By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
Before I discovered this beautiful painting (pictured above), I knew virtually nothing about Petite Etoile. I’d never heard of her or her extremely successful exploits on the track. I was given the painting by a friend of my grandparents, Robert Rowley, who I’d always discuss racing with whenever I saw him. I’ve found it really interesting to look into this filly’s career.
Petite Etoile was a grey filly born in 1956, by Gimcrack and Eclipse winner Petition and out of Star Of Iran. In her racing career, she was owned by Prince Aly Khan and trained by Noel Murless, who was Champion Trainer nine times (1948, 1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1967, 1968, 1970 & 1973). He won all of the Classics more than twice but he was, in particular, extremely successful with his fillies, winning the 1000 Guineas six times and the Oaks five times. There is a one mile six furlong race at Ascot this each year in late September, early October which remembers him. His best colt was Royal Palace, who won the Acomb, Royal Lodge, 2000 Guineas, Epsom Derby, Coronation Stakes, Coronation Cup, Prince Of Wales’ Stakes, Eclipse Stakes and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
Petite Etoile was one of his best too and her name, which translates to Little Star, is extremely fitting. From what I’ve heard, she wasn’t the easiest to deal with and only liked to work with other grey horses on the gallops! Noel Murless has been reported to describe her as a “monkey” and “peculiar”. In 1959, when she was two, on her first start, she was beaten by Chris, who went on to win the Kings Stand, at Manchester Racecourse. She won the Star Stakes at Sandown, finished second in the Molecomb and won the Rose Stakes at Sandown at odds of 1/6. On ratings, she was just short of the top band and was considered to be a fast filly, who wouldn’t make an impact beyond sprint trips.
Because of her success at two, she carried top weight when making her three year old debut in the Free Handicap. Partnered by Doug Smith, who rode four classic winners and trained one, they won and went on to be an 8/1 shot in the 1000 Guineas. Smith kept the ride as Lester Piggott chose to ride Collryia. He chose wrong though as she stayed on in the closing stages to win by a length. It was all part of Smith’s plan though – he underplayed how good this filly was in hope Piggott wouldn’t want to ride her.
Her next target was the Oaks and Piggott took over the riding duties, but they were unsure if she would stay. She was second favourite behind an unbeaten horse, Cantelo, who many believed had superior staying ability. The Charles Elsey-trained did have superior staying power as she won the St Leger but was without the turn of foot that Petite Etoile showed. She was one of six winners in the Oaks for Piggott, who is one of the greats of the weighing room. His others were Carrozza (1957), Valoris (1966), Juliette Marny (1975), Blue Wind (1981) and Circus Plume (1984). He won the Jockeys Championship eleven times and, for a flat jockey, he was quite tall at 5ft8in. Petite Etoile won the rest of her races in 1959 – the Sussex Stakes, Yorkshire Oaks and Champion Stakes.
To win all these races in one year is absolutely insane – especially for a filly. From what I can work out, she is the only horse to have ever won all of these races in one season. Incredibly, nowadays the prize fund for winning those race, in total, is £2,181,194. Back in 1959, it was a mere £57,058. The difference is absolutely mind-boggling!
In May 1960, Prince Aly Khan was killed in a car accident and his son, Aga Khan VI, inherited the ownership. She got off to a good start for the new owners by winning the Victor Wild Stakes and was then sent to Epsom for the Coronation Cup. Her SP was 1/3, despite the fact that she was running against the Derby winner Parthia. Her blazing turn of foot assured her the win and she made Parthia look like he was a “selling plater”. It was so impressive that an American buyer offered £320,000 for the filly, but it was denied.
Next time out, Petite Etoile went to Ascot on rain-softened ground for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Piggott was confident, describing her as “the best I have ever ridden”. I’ve been searching the Internet for a video of this filly racing and this is the only race I could find. (Watch it Here) She was kept near the rear and her jockey tried to take her down the inside rail but found the passage blocked and she had to switch wide. Even though she finished strongly, it wasn’t enough and she was beaten half a length. She was deemed “Petite Etoile, the wonder filly,” by the commentator an she really was wonderful. On looks, she really reminds me of Phoenix Of Spain, the big grey son of Lope De Vega trained by Charlie Hills to win the 2000 Guineas, because, in comparison to the others, she’s huge!
Petite Etoile, despite rumours of her retiring, raced again at five. She began with a narrow victory in the Coronation Stakes at Sandown and then won a second Coronation Cup. At Royal Ascot, she won the Rous Memorial Stakes (since discontinued). She came second in a race named after her late owner and then won the Scarborough Stakes at Doncaster. She concluded her career coming second in the Queen Elizabeth II when 2/9 favourite.
The next step for Petite Etoile was going to stud. She was an underwhelming broodmare with three foals achieving very little on the track. Despite this, a descendant of her is Zarkava. This bay mare was unbeaten through a seven race career, including five group ones. Herself, she is the dam of Zarak, a group one winner, and Prix Vermeille third Zarkamiya.
The word ‘remarkable’ springs to mind when thinking about this unique, quirky filly. Aged three, she won British Horse of The Year and Timeform Top-Rated Three Year Old. Aged four and five, she was the Timeform Top-Rated Older Female. From nineteen faces, she won fourteen and came second on three occasions. Not many fillies would take the same route as she did nowadays. For example, only one filly has ran in the Sussex Stakes in the past three renewals. Attitudes are different now compared to sixty years ago when this mare was in her prime and we’ve just got to hope we’ll have some more incredible mares that can serve it up to the boys this season!
I wrote another article about the items Robert Rowley gave to me, which you can read here – Golden Days : 1998 Gold Cup