06/19/2010 3:11PM

Creme de les Femmes


Amid recent discussions of the Racing Hall of Fame and Zenyatta's place in the racing pantheon, I thought it would be fun to line up the best fillies and mares of the modern era, which for this exercise I defined as beginning in 1971.

The choice of that year was not entirely arbitrary: That was the first year of Eclipse Awards, and 1973 saw the beginning of a formal graded-stakes program, two (albeit imperfect) systems that at least allow us to quantify championships and top-class victories. So Shuvee is the last one in, since 1971 (when she won her second Jockey Club Gold Cup) was her final year on the track, while Ta Wee is not listed only because she ran her last race in 1970.

I limited the field to fillies who have made at least one start in North America, and automatically included all who met the following criteria: Horse of the Year winners; any who have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame; and any who won more than one Eclipse Award. I also included seven who have raced within the last five years and thus are not yet eligible for the Hall but will receive serious consideration, and the handful that I believe deserve induction who are still on the outside amid the ongoing glut of deserving nominees. 

The list below is 38 deep, and there were plenty of worthy contenders to round it up to 40 or 50. I don't think I've missed any realistic candidates for anyone's top 10 or 20, though I'm sure you'll tell me if I have.

(And please note these fillies and mares are listed only in reverse chronological order of when they began their careers, not in any order of ranking or preference. Also, HOTY=Horse of the Year; HOF=year inducted into Hall of Fame; CA/KY/NY columns refer to number of career starts made in California, Kentucky and New York.)

Honorable mention among the more than 100 female champions of this era who are not listed above include, at the very least, these 10: Estrapade, Hollywood Wildcat, It's In The Air, Landaluce, Pebbles, Royal Heroine, Safely Kept, Turkish Trousers, What a Summer and Xtra Heat.

A few notes and observations:

--Bayakoa's 13 Grade 1 victories include one in Argentina and 12 in North America. Zenyatta (11) and Goldikova (9) have a realistic chance of challenging that mark before their careers are over. Goldikova has six Grade 1 victories vs. males, as opposed to three for Rachel Alexandra and one each for Bayakoa and Zenyatta. All Along won four Grade 1's against males -- all in a six-week span in October-November of 1983.

--One problem with counting up Grade 1's is that the status of so many races has changed over the years. Azeri won 11 Grade 1's but also won two Clement Hirsches and one Lady's Secret when they were Grade 2's. Zenyatta won two Lady's Secrets when they were Grade 1's, and won a Grade 2 Hirsch in 2008 and a Grade 1 Hirsch in 2009. Bayakoa had the good sense to win the Apple Blossom when it was a Grade 1 in 1989 and lose it when it was a Grade 2 in 1990 and 1991, and to lose the Santa Maria when it was a Grade 2 in 1989 and win it when it was a Grade 1 in 1990.

--The fillies on the list with the fewest Grade 1's are the two who won the Kentucky Derby: Genuine Risk, whose only other Grade 1 victory was the Ruffian, and Winning Colors, who won the Santa Anita Oaks and Santa Anita Derby before the roses (and who ran two terrific seconds to Personal Ensign, in the Maskette and BC Distaff.) Genuine Risks's and Winning's Colors's inductions into the Hall of Fame are why I've listed Rags to Riches as a Hall possibility -- she won four Grade 1's to Genuine Risk's two, and one can reasonably argue that beating Curlin in the Belmont is as much of an achievement as beating Rumbo in the Kentucky Derby.

--The only filly on the list without an Eclipse Award is Bold 'n 'Determined, runner-up to Genuine Risk in the balloting for champion 3-year-old filly title in 1980 despite winning seven Grade 1 races that year. Bold 'n Determined was elected to the Hall of Fame 17 years later, and it appears to me that she and Alydar are the only HOF inductees who have raced since 1971 who never won a divisional championship. (Update: Exceller also was elected to the Hall without winning an Eclipse. And as commenter Gun Bow points out, Best Pal will become the fourth when he is inducted this summer.)

--Under the new Hall of Fame rules instituted this year, there can be up to four new inductees each year from across all four categories (Contemporary Male, Contemporary Female, Trainer, Jockey) rather than a mandated one from each group as in the past. That may help ease the logjam among contemporary fillies, though this year the voters went for only one (Azeri). But with Ashado, Ouija Board, Indian Blessing, Rags to Riches, Goldikova, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta all becoming eligible over the next five or six years, it's going to be tough for the five on the list above who aren't in yet -- Heavenly Prize, Life's Magic, Open Mind, Riboletta and Sky Beauty -- to make the cut.

--One parochial footnote: With the exception of Miesque and Goldikova, who made only two American starts each in Breeders' Cup Miles, only one filly on the list has never raced in New York. One guess, no peeking. Twelve never raced in California, and seven never raced in Kentucky.