Peppers Pride streaking toward record books

Joe Allen would be the first to admit that he's not much of a dreamer or very adventurous. He likes the easy challenges, the ones where his mare doesn't have to work too hard, is pretty sure to win and he's sure to collect another nice check.

That might not be for everyone, but Allen's strategy certainly has its merits. Peppers Pride, his remarkable New Mexico-bred mare, has never lost in 15 career starts, has earned $816,665 and is two victories away from breaking one of the most revered records in thoroughbred racing. It is believed that no horse in modern times has won 17 straight.

"The record isn't why we are where we are today with her," said Allen, who is the owner and breeder of the 5-year-old mare. "We just try to do what's best for the mare. We've been criticized because we haven't gone out of state and we haven't run against the boys, but when you have an opportunity to run for the money we get to run for it doesn't make much sense to go do anything else."

By Desert God out of Lady Pepper, Peppers Pride's latest win came Sunday in the $100,000 Sydney Valenti Handicap at Sunland Park, which she won by 1 ¼ lengths under regular rider Carlos Madeira. It was her first start of the year. Win No. 15 wasn't much different than wins 1 through 14. In every one of her starts, she has raced in New Mexico, against New Mexico breds and against fillies.

Even the main competition is usually pretty much the same. A mare named Theregoesdancer has finished second behind her six times, one time losing by a mere nose. And the racing secretaries don't seem that interested in giving her rivals a chance. After winning 14 straight, she somehow dropped two pounds, down to 125, when she ran in the Valenti Handicap Sunday.

There was a time when there wouldn't have been much money in beating up on New Mexico breds. But the Land of Enchantment has become one of those places where the racetrack purses have been artificially fattened by the proceeds from slot machines. A good horse can make very good money there.

So, that's where Peppers Pride will stay. Her next start is likely to come in something called the Russell and Helen Foutz Distaff Handicap, a $75,000 race run April 26 at SunRay Park. They might be going for 17 straight sometime this summer at Ruidoso Downs.

"We'd run her more often but there aren't that many stakes races out there for New Mexico bred fillies," Allen said. "Basically, there's one stakes race for her at everyone of the tracks in New Mexico."

Allen and his trainer, Joel Marr, are well aware of the 16-straight record, and they're a little bit uncomfortable with any comparisons it might elicit. Citation, Cigar and a horse named Hallowed Dreams have all won 16 straight. Much like Peppers Pride, Hallowed Dreams made her mark winning a lot of easy races, in her case state-bred events in Louisiana. Citation and Cigar, though, are two of the all-time greats, and they understand that their horse is not in their league.

"We know that this filly is not Citation or Cigar," Allen said. "She's not War Pass, either. We haven't been the ones to compare her to those horses. We're just glad to have her."

Allen says everyone has an opinion about how to handle Peppers Pride. Most want him to head out of town to run in a big race somewhere. He hasn't ruled it out, but seems perfectly content to stay at home. Peppers Pride will be retired at the end of the year, meaning time is running out for her to run in a graded stakes race somewhere.

As long as Peppers Pride stays in New Mexico and stays healthy, she probably will win at least 17 straight. As Marr see it, that will be a special accomplishment, no matter where it occurs.

"We're just trying to win races and take care of her," he said. "We're not worrying about the record. But if she were to do it we'd feel very privileged. To win that many in a row, I don't care if you're running in the bushes; it takes a lot of luck and it takes a great athlete to do it. Whether she's great just in her category or overall, to us, it doesn't really matter. She's just been super."

But how would she do in the major leagues? Aren't they curious?

"Sure, I'm curious," Marr said. "But it's not going to happen in the near future. Her next couple of races will be in New Mexico and we'll only be running her as long as she stays 100 percent and completely ready to go. As far as leaving, sure, you wonder, especially when you read everything that's been written about her nationally. They say she's no this, no that; she'd be nothing more than a claimer at Churchill Downs. Maybe they're right. It doesn't matter. That's not what she's about."

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.