A group of horses thunder down a green English course. Heads straining, nostrils flared, they fly past the finish to the sounds of cheers and groans. An undistinguished bay mare finishes outside of the top three in Boussac’s famous orange and grey colours. This was her seventh and final start; a disappointing close to a career with zero wins.
La Troienne, compared to her more accomplished stablemates, was a dud. Her brother, Leonidas, was a stakes winner, and classic champions could be found in her maternal family, but even a great pedigree could not help this hopeless runner. Boussac, who was one of the most accomplished breeders of his time, was not inclined to keep this maiden mare around. While in foal to English Triple Crown winner Gainsborough, La Troienne was transferred from French to American hands for the sum of 1250 guineas. She arrived in Lexington, Kentucky in early 1931 and delivered her foal, a filly who was put down due to physical weakness. It was an abysmal start for a Thoroughbred broodmare.
Her next date would be with Black Toney, a dark stallion whose son Black Gold had captured the Kentucky Derby of 1924. The product of that union was tiny and from a seemingly insignificant pedigree – Black Helen. Nothing much was expected from her; no one could expect what she went on to do. She was the champion three year-old filly of 1935 and won 15 of her 22 starts. Boussac must have been astonished to hear about this daughter of his failed La Troienne winning again and again.
Black Helen’s influence didn’t end when she left the racing barn. Her first foal, a daughter of Sickle named Be Like Mom, became fifth dam to the great champion Princess Rooney, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in the same year that her ancestress Black Helen received the honor. Hula Hula, Black Helen’s filly by Polynesian, is the third dam of Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin and the great sire Pleasant Tap.
Bubbling Over was La Troienne’s suitor for the next two years after Black Helen’s birth. A colt – later gelded – and a filly were born from these unions. The gelding, Biologist, was a minor stakes winner and faded into relative obscurity due to his inability to produce. The filly, Baby League, became a marvelous producer herself. She produced a chestnut filly by Triple Crown winner War Admiral that became one of the greatest racemares of all time: Busher. While Busher excelled on the racetrack, her full sister Striking – a stakes winner herself – proved her true worth in the breeding shed.
Striking produced a trio of fillies – one by Ambiorix, two by Nasrullah – whose descendants would go on to do great things. Her two by Nasrullah, Glamour and So Chic, were the tail-female ancestors of horses like the great sire Private Account, Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, and Horse of the Year Mineshaft. Bases Full, by Ambiorix, was the fourth dam of Smarty Jones, who came a length short of becoming the sport’s 12th American Triple Crown winner.
By the time Big Hurry was born, her full sister Black Helen had already picked up a championship. While she didn’t reach the status that her older sibling had, Big Hurry produced fabulous racing fillies like Searching and Bridal Flower, who each became producers themselves. Through Searching came American classic winners Sea Hero and Personality, Arc de Triomphe victor Allez France, Roar (the damsire of Rachel Alexandra), and the great filly Lite Light. Big Hurry’s other daughters were no slouches, either. Blue Line was responsible for Pike Place Dancer; No Fiddling was the ancestress of French classic winners Caerleon and Turgeon; and Allemande was the third dam of the great Easy Goer.
The only colt out of La Troienne so far had been gelded; all the rest of her offspring were fillies. Bimelech was born in 1937, nearly a year after La Troienne was mated to Black Toney for the last time. He would be his dam’s great champion. At two, he never lost a race. At three, he won both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes and finished a commendable second behind Gallahadion in the Kentucky Derby. A champion at both two and three, he won nearly $250,000 in 11 wins from 15 starts and sired many stakes winners, including the sturdy Never Bend. Bimelech was the first of La Troienne’s foals to be inducted into the American Racing Hall of Fame.
La Troienne’s next suitor would be Blue Larkspur, the classic winner and Horse of the Year who would become one of the best sires of the 20th century. They produced six foals, five of them fillies. The first was Big Event, a stakes winner and producer who was the ancestress of the multiple stakes winner The Axe. Businesslike was born next. Like her dam, she never managed to finish first on the racetrack, but erased all claims to mediocrity when she produced stakes winner Busanda. Busanda’s son by Tom Fool, Buckpasser, is still considered one of the greatest racehorses of all time. Busanda’s half-sister by Blenheim, His Duchess, was the fourth dam of the ill-fated Preakness winner Prairie Bayou.
Sprinkled into the offspring of La Troienne and Blue Larkspur were a pair of foals by Balladier. A son of Black Toney, Balladier was the champion two year-old colt of 1934 and produced several useful horses at stud, including champion Double Jay. His two out of La Troienne, however, were nothing to brag about, and they paled in comparison to their siblings by Blue Larkspur.
After Businesslike was born in 1939, La Troienne produced two colts and a filly before her womb was found barren in 1943. At 17, she was an aging mare with ten foals on the ground, two of them champions. She was sent to Blue Larkspur thrice more and got three fillies – Bee Ann Mac, Belle Histoire, and Belle of Troy. Bee Ann Mac was a stakes winner. Belle Histoire never got to the winner’s circle, but you can find her in the tail-female pedigrees of Grade/Group 1 winners like Tejano and Bright Sky. Belle of Troy never even set foot on a racetrack, but her great-great grandson Cutlass Reality did. In the 1988 Hollywood Gold Cup, he defeated Ferdinand and Alysheba, not even a year after their stirring stretch battle in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Belle of Troy was born after another barren period of La Troienne’s, and in 1948, the grand mare foaled her last offspring, a chestnut colt by Kentucky Derby winner Shut Out. This colt, named Trojan War, ended up becoming nothing special and was eventually gelded, thus quietly closing the door on one of the most spectacular broodmare careers of all time.
Marcel Boussac sent the great Frizette to a slaughterhouse after the old mare failed to conceive in consecutive years. It was a cruel fate that La Troienne managed to escape, due to her mediocrity in her youth. Instead, she lived out 6 more years after Trojan War’s birth, dying in 1954 at Greentree Farm.
The success of her descendants gave La Troienne the rare credential of being a foundation mare – the head of her own branch of a female family already known for its classic winners. It was a distinction not given to any in her family since Web, born in 1808 and head of Family 1-s. Family 1-x would be La Troienne’s, with members like all the great horses above, including four Kentucky Derby winners. They even named a stakes race after her, a race which has been won by mares like Jewel Princess, Spain, and Ginger Punch.
People take chances on lost causes all the time, but this was one of the biggest of those stories. In a twist that few could imagine, a filly who never even won a race became one of the greatest Thoroughbreds of all time.