Sunday, March 7, 2010

Runs like a girl: How Rachel, Zen, Proviso and others might be changing U.S. racing's gender bias

A thrilling 2009 racing season ended with a sharp debate among fans over whether 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra or 5-year-old mare Zenyatta -- who never faced each other during the season -- deserved to be named Horse of the Year.

That nod eventually went to Rachel at the Eclipse Awards. And since Zen's owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, decided to keep her in training instead of breeding her this spring, it looks as though we might get to see these two hook up early as April 9 in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. Hopefully both females will stay healthy all season, meet more than once, and the thrills of 2010 might rival those of '09.

But decades from now, when we look back on the campaigns staged by the connections of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in 2009, I wonder whether their seasons might be recognized as having a broader influence on the course of American racing.

That is, 2009 just might have been the year in which American thoroughbred trainers stopped being so scared of boys.

When breeder Dolphus Morrison sold Rachel Alexandra to Jess Jackson and company, shortly after her smashing win the Kentucky Oaks, Jackson and new trainer Steve Asmussen did something Morrison said he'd never do: Point the filly toward a race against colts. Morrison -- like many in the racing game -- believes that fillies and mares should only race against other females. Going up against males, so the thinking goes, is asking too much of a filly or mare, physically. But two weeks and a day after her record-setting margin in the Oaks, Rachel Alexandra most of the work on the front end and held on at the wire against Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird to beat colts and geldings in the Preakness Stakes, becoming the first filly to win that race since Nellie Morse in 1924.

Rachel, as any half-awake observer of horse racing knows, wasn't done facing boys after her historic Preakness score. She kicked around a short field of fillies in a boringly brilliant performance in the Mother Goose Stakes, then returned to the boys' club in the Haskell, running Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird right off his feet to win by 6 1/2 lengths over a sloppy track at Monmouth. In September, Rachel recorded her third victory against males -- this time older horses -- by becoming the first female ever to win the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga.

Rachel Alexandra finished the year 8-for-8, three of those wins in Grade 1 races against males. And perhaps her season forced the hand of Zenyatta's connections -- the Mosses and trainer John Shirreffs. They opted to let their big, lifetime-unbeaten mare tackle males in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita last November, not just because Zen "fit" in the race, but to make a lasting impression on one of the sport's biggest days in an effort to help the reigning Eclipse champion older female add Horse of the Year to her credentials.

Zenyatta won the Classic with powerful style, becoming the first female ever to win that race in 26 runnings. It was enough to more than cement her place in history; just not quite enough to beat out Rachel for Horse of the Year.

What has happened since? Well, nothing for either of these females, other than training toward their 2010 campaigns. But a lot for some other fillies and mares.

On Saturday at Santa Anita, the Juddmonte Farms' mare Proviso, trained by Bill Mott, "closed desperately in the final sixteenth" to become the first female ever to win the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap. The British-bred mare nosed out Grade 1 winning Brazilian-bred Fluke, ridden by Joe Talamo, to score the historic win. Multiple G2-winner Battle of Hastings was third in a solid field of males that, on this day, got beat by a girl. (And a second female, Tuscan Evening, was entered in the race, but scratched by conditioner Jerry Hollendorfer after she drew the far outside post.)

And, on the same card, British-born mare St Trinians actually was sent off as the 3-1 favorite in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, a race that had never been won by a female in its 72-year history. Make that 73 years, as St Trinians suffered a difficult trip and finished sixth; Misremembered won from a full field of 14. But the fact that a mare was the post-time favorite in a race never before won by a female suggests that bettors believe the girls can compete.

I was actually a bit surprised that Zenyatta wasn't in the "Big Cap" Saturday. It looked like a field she could beat, but instead she is pointed toward the Grade 1 Santa Margarita for fillies and mares this coming weekend. Maybe Shirreffs thought that going right back up against males after a four-month layoff was too much to ask. And in the end, Misremembered's winning time of 2:00.20 was faster than Zenyatta's victorious time over the same track and distance in November's Classic, so to win, Zen would really have needed to bring her A-game.

Flashing back to '09, Rachel and Zen weren't the only females to take on, and defeat, male horses in big races. Ventura defeated males in the Woodbine Mile-G1 in Canada on Sept. 20. And 3-year-old Evita Argentina beat nine boys to win the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes a year ago in February.

It really shouldn't come as a shock to American fans that the best females can run and win among males at the highest levels of the game. In Europe and elsewhere, they do it all the time.

Many times champion turf mare Ouija Board during the earlier years of this 21st century defeated males in the Group 1 Prince of Wales in England, and the G1 Hong Kong Vase, as well. She placed or showed among the very best males in top races such as the Japan Cup (won by Deep Impact), Coronation Cup (Shirocco), Irish Champion Stakes (Dylan Thomas), and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Bago). And when Ouija Board lost the Hong Kong Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup in 2006, the race was won not by a male, but by another female, South African-born Irridescence.

Then there's Australian champion Makybe Diva -- a racing female so good and so famed she became known simply as "The Mare." She defeated males at least a dozen times, including three consecutive renewals of the biggest race in Australia, the Group 1 Melbourne Cup, from 2003-05.

There's an adage in horse racing that an owner or trainer should keep himself among the best company, and his horse among the worst. And certainly taking on lesser challenges is the faster route to the winner's circle. But I have to believe that a big part of racing is the desire on the part of the connections to let your horse meet and beat the best competition it can.

Sure, most of the time fillies and mares will continue to run against other females. Just as a statebred race limits the competition, making it easier for a horse to win or place well and earn his keep, gender-restricted races are typically easier spots to run and win for a filly or mare, and every trainer and owner wants to win; needs to win in order to pay the bills.

Still, if the conditions fit and your filly is tight and right, there are boys to be beaten, everywhere from the maiden ranks all the way up to Grade 1 races. And I'd like to see more females given the chance.

1 comment:

  1. This was so well said. I have always been a believer that fillies are and/or can be just as good as colts/geldings. I wrote on my blog before last weekend’s races something to the same effect in a short paragraph. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have systematically been tearing down the walls that have so long divided the different genders from facing-off at the highest pinnacles of the sport.
    European, Australian and Japanese fillies/mares face males in the biggest racing events of the year on a regular basis, and often win. Zarcava, Goldikova, Vodka and Do Re Mi proved females can be just as consistent racing against the boys as they are against the girls.
    Great post and topic. I hope I live to see the first filly Triple Crown winner! (:


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