Thoroughbred breeder Eduardo Cojuangco was tied to the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines. When the deposed dicator left the 3,000-island country on a plane under the heavy clouds of malfeasance, Cojuangco was with him. After his forced departure from his homeland, Cojuangco found money hard to come by, so he sold the thoroughbred, Manila, to Bradley Shannon.
Manila was three years old at the time. He had been raced three times but was winless. It was in 1986 that Shannon made his purchase of this descendant of Northern Dancer on his sire’s side and Bold Ruler on his dam’s side.
It wasn’t that Manila was a total bust, but he hadn’t won. At age two, he was second in two of his three races on dirt surfaces.
LeRoy Jolley became his trainer. LeRoy was the son of famed trainer Moody Jolley and had been in his father’s stables and paddocks since he was age seven.
Jolley, a future U.S. Racing Hall of Fame inductee, was able to find Manila’s best racing surface in short order. That surface was grass. And Manila’s career would be sent in the direction of long distance tests, the longer the better for his chances of winning.
As a three-year-old contender in early 1986, Manila would show marked progress from being a winless maiden to reeling off eight straight victories in only nine months of racing under the guidance of trainer Jolley.
In 1986, Manila actually raced 10 times and recorded eight wins. From being winless when racing on dirt as a two-year-old, he did so well the next year racing on grass that he was voted the U. S. Champion Male Turf Horse of that year.
The cocoa brown colt gave owner Shannon and trainer Jolley wins in the Lexington Handicap, Cinema Handicap, Turf Classic Handicap, United Nations Handicap, and Breeders’ Cup Turf at one-mile-and-a-half as a three-year-old.
He began a winning streak during the first week of July in 1986 and accrued nine straight victories before finally being beaten anew (by a half-length) on August 16, 1987 in the Bernard Baruch at Saratoga.
Seven of those wins during the streak of excellence came in graded stakes. Four of them were Grade I races.
He clinched his Eclipse Award when beating Theatrical and Estrapade in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. With jockey Jose Santos riding that afternoon at Santa Anita Park, the sleek-coated bay was emboiled in a side-by-side stretch duel of over 300 yards with Theatrical and Manila was the winner by a neck. Cojuangco was in the grandstand that day.
Also beaten in the Breeders’ Cup Turf was Dancing Brave, the European champion whose previous race had seen him win the Group I Prix de la’Arc de Triomphe.
Three of the wins during the nine-race winning streak came as a four-year-old. The close loss in the Baruch ended the long streak of success.
At age four, Manila was able to win the Arlington Million, a race where he defeated Theatrical again as well as Sharrod. The Arlington Million was his fifth race of 1987 and even in winning he came back to Jolley and Shannon with a hairline fracture in one leg that would cause them to send him to retirement.
Manila had set grass course records at Atlantic City in New Jersey, Keeneland Race Course in Kentucky, and the famous site of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs.
His 12 wins and five second-places in only 18 lifetime races had gained $2,692,799 in earnings and made him a desirable stallion for stud service. His potential as a sire was such that a syndicate paid $20 million for his life of service.
Fourteen of his starts had been on grass, and he was no worse than second in any of those tries. A book written by Daily Racing Form author Steve Davidowitz ranks Manila as the top distance, grass-racing thorougbred in the long history of racing in the United States.
Davidowitz paid some attention to those five races Manila had at age four. He won four of those races and was second in the other. And those features included the United Nations Handicap (again), the Elkhorn Stakes, the Turf Classic Stakes, and the Arlington Million.
Owner Shannon didn’t use any close-to-the-vest or cautionary terms when asked about Manila. “He was a very, very special horse. It was the greatest thrill to have owned him and been associated with him. I always said my life was AM and PM: prior to Manila and after Manila.
“It was all about Manila.”
LeRoy Jolley saw to the training of five other well-recognized champions. His Foolish Pleasure and Genuine Risk were both Kentucky Derby winners. Here’s what Jolley had to say about Manila: “He was the best horse I ever trained.”
Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero was once quoted as saying: “Manila’s the best grass horse I ever rode and he’s probably the best horse around going anywhere from a mile to two miles. If my life depended on riding two horses, I’d pick Seattle Slew and him.”
What would have happened if Ferdinand Marcos hadn’t been booted out of the Philippines, taking Manila’s owner Cojuangco on the same plane with him?
It’s probable he would have never been given a career on grass or at the longer distances he showed to be his forté. Certainly, LeRoy Jolley would never have been his trainer. Or that his career would have seen him selected as an Eclipse Award champion.