You know something’s afoot in thoroughbred horse racing when the two top contenders for Horse of the Year honors are fillies – and one of them has beaten the top colts in the land, including this year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winners, Mine that Bird and Summer Bird. I wrote this spring about the thrill of seeing a filly in the Triple Crown, and how it evoked memories of the great Ruffian. But this time, there is no tragedy, only history in the making!
Rachel Alexandra, who won the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, is getting rock star treatment at Saratoga this summer as her owners debate which Stakes Race she should be entered in next. Early in August she cruised to her eighth straight win in the Haskell Monmouth Park in New Jersey, just a few ticks off the track record.
The other super filly is in California. Zenyatta, five years old, has never tasted defeat in eleven starts, including winning last year’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic, but she has only run against fillies. Zenyatta was a late bloomer, who did not begin racing until she was a three year old and last year was a strong contender for Horse of the Year. She was awarded the Eclipse Award as American Champion Older Female Horse for 2008.
However the rap is that Rachel’s owner Jess Jackson says he won’t run on the “plastic” tracks out west where California’s racing surfaces are synthetic and Zenyatta’s owner Jerry Moss seems in no hurry to head east. I wrote about horseracing and spent a year working for a few trainers at the New Jersey tracks in the late 70s, when it truly was a male dominated sport. I was thrilled to get to know one of the few gutsy women trainers then and watch that era’s super filly, Ruffian. It was the same time that women were just beginning to challenge the status quo in the workplace as well as in sports.
I’m excited to see we’re moving to a new level this year. Although, as one sports writer put it, it seems that not even the sport of kings can get a pair of queens into the same race! Stay tuned, the story’s not over yet.
I remember the day Ruffian died. She was a huge black filly with unbelievable spirit and beauty. It was July 6, 1975 and she was locked in a duel with the Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure, a small chestnut, in a highly publicized match race at Belmont Park. Then as dark clouds gathered, Ruffian stumbled and went down. The roaring fans in the grand stand gasped collectively. My friends and I were in shock and then the tears came. The gallant filly had broken her leg. She was later euthanized. It was as though the heavens weeped as a thunder shower moved in that day.
I missed last year’s tragedy where Eight Belles broke down after running second in the Kentucky Derby and was put down, but I think I would have cried again, even though two strong fillies have won the Derby since 1980 (and Regret won in 1915). The truth is that fillies race against colts all the time in Europe, but the classics are generally run on the turf there as opposed to on the dirt in America. I’m convinced that is what makes the competition more prone to injury.
This year a brave filly named Rachel Alexandra is flashing the charisma and spirit of Ruffian and her owners decided to test her in the Preakness against another small brown Derby winner, this one a longshot 50-1 gelding called Mine that Bird, a Canadian champ trained by a maverick cowboy out of New Mexico who didn’t get any respect at Churchill Downs until he blew the competition away.
I balked at the idea of watching two gutsy horses of opposite sexes matched up again in a classic race, especially when one of them is an underdog you want to love! It seemed unfair, I thought, to mess with a storybook ending for Mine that Bird when I originally read that the race was shaping up and that Jockey Calvin Borel was abandoning his mount on Mind That Bird to ride the filly. But I wasn’t surprised that a lot of feminist sites loved the idea of the match!
Still, when Rachel Alexandra won that Saturday in May, I took a deep breath then gave thanks for all the ways the world has changed since Ruffian and for a cast that Hollywood could never dream of! And stay tuned this racing season for more episodes with Rachel Alexandra, most recently racing and winning again with fillies in the Mother Goose at Belmont, and two “birds” still testing themselves, now that Summer Bird won the Belmont Stakes over his “brother” Mine that Bird (both were sired by Birdstone). Could it be a better reality series?