Tall Tales of the Track: Love, Faith, and a Filly Named Signorinetta
Love is among the strongest emotions we can feel. Our attachment to people and animals defines our lives and inspires us to care for those most important to our hearts. Those relationships drive the sport of horse racing, where the love for these horses and the partnerships we form with them are key to getting the best out of ourselves as well as the equine athletes we work with. In the first part of the 20th century, one man’s love for a horse became an improbable story of incredible triumph.
A Love for the Horse
Cavaliere Edoardo Ginistrelli loved horses. After devoting the first five decades of his life to racing in Italy, the Cavaliere, or knight, took a chance and moved from his farm near Mount Vesuvius to England, buying a villa with two paddocks near Fordham Road in Newmarket. Among the horses he brought with him was Star of Portici, a rather unfashionably bred mare that the Italian hoped to pair with a good English stallion. The Cavaliere bred, owned, and trained his own horses and needed Star of Portici to produce a horse he could race over the grand English racecourses.
He secured Star of Portici a chance to visit St. Simon, the undefeated Ascot Gold Cup winner who was just beginning his stellar stud career. From that mating came the filly Signorina, whom Ginistrelli doted on like she was royalty herself. Signorina would creep up to the Italian’s side and nudge his pockets for treats, which he willingly gave. He spoiled her with apples, carrots, and bits of sugar, and she ran for him, winning all nine of her races in her two-year-old season. Though she was less successful at three and four, she did manage to win the rich Lancashire Plate in her last season, retiring with over ₤20,000 in winnings. As a broodmare, she proved a disappointment, going barren for a full decade before producing a colt named Signorino.
With Signorino, Ginistrelli got his first taste of the English classics, finishing second in the 1905 Two Thousand Guineas and third in the Derby at Epsom. That same year, after being barren for the previous two seasons, Signorina produced her second living foal, a filly the Italian noble named Signorinetta.
Signorinetta springs a 100-1 shock to win the 1908 Derby.— Chris (@cmoreton99) May 19, 2023
The best horse to emerge from the race, however, was the 3rd placed Llangwm.
Trained by Frank Hartigan, Llangwm won 7 races in succession following his Derby defeat, including twice at Royal Ascot and the Champion Stakes. pic.twitter.com/ANVUSfwT6F
Being of the romantic type, Ginistrelli had a weakness for love. He doted on Signorina, staying true to her even when she produced no live foals for 10 years, and noticed that his prized mare tended to nicker whenever a certain stallion passed by. That stallion Chaleureux had started his career in selling races, but later became a good handicapper, winning races like the Cesarewitch and the Chesterfield Cup. At stud, though, he was not a popular choice and instead served as a teaser, the stallion used to detect when a mare was in season, rarely getting his own opportunities to sire another generation.
Yet, when he would walk by Signorina’s paddock every morning on his way to his morning gallops, he clearly caught the mare’s attention and, when the Italian’s application to pair Cyllene, the Ascot Gold Cup winner, with his mare was denied, the Italian allowed his romantic side to decide her next cover. He sent Signorina to Chaleureux, taking a chance “on the boundless laws of sympathy and love.” From that came Signorinetta.
The brown filly touched the heart of the man who bred, owned, and trained her, but she inspired little attention during her juvenile season, winning only once in six races. Despite his success with both Signorina and Signorino, Ginistrelli remained a figure of scorn, with his methods subject to ridicule by the horsemen around him.
He entered Signorinetta in the One Thousand Guineas, the distaff English classic, where she ran unplaced, and then the Newmarket Stakes, where she finished a good fifth.
Ever confident in his homebred filly, the Italian entered her in both the Derby and the Oaks at Epsom. As the filly was loaded into a box for her trip to the historic racecourse, a crowd gathered to watch, and the Italian entertained them with his bold prediction that Signorinetta would win both. The gathered throng laughed, knowing that Ginistrelli had only four horses in his stable and had resorted to relays to adequately work her ahead of the two races.
Signorinetta entered the saddling ring at Epsom with odds of 100-1, few punters giving her any sort of recommendation. But the Italian backed her and convinced a few friends to do the same, his boundless confidence never wavering. The favorite for the 1908 Derby was an American-bred colt Norman III, owned by August Belmont Jr., with his win in the Two Thousand Guineas his strongest argument for favoritism. Additionally, the field of 18 included Sea Sick II, who had deadheated for the Prix du Jockey Club, and Sir Archibald, second behind Norman II in the Guineas.
On a sunny summer’s day, the 18 faced the barrier, but their start had its delays, with multiple horses breaking the starter’s tape before they finally got away. Signorinetta and jockey William Bullock lingered behind the leaders, running easily as they approached Tattenham Corner. When they turned into the straight, she was sixth and made good progress, taking the lead from Mountain Apple halfway down the stretch. The winning margin at the wire was two lengths over Primer, with Llangwm a neck back. Her winning time was 2:39.8, the third fastest Derby to that point. The crowd stood stunned by the finish, but the Italian noble danced out to the course to lead his filly in, their deserved applause coming as Ginistrelli led Signorinetta into the winner’s circle.
She was only the second horse to win at 100-1 and the fourth filly to win the Derby while the Cavaliere became the first person to breed, own, and train a Derby winner. Even more remarkably, Signorinetta would follow that performance up with another classic to remember.
An Improbable Story
Two days later, Signorinetta was back at Epsom facing the starter once again, this time in the 1 1/2-mile Oaks. With Bullock back in the saddle, the Italian’s filly stalked behind the leaders, taking over second after two others collided and fell. Around Tattenham Corner, the Irishman moved Signorinetta into the lead, and she held off her challengers to the wire, winning by three-quarters of a length. With that, Signorinetta became the third filly to win the Derby-Oaks double, joining the rare company of Eleanor, Blink Bonny, and Fifinella. The latter is the last filly to win the Derby, her win coming in 1916.
This time her victory was greeted by cheers, the Italian noble personally congratulated by the King. The Oaks would be her last victory. Signorinetta would start three more times, including the St. Leger, and would finish unplaced in all of them. Ginistrelli retired her the following year, but he would sell her two years later when he decided to return to Italy for the final years of his life. Lord Rosebery, the former Prime Minister, would buy her and she would produce six foals for him. Signorinetta would live to be 23, passing away in 1928.
In a matter of days, an Italian’s love affair with his horses would produce a story to remember, the unlikely combination of an equine love match and a man’s faith in his beloved Thoroughbreds producing a historic English classic winner. Though Signorinetta’s time at the top might have been short-lived, the tale of this Italian noble’s care of his prized filly lives on, the echo of the barrel organ he played for her still resonating through Newmarket.