by Bob Gates
Every once in while a mare comes along who distinguishes herself from all others. Multiple stakes winner Astral Moon was just such a mare, but her career was slow in getting started.
Owned and trained by Bill Grohn of Weyburn Saskatchewan, Astral Moon was unraced at two and ran only once as a 3-year-old in Regina. In the spring of 1977 the 4-year-old dark bay filly made her debut at Assiniboia Downs in a $2,500 claiming race.
Lady luck was on Grohn's side that day. No one saw what a bright future the daughter of the Knack ll out of Brown Doe had ahead of her and the claim box was empty. Who knew what a missed opportunity this was for horsemen?
Bill Grohn had his own special training methods. He had no one to exercise horses on his farm, so the former Standardbred owner conditioned Astral Moon in a sulky.
Astral Moon started nine times in 1977, chalking up five wins and a third. She had established herself as an allowance horse, but on September 21, 1977 she would run for a tag one last time. And talk about her stock increasing in value, this time around her claiming price was $18,000! Moving forward, Astral Moon was strictly an allowance/stakes racehorse.
Her last start in 1977 foreshadowed her future. After the race, the Winnipeg Free Press reported, "A new speedball was unveiled Friday at Assiniboia Downs when a 4-year-old filly called Astral Moon took on the best sprinters at the track and soundly thrashed them in the 5 1/2-furlong feature."
The field of six that Astral Moon "thrashed" that day included male stakes winners Turn to Rule, Proud Chief, Sunraysed and Federal Ruler, names I'm sure you will remember. Her time for the 5 1/2-furlongs was only 3/5ths of a second off Taboga's track record, and she paid $34.20, $12.60 and $6.20 across the board!
Astral Moon's first race of 1978 was the five furlong Inaugural Handicap. Owner Bill Grohn watched her work just prior to the Inaugural and liked what he saw. He was sure that if his mare was going to get beat, it was going to take a track record to do it. Astral Moon was on fire in the Inaugural and won for fun. Her time, of 56 3/5 seconds knocked an almost unheard of full second off Rangatira's 8-year-old track record. If it wasn't clear before, it was now, Astral Moon was for real.
The 1978 Inaugural was typical of the deep fields of the day. Her competitors included Island Fling, Sunraysed, Turn to Rule, Macale, Proud Chief and Persian Memories, an impressive cast of thoroughbreds to say the least.
Starting with her last win of 1977 and her win in the 1978 Inaugural, Astral Moon would string together six straight victories. Meanwhile, another sprint specialist, Beau Blade, was also tearing up the track. He had gone three-for-three that spring and all were track record performances. Beau Blade and Astral Moon had clearly established themselves as the premier sprinters at the track, to the point where there was talk of a match race between Dakotah Stables' star colt and Bill Grohn's sweetheart filly.
Remember when match races were popular?
It was not to be. A loss by Beau Blade in mid-June put the match race talk to rest. It was clear to most that Astral Moon was the champ and there was no need for a match. Year's end would see Astral Moon record five wins and a second from seven starts.
The 1979 season started much the same as 1978 for Astral Moon. Grohn's mare was set to defend her title in the 22nd running of the Inaugural Handicap. The track was off that day, but it didn’t make any difference in the outcome. Astral Moon won by three easy lengths. The heavy track ensured that there was no track record, but a win is a win and the top-weighted Astral Moon laid yet another beating on a solid field.
In 1979 Astral Moon went 4-2-1 from nine starts, but Grohn had other plans for his speedy mare. It was time to retire the 6-year-old to the broodmare ranks.
In the fall of 1981 Grohn was conditioning a couple of horses, but it was Astral Moon who caught his eye. She was running around the paddock showing crazy kinds of life. Grohn was sure Astral Moon wanted another go at the track, so he put her back in training. She trained so well that he decided he would try her at the Downs in 1982.
When Astral Moon returned in 1982 the odds were against the stocky mare, as mares almost never return to the racing form they displayed prior to breeding. Her first race of the 1982 campaign came on April 25, 1982, 2 1/2 years after her last race in 1979.
Astral Moon won the four furlong allowance for fillies and mares, but Grohn wanted one more start in the 9-year-old mare before the 1982 Inaugural Handicap. This start would come on May 1 in a 4 1/2-furlong dash. Not only did she win the race, but she set her second track record, shaving 3/5ths of a second off the existing mark. Astral Moon was back!
Grohn wasn't surprised at how well Astral Moon ran upon her return to the track, but setting track records was another matter. He was proud of his horse, but knew it couldn’t last.
Those first two starts proved to be nice tighteners for her third appearance in the Inaugural Handicap, which by the way had all the makings of a great race. Astral Moon would be joined in the race by four very nice horses, namely Northern Spike, Intercontinent, Romeo Frank and Mr. Mar J Mar.
And what a race it was!
Astral Moon battled early with Phil Kives' Intercontinent, setting fractions that were sure to set up another record run. The first quarter was run in 21 4/5 and the half went in 44 1/5. Astral Moon took the stretch turn a little wide, forcing Intercontinent out as well, and that left the rail open for Northern Spike. Spike had a rail trip the whole way, shot up the fence and found the wire first, breaking Astral Moon's five furlong record by 1/5th of a second. Intercontinent won the battle for second and Astral Moon took third.
After the race, Astral Moon's jockey Jimmy Anderson was quoted as saying that his mount "was just outrun." Not something you were accustomed to hearing about Grohn's mare.
Grohn saw that Mother Time was lurking in the shed row and calling Astral Moon's name. In addition, Astral Moon's biological clock was ticking. The mare's time on the track was winding down for good this time.
But what a run she had!
Astral Moon's final start was in the Downs' 20th Anniversary Birthday Purse on June 11, 1982. Of course she went out on a winning note. It would have been sad for it to have ended any other way.
Equibase has Astral Moon's career record at 19-3-3 from 31 starts for total earnings of $62,251. She won 62% of the time and finished in the money an astounding 81% of the time!
In 1984 the Downs paid homage to Astral Moon by naming a stakes race in her honour. The race was contested until 1995. Grohn himself quit training in the 1990s. At that time, Astral Moon was still living and having foals, but none of her babies possessed her talent or will to win. Still, it seems wrong not to share some information about her foals.
A crowd favourite of hers was Taketheatrain, who was a product of her union with the great Island Fling. This would seem to be a match made in heaven, but it didn't quite turn out that way.
"Atrain" was only a plater despite his nice breeding. His claim to fame? Owners Stewart and Phil Hayek were pretty sure that Atrain was the last horse to run out of the old Speers railway boxcars by the north gate. The track was short on stalls that year so Taketheatrain called the old railway boxcars home. Seems fitting doesn’t it?
Atrain was a loner, never wanting anything to do with others of his own kind. He won his only two starts in 1989 but pulled a shoulder muscle and was retired to show jumping. As of a couple of years ago he was still alive and kicking, approaching 30 years of age.
Astral Moon was special. Jockey Irwin Driedger knew her as well as anyone and here is what he had to say about Grohn's pride and joy:
- She was a very talented race mare, really nice to ride and built like a colt, stocky and powerful.
- She hated to work in the mornings and gave the impression that she couldn’t outrun a fat man, but put her in the starting gate and she was a different horse.
- She was always aware of her surroundings, as if she was clocking her competition.
- On the quirky side, she always had "foam" around her mouth.
The speed demon from Weyburn, Saskatchewan had truly found herself a home away from home at Assiniboia Downs. She knew it. She loved it.
And she showed it.