By Frances J. Karon
Saturday’s Apple Blossom at Oaklawn had been widely seen as a showdown between reigning champions Monomoy Girl (Tapizar) and Swiss Skydiver (Daredevil), with 10 G1 wins between them. Instead, it was the third champion, Letruska (Super Saver), in the six-horse field who prevailed by a nose over Monomoy Girl, with Swiss Skydiver a well-beaten third.
What’s significant about this particular champion defeating those two particular champions is that Letruska is a champion in Mexico, and as you might guess, the Mexico-to-US-Grade-1-winner angle is not a common one. She didn’t earn a single line of black-type in Mexico, according to international cataloguing standards, despite being considered in that country a dual G1 winner.
As far as I’m aware, Letruska is the first Thoroughbred racehorse from Mexico — either bred there, which she wasn’t, or raced there — to win an internationally recognized G1 race outside of Mexico. There have been some to win just below that level, but most of the forays from Mexico to the US have not been quite so successful.
I knew of some, but thanks to an assist from Francisco Gonzalez (@pacubastheboss on Twitter), I can tell you about a couple of the more notable Mexican horses in the US.
The winners at the highest level before Letruska took the Apple Blossom were Aljamin (Delta Judge), a Kentucky-bred foal of 1970, and Claramount, a 1984 New York-bred son of Policeman. Aljamin was exported to Mexico as a youngster and made his first starts there, winning at least one black-type stakes race — and probably more, but Equibase only shows two of his 11 foreign starts — before coming to the US in 1973, where he won two of six races, including the G2 Vosburgh. He also placed third in the G1 Monmouth Invitational and a couple of other Graded stakes. Claramount was a G1 winner at three in Mexico in 1987, the penultimate year the black-type and G1 designation were recognized, before winning two Graded races, led by the G2 Boojum at Belmont, in the US as a 4yo.
Maybe the most successful and influential of all the Mexican-bred and/or -raced horses to cross the border into the US was Mexican-bred Mazatleca, a 1980 filly by Ramahorn, a Bold Ruler-line stallion. She broke her maiden in her second start at Agua Caliente in Mexico…well, sort of in Mexico. It was always curious to me when I’d read that the Agua Caliente racetrack was in the United States. It wasn’t, but for some reason — as corroborated by Gonzalez — The Jockey Club considered it a US racetrack. (If this seems confusing, well yes, it is.) So according to TJC records, Mazatleca raced exclusively in the US. She won eight black-type races, led by the G3 Red Bank against the boys at Monmouth in 1986. She went on to greater glory as the dam of G1SW Wild Escapade (Wild Again) and G2SW Mazel Trick (Phone Trick).
Batucada, the 1973 Horse of the Year in Mexico, was a Kentucky-bred daughter of Roman Line who was champion at two, three, and four in Mexico and is credited with five black-type wins in that country. At five in the US, she made two starts, running second in the G3 Distaff Handicap at Aqueduct and third in the My Fair Lady at Suffolk Downs, falling short of a win at stakes level. You might be familiar with her name, though, as she produced G1SW Selous Scout (Effervescing), G2SW Damister (Mr. Prospector) — sire of French Classic winner Celtic Swing — and was granddam of US-bred Mexican champion Brazilian Beat (Summing), a G2 winner, and recognized as such internationally, at Hipodromo De Las Americas in Mexico in 1986. Batucada is great-granddam of British highweight/US G1SW Magistretti (Diesis).
But seeing a Mexican race with black-type, let alone G2 status, on a Society of International Thoroughbred Auctioneers-sanctioned catalogue page — that would be major auction houses such as Keeneland, Fasig-Tipton, OBS, Tattersalls, and Goffs, for instance — is not something we do anymore since the International Cataloguing Standards (ICS) committee classified Mexico as a Part III country, stripping its stakes from 1989 onward of black-type status. From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, however, Mexico’s races were classified as a Part I country and did receive Graded status.
The Graded designation is even more of a rarity, because the Graded stakes race program was instituted in the early 1970’s — 1971 for European races, 1973 for North American ones — so there was a timeframe of just over 15 years in which Mexican races received Grades.
