The Pucker Up is the final graded stakes race of the year at Arlington Park, and the consistent high quality of the grass race for three-year-old fillies has made it one of my favorite races at my home track. It also comes with a name that is not easily forgotten. How did this popular end-of-the-meeting race become known as the Pucker Up? One summer in Chicago 55 years ago went a long way in making it so.
Born in 1953, Pucker Up was a Kentucky homebred of Dan and Ada Rice's Danada Farm. Trained by the Hall of Fame conditioner, Jimmy Conway, the daughter of Olympia won half of her 32 lifetime starts and was America’s Champion Handicap Mare of 1957.
The well-bred filly always showed talent. After fading to fourth in her career debut in the slop at Belmont, she came back on October 11, 1955 to break her maiden in her next start, also at Belmont, by seven lengths and in fast time. It would prove to be her last start as a juvenile, but it would serve as a coming attraction for good things on the horizon.
Defeated in her sophomore debut in May of 1956 at the old Jamaica Race Course, Pucker Up would embark on a winning streak that would see her score in six consecutive races. Three wins at Belmont were followed by her first trip to Chicago, where she won a 5 ½ furlong allowance race on the turf at Arlington Park on July 18. After taking what would end up being her only ever try on the grass, she came back three weeks later across town to score her first stakes win in the Misty Isle at Washington Park. Back in the East, she would finish 3rd against top older mares in the Maskette Handicap, and then won the Jersey Belle at Garden State Park by 12 lengths in her first try around two turns. The romping victory ended her three-year-old season with a record of seven wins in nine starts.
Beginning her four-year-old season much earlier than she did in 1956, Pucker Up was solid in seven starts in Florida and then California, but with only two wins, she did look like a filly ready to be named champion. A bang-up performance in her next start, the Delaware Handicap, would signal her readiness to become one of racing’s elite, though. Leading all the way, Pucker Up would succumb late in the 1 ¼ mile test to lose by half a length to Princess Turia in one of America’s riches races. Next would come a trip back to the Windy City for more success.
Back in Chicago, and with Willie Shoemaker in the saddle, Pucker Up scored her most important victory to date with an easy win in the Arlington Matron Handicap on July 24, 1957. Again traveling across town, she would take things to a whole new level at Washington Park, by romping home in the Washington Park Handicap. The September 2 victory came against top males like Find, and Swoon’s Son placed her at the head of the older female division, and when she won Belmont’s Beldame Handicap three weeks later at Belmont Park, she was well on her way to being voted a champion.
As a five-year-old, Pucker Up was not quite the same and never made it back to Arlington Park, although she did run second in both starts at Washington Park in 1958. She was retired after a poor performance at Delaware Park in July and embarked on a successful broodmare career at Danada Farm. In 1961, Arlington Park Racetrack honored the champion by naming a race after her … a race I’m happy to be attending later today.