Anyone living in the Lone Star State is familiar with the phrase “Everything is bigger in Texas.” Head down to the United States’ second largest state and you will realize that this statement is quite true. Time spent in Texas is exposure to big trucks, big ranches, and big temperatures. But the Texas horse racing industry does not quite fall into this category. Texas boasts the largest horse population of any state in the nation and the northern part of the state, particularly Denton County, is home to hundreds of the country’s top horse ranches, many of which are home to world champion horses in various disciplines. However, the Thoroughbred racing industry in Texas pales in comparison to states like California, Florida, Kentucky, and New York. Texas-breds receive little respect when they compete in such states and oftentimes, this lack of respect is unfortunately justified by poor performances by said Texas-breds. However, on one of racing’s biggest stages, the undercard of the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) at Churchill Downs this Friday, Fiftyshadesofgold looks to make the Texas racing industry proud.
Fiftyshadesofgold was born in the horse country of Denton County, Texas at Valor Farm in Pilot Point, Texas – a farm founded by the late Clarence and Dorothy Scharbauer. Clarence was a former president of the American Quarter Horse Association, and his wife Dorothy had owned the Hall of Fame champion Alysheba, a three-time Eclipse Award winner and victor of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), Preakness Stakes (gr. I), and Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). The lifelong horse lovers purchased the land in 1991 and the farm has since become one of the most successful Thoroughbred breeding programs in Texas.
Photo courtesy of Terri Cage
Fiftyshadesofgold herself is a product of the farm’s bluest blood. Her sire is My Golden Song, one of the most elite stallions on Valor’s stallion roster. Third behind 2006 Kentucky Derby victor Barbaro in the 2006 Holy Bull Stakes (GIII), My Golden Song has sired many stakes horses, including the black-type winners Cowgirl N Up, Platinum Song, Smiles Golden Song, Thegirlinthatsong, and Triumph and Song. Meanwhile, Fiftyshadesofgold’s dam, Hadif Cat, was a homebred for the Scharbauer family, as she is a daughter of one of the farm’s previous stallions, Hadif, and one of their homebred mares, Cats Meow. Most notably, the dam of Cats Meow was Alysbelle, a full sister to Alysheba and a graded stakes victress that placed in a pair of grade ones. With these superb bloodlines, high hopes were set when Hadif Cat was bred to My Golden Song in 2010, which was the mating that would produce Fiftyshadesofgold.
“When Fiftyshadesofgold was born, she was magnificent,” Ken Carson, longtime manager of Valor, said. “She’s one of the prettiest foals that ever came off that farm.”
Fiftyshadesofgold as a foal
Photo courtesy of Valor Farm
Fiftyshadesofgold only continued to impress. A large filly from the start, she maintained her presence and remarkable build, blossoming into an exciting prospect. However, while Carson kept his faith in the daughter of My Golden Song, it was another homebred filly that caught the eye during early training at Diamond D Ranch in Lone Oak, Texas – the same farm on which 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra received her early training. Coyote Queen, a half-sister to Texas champions and fellow Scharbauer homebreds Coyote Legend and Gold Coyote, was over one month older than Fiftyshadesofgold and was garnering all the attention at the training center.
“When we took them over there (to Diamond D Ranch), they called me one day and said ‘Man, this red one (Coyote Queen) is gonna be the best thing y’all ever had.’ I said, ‘What about the gray one?’ They said, ‘Ah, hell, give the gray one away. You don’t even need her. This red one’s gonna be good,’” Carson recalled. “And then, when they got to the racetrack, from there, Jay Severs (assistant to trainer Bret Calhoun) said, ‘Well, I love them both. They work even.’ But as soon as they started going a little farther, then the gray one (Fiftyshadesofgold) separated herself.”
Fiftyshadesofgold made quite the impression on trainer Bret Calhoun when she entered his barn. Always an eye-catcher, Calhoun had high hopes for the filly as soon as he saw her.
“She’s a very impressive individual, so obviously when you have a horse that looks like her –very athletic – you get high hopes for her immediately,” Calhoun said. “But sometimes, pretty is as pretty does. I didn’t pass judgment ‘til we got her a little farther along in training, but we always thought she was a special horse from very, very early on.”
