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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.
“ ‘We think it [the rule change allowing uncoupled entries} gives more betting opportunities & hopefully will increase handle & it won’t be at the expense of integrity as far as we’re concerned,’ said John Sabini, chairman of the [NY] State Racing & Wagering Board.” “As far as we’re concerned…” John, you could not have been more candid. If other people think that that the rule chance was created “at the expense of integrity,” who cares? (Rule Change: Good or bad? Don’t know. But who could resist commenting on the 5099th occasion when a NYS racing official has ineptly weighed anchor with his foot, in his mouth?) Time to play Chopin’s Marche Funebre: NYRA has now all but given up on the possibility of their being able to consistently feature racing fields with eight or more horses. They now must increase revenues by encouraging Superfecta betting in small-field races.
Ruffian was the one and only. Zenyatta is tremendous. Go for Wand had a few months to rival any. A shame that we never saw the best of Lakeway, who was good enough to make this list.
Waya was the most versatile females ever to run in North America. At 4, she won the Diana at Saratoga and beat males in the Grade I Man O' War & Grade I Turf Classic. At 5 she won the Santa Ana & Santa Barbara during the Santa Anita winter meet, came back to Aqueduct and won the Grade 1 Top Flight on dirt that same spring and then won the Beldame that fall at Belmont. What more does a top class versatile champion mare have to do just to be included in the conversation. Peace. Love the article Mr Crist.
Ruffian and Zenyetta and then all the rest!!!!
Steve, Fabulous chart and commentary as usual!!! I believe there were many good fillies/mares and very few great ones. American racing has so many inflated purses and graded races that are restricted to females and so many have been able to run the table. This leads me to believe that the product is watered down and the quality of the fields is mediocre at best. It is believed that for racing to survive that consolidation will need to happen. Not necessarily like Monmouth Park has done but possibly by eliminating restricted filly/mare graded races. A lot of money in purses is given away in these races. If a filly/mare wants to prove her greatness it should be in open races and if racetracks want to survive they need to greatly reduce the purses of restricted races. The two listed fillies that won the Kentucky Derby both had graded earnings against colts prior to the Derby. It is believed by this poster that Zenyatta is a great horse!!!
“Cheer Up! The good news is that the live NY feed to New Jersey Account Wagering has been dead for so long, you, like the rest of us here in N.J., will gradually and then forever, forget that it exists.” Jim, I should add why the two of us - and all N.J. customers of the monopolistic & technologically inept New Jersey Account Wagering system – can’t bet on Belmont/Saratoga races, with their non-existent racing video. Our system is (easily) 1-2 minutes behind the actual action at the track. With 1 MTP, horses that we are told are going off at 5-1 might, instead, be off at 2-1, etc. Anyone using a NJAW “odds board” to make final decisions with the race going off momentarily is on thin ice. It isn’t bad enough that we can’t see what’s happening at the track. Being reliