she beat her famous, near- Triple-Crown-winning stablemate by 1¼-lengths…and five days later came back and beat Pensive again the Arlington Classic, her 11th straight victory.  Think of it now: the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner losing to a filly, his stablemate no less, twice in a week.

Later in the year, in what would turn out to be her penultimate start and last win, Twilight Tear matched Seabiscuit’s track record as she took the Pimlico Special over Devil Diver, who had spent most of his year winning stakes races at Belmont:  the Toboggan, the Metropolitan Handicap, and the Whitney. 

At this point, Twilight Tear had raced 23 times; her record was an astonishing 18 – 2 – 2.  She’d beaten the Kentucky Derby winner (three times), and the horse—Devil Diver—who would go on to be elected champion handicap horse.  With official voting for year-end honors instituted by the Daily Racing Form in 1936, she was selected as champion three-year-old filly, champion handicap mare, and Horse of the Year, picking up 26 of 28 votes for that honor.  Her dual classic winning stablemate didn’t get one.  William H.P. Robertson, in A History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, put it this way:

Twilight Tear stood 16 hands, about an inch taller than her stablemate, Pensive.  She was correspondingly bigger than the colt in other dimensions, longer bodied, larger in girth, and she outweighed him.  She also outran him.

Twilight Tear was the first filly to be voted Horse of the Year – Busher was the second in 1945, followed by Moccasin (1965), All Along (1983), Lady’s Secret (1986) and Azeri (2002) – and she is the last winner of the Acorn to do so. But she shares her Acorn honors with a venerable list of accomplished fillies.  Ten Acorn winners earned handicap mare title, two of them (Shuvee and Susan’s Girl) twice, while 16 of its winners went on to garner three-year-old filly titles, including Cicada, Dark Mirage, Shuvee, and Ruffian. 

Dark Mirage also won the La Troienne, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Delaware Oaks and one wonders whether she might have followed in Twilight Tear’s championship footsteps, had not Dr. Fager fashioned one of the most remarkable seasons ever by a Thoroughbred, winning not only the Horse of the Year title but honors as top handicap horse, top sprinter, and co-champion turf horse.

We know that “a filly in the Belmont!”, to steal Tom Durkin’s final call for the 2007 Belmont, can be monumentally exciting.  But a filly, a great filly, in the Acorn becomes part of an 83-year-old tradition, joining legions of champions and making her own kind of history.  She might not join the ranks of Triple Crown winners, but she’ll be in pretty good company.