Fiftyshadesofgold was thought to be so special, in fact, that a debut at Churchill Downs rather than at her home base of Lone Star Park was considered. But she was a Texas-bred and when Texas-breds – particularly unraced two-year-olds – ship outside of the Lone Star State to take on horses at a track like Churchill Downs, it takes a very special horse to win.
“They called me and said, ‘Hey, would you mind if we took her to Churchill already to break her maiden up there?’” Carson recalled. “I said, ‘No, let’s not do that.’ Because we’ve done that before and they’ve sent them all the way up there to Kentucky and they get beat, so I said to keep her down here.”
Rather than taking the risk of debuting at Churchill, Fiftyshadesofgold remained at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, where the dark gray filly debuted in a five-furlong maiden special weight. Heavily favored in a field of ten Texas-breds, Fiftyshadesofgold galloped home under looming storm clouds as dark as her coat to effortlessly win by ten lengths. She was headed to Churchill Downs after all.
Fiftyshadesofgold breaks her maiden at Lone Star Park
Photo courtesy of Terri Cage
A month later, Fiftyshadesofgold took a major step up in class. Taking on both open and stakes company for the first time, Fiftyshadesofgold faced ten other talented fillies in the six-furlong Debutante Stakes beneath the twin spires. In yet another display of pure ease and power, the gray filly glided to an 8-length victory.
“I don’t think you could ever expect coming from a maiden win at Lone Star Park to a stake at Churchill Downs to beat them that handily,” Calhoun said. “We expected a big performance, but I don’t think you could have ever imagined her beating them that easily, by that far.”
With her impressive triumph, it was no longer just the state of Texas talking about the filly. The entire nation had a new star to discuss. Calhoun prepared the filly for a start in the Adirondack Stakes (gr. II) at the nation’s most prestigious summer meet – Saratoga. Breaking from the inside gate as the heavy favorite, Fiftyshadesofgold remained along the rail as she tracked the leaders. However, this position along the inside compromised her chances, as after being boxed in around the far turn, the tall, imposing filly remained trapped behind rivals.
It appeared as if she would be able to rally through a spot that opened up on the rail, but as she did so, she was pushed into the rail by Who’s In Town, forcing her to check and lose momentum. Despite this predicament, Fiftyshadesofgold was able to cross the wire in fourth and after Who’s In Town was disqualified from first, the Calhoun trainee was promoted to third, able to gain a placing after her troubled but respectable performance.
“The race actually came up pretty light and we felt really good about the whole thing until she got run into the fence,” Carson said. “I’m convinced, if they didn’t run her into the fence, she would have got through on the inside and won.”
As if the rough and disappointing finish of the Adirondack was not upsetting enough, Fiftyshadesofgold emerged from the race with a fractured left shin and a chip in her right knee. These injuries would prevent the filly from racing again as a two-year-old.
“It was very disappointing,” Carson said. “The only thing is, she’s so big and whenever you give a young horse like that time, you’re doing them a favor. And so we had Dr. Bramlage in Kentucky put two screws in her cannon bone laterally and you couldn’t even tell that she had anything in there. And then he also took a little chip out of her right knee and sometimes the knees get fluid in them and all that, but she never got one thing. It all went perfect. We jogged her when he said to jog her and we hand-walked her, did all that stuff. It seems like it’s not enough time, but we gave her almost three months.”
Fiftyshadesofgold at Valor Farm while recovering from her injury
Photo courtesy of Valor Farm
But as is the case when any horse returns from injury, the concern that Fiftyshadesofgold could not return to her previous form worried her connections.
“She came out of her injury pretty good,” Calhoun said. “When one gets injured, you don’t ever know how they’re gonna come back mentally or physically. So she trained very well; she looked very good. I think sometimes you just don’t know if they’re gonna be willing to give you everything again like they did before they were injured. And so there were some moments that we had concern until we ran her that time first off the layoff and we put her in a race that really fit us very well.”
That race was the Two Altazano Stakes at Sam Houston Race Park near Houston, Texas on February 15. Going seven furlongs, Fiftyshadesofgold settled behind the leaders before kicking clear to win by an easy 2 ½ lengths. It was as if she had never lost a step.