It’s because of these two things that Cuadra Santa Rita’s Gran Zar would likely be considered the Mexican horse with the most recognized accomplishments to cross the border into the US. He’d won the Mexican Triple Crown in 1978, was Horse of the Year in 1978 and 1979, champion 3yo in 1978, and champion handicap horse in 1979 and 1980. His 16 wins there included six at G1 level, a G2, and three G3s.
In 1980, the Mexican-bred son of Raja Baba made the move to the continental United States, where he made three starts at Del Mar for California-based trainer Henry Moreno. His best effort was a second in the Seaside Handicap, his third and final start in the country. (He’d raced once at El Comandante in Puerto Rico, where he was second in the 1978 Clasico International del Caribe, giving him a total of four starts in North America. However, in some respects only, The Jockey Club considers Puerto Rico another country…its stakes races carry Part II status and unlike, say, New York champions, its champions are included on catalogue pages, but it’s a complicated relationship and a story for another day.)
Gran Zar failed to win a stakes race in the US, but if you can find a (very old) catalogue page with him in the female family, he will show up as a six-time G1 winner. (You might also find his name in some very old pedigrees, as he went to stud in the States and sired seven SWs from 281 foals.)
The same is true for the 1980 Mexican Triple Crown winner Pikotazo, who came to this country to contest the 1980 Belmont Stakes and was eventually placed in several Graded races here.
In the post-ICS era, Mexican horses simply don’t make the journey to Part I countries with much of a resume anymore, and no Mexican-raced horse will ever match the credentials of Gran Zar. Regardless of how good a horse is in Mexico, none of their stakes wins (considered “N” races), nor their earnings, will appear on a catalogue page…their lines read only as “X wins at [age] in Mexico.”
More recently, German Larrea’s St. George Stable LLC’s homebred Horses of the Year Kukulkan and Jala Jala (both by Point Determined) were taken by trainer Fausto Gutierrez, who like Kukulkan and Jaja Jala had at one time been based in Mexico, to try their hand at racing in a Part I country. Neither succeeded in winning anything other than a Restricted race, two in the case of Kukulkan — the 2018 Caribbean Classic at the 2019 Copa Fraternidad del Caribe, both at Gulfstream for horses based in countries that belong to the Confederacion Hipica del Caribe — Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Panama, and Columbia. Despite being a Triple Crown winner with six (internationally unrecognized) Grade 1 wins in Mexico, Kukulkan earned his first-ever line of black-type in the Caribbean Classic. He won an allowance optional claimer at Churchill in 2019, his only other win in the US, and placed second in the G3 West Virginia Governor’s Stakes. He was unplaced in six other stakes attempts, including a G1 and two G3s.
A year before Kukulkan, Jala Jala, winner of a pair of Mexican G1 “N” races, got her first black-type in the 2017 Caribbean Classic and, like Kukulkan, followed up with a win in the next year’s Copa Fraternidad. She made two other starts in the US, finishing second in the 2019 G3 Royal Delta and unplaced (this time for trainer Antonio Sano) in the G2 Inside Information. She is the dam of one foal, a 2020 Kentucky-bred colt by Distorted Humor.
These connections — St. George and Fausto Gutierrez — are those involved with Letruska, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Super Saver from a Successful Appeal mare, and she was bought in utero at Keeneland November 2015 for $100,000 by St. George.
Letruska won two Mexican “G1s” as a 3yo in 2019 — her championship season — but obviously earned no black-type. Her first black-type stakes win came in the Restricted Copa Invitational del Caribe at Gulfstream in December of 2019, and she’s not looked back since. She’s now made 12 starts in the US, with seven wins, a second, a third, and earnings of nearly $1.125 milliion. She won two G3s — the Rampart at Gulfstream and Shuvee at Saratoga — last year, adding a third race at that level with victory in the 2021 Houston Ladies Classic at Sam Houston.
Dam Magic Appeal is a G2-placed full sister to G1SW J P’s Gusto, and she’d already produced Listed SW Trigger Warning (Candy Ride) and Listed-placed American Doll (Tiznow) prior to Letruska. Second dam Call Her Magic (Caller I. D.), a Listed SW, is granddam of champion Proud Spell (Proud Citizen).
St. George and Gutierrez have singlehandedly been working on raising the profile of racehorses crossing the border from Mexico, and they’ve finally been rewarded a Grade 1 win, and in a high-profile race that had been billed as a great match between US champions.