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Texas History

Queen of the Turf

Pan Zareta raced when gambling was mostly outlawed and she left no offspring to continue her legacy, but the filly from Sweetwater was at times unbeatable

Pan Zareta, easily considered the greatest filly in horse-racing history, was what racing buffs called a safe bet, especially if the wager was on her to win. Pegged by The New York Times as the “Queen of the Turf” and also known affectionately as the “Texas Whirlwind” and “Panzy,” Pan Zareta set records at racetracks in three countries over the course of six years. Of the 151 races she started, Pan Zareta finished in the money (first, second or third) 128 times, notching 76 victories.

Pan Zareta was foaled in Sweetwater in 1910 by breeder J.F. “Jim” Newman. The filly, sired by Abe Frank out of dam Caddie Griffith, fits in a long line of famous Texas horses that includes Steel Dust, progenitor of the modern quarter horse, and Assault, the crippled King Ranch stallion who won the 1946 Triple Crown.

Pan Zareta was named for Pansy Zareta, the daughter of the former mayor of Juarez, Mexico. The chestnut filly’s first race was there in January 1912 during the Mexican Revolution. According to Travis Monday, a history columnist for the Sweetwater Reporter, the Newmans gave a thoroughbred stallion to Pancho Villa to protect their interests in Mexico during the revolution. It’s believed Villa rode the horse during his ill-fated campaign. In her first year of racing, Pan Zareta won 13 of 19 starts, including 10 in a row.

Horse racing in America ebbed during Pan Zareta’s heyday, as antigambling sentiment outlawed the sport in many places. Betting on ponies remained illegal in Texas until 1933—and was banned again in 1937, a prohibition that lasted 50 years—but Pan Zareta took her act on the road, winning an unequaled 46 of 100 handicap races, according to the online Handbook of Texas. In a handicap race, each horse is loaded with a specified amount of weight based on the horse’s ability.

Pan Zareta carried a lot of weight—more than 131 pounds in 14 races. She once won carrying an astonishing 146 pounds. In her best-known race, against the highly regarded thoroughbred stallion Joe Blair, Pan Zareta carried 10 pounds more than her competitor. She won by two lengths, setting a world speed record in the process.

Pan Zareta failed to produce offspring. As historian Robert Moorman Denhardt noted, if Pan Zareta had bred like she ran, she would have had a chapter in his book, “Quarter Horses: A Story of Two Centuries.”

Although she may have stepped out of the history books, Pan Zareta stepped back on the racetrack after her unsuccessful broodmare career and continued her winning ways right up to the end.

“In one respect, the latest achievement of the aged daughter of Abe Frank was unique, as she carried the crushing impost of 140 pounds, which so far as veterans of the turf are aware has never been done successfully by any other mare … .” The New York Times reported on Pan Zareta’s last victory in 1917. “The talent [bettors] did not believe that Pan Zareta was equal to the great task asked of her by the handicapper, and she was second choice in the betting.”

Pan Zareta died of pneumonia in 1918 while in training at the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, the site of many of her victories. She was “buried beneath a giant live oak … just inside the inner rail at the sixteenth post,” according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

In 1966, the Pan Zareta Stakes was established in her honor at the Fair Grounds Race Course. She was inducted into that track’s Hall of Fame, the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York, and the Texas Horse Racing Hall of Fame at Retama Park outside San Antonio.

Clay Coppedge is a frequent contributor.