“She sat back off the pace and pretty much exploded down the lane and put that field away easily,” Calhoun said. “The whole thing was a good confidence builder for her and it was a good fitness builder for her.”
Six days after Fiftyshadesofgold made her winning return to the races, which was one of the highest of highs her connections could experience, one of life’s lowest of lows hit. At age 88, Clarence Scharbauer, Jr. passed away from complications of emergency surgery.
“Mr. Scharbauer, in his later years, really lived for his horses,” Calhoun said. “He loved his horses. I didn’t have a lot of conversations with Clarence in his later years, but we always got to talk a lot more when horses were running and winning. That was one of the last things he got to see – her win in Houston. It really meant a lot.”
Now racing for Scharbauer’s estate, Fiftyshadesofgold continued her ascent as she returned to graded stakes company in the Fair Ground Oaks (gr. II). This race presented Fiftyshadesofgold with many trials, serving as her toughest test yet.
“Going around two turns the first time and with better quality horses, there were some questions to be answered,” Calhoun said. “She passed with flying colors. Second out off a layoff, first time around two turns, against the best three-year-old filly in the country, [Untapable], we were very pleased with that race.”
Fiftyshadesofgold then returned to Churchill Downs, where she has remained since. As she has trained over the Louisville, Kentucky track, the decision of whether or not to enter the filly in the Kentucky Oaks weighed on her connections.
“I thought [the Kentucky Oaks] was gonna be our goal if we could get there, way back when we got her back to the races,” Calhoun said. “At the end of the day [Monday], the ownership made a conservative decision to run her in the Eight Belles, going seven furlongs, instead of sending her in the Oaks. It is still a very tough spot, but we know she’s proven around seven-eighths; I guess that a mile and an eighth is still a bit of a question.”
The Eight Belles Stakes, which will be run as race eight on the Kentucky Oaks undercard at Churchill Downs on Friday, has drawn a field of ten. Breaking from post seven, Fiftyshadesofgold will face the likes of She’s a Tiger, the grade one-winning filly who was disqualified to second after crossing the wire first in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I); Designer Legs, who was promoted to the win in the Adirondack; the Pica Slew Stakes winner Milam; and the undefeated Our Amazing Rose.
“She’s training great,” Calhoun said. “We have high hopes for her. It’s a very tough race. At this point in time, I don’t know if she’s gonna be as good a sprinter at three as she was at two; she’s gotten bigger, taller, longer. I think she’s probably more suited to two-turn racing, maybe, at this point in time, but we know seven furlongs suited her pretty well against the horses in Texas (in the Two Altazano Stakes), which was a very impressive race. But she’s doing very good coming into the race and hopefully she’ll be fast enough to go seven furlongs with them.”
As Fiftyshadesofgold continues her path to success, she paves a path for Texas racing to gain recognition and improve upon its current situation. The time the promising filly spends in national spotlight is exposure to the Texas Thoroughbred industry, allowing her to serve as an ambassador for Texas-breds as she continues the legacy of Clarence Scharbauer, Jr. – a man who endeavored to support Texas racing – and carries the proud flag of Texas to some of racing’s biggest events.
“A lot of people will look down and see she’s a Texas-bred,” Calhoun said. “I think early on in her career, I don’t think they thought much of her being a Texas-bred ‘til she got to Saratoga and did what she did, then came back in the Fair Grounds Oaks. So I think that she’s gained a lot of respect as a Texas-bred.”
Win or lose on Friday, hopes remain high for Fiftyshadesofgold. A filly who has made a great impression from the start, the prospect of what her future holds gives her connections plenty of possibilities to dream of.
“She’s still very young and hasn’t raced a lot, so I hope the future brings what we think it’ll bring, because she’s got a very bright future,” Calhoun said. “We look forward to running in graded stakes for the next years to come. She stacks up very well, especially at an early age. A lot of the quality horses I’ve had – I’ve had some nice two-year-olds, three-year-olds – a lot of them have gone on and accomplished a lot in their later years – Breeders’ Cups, things like that. So from a standpoint of her being a great prospect right now, I really think she’s one of the better prospects. Hopefully she’ll go on and accomplish those things as the years go on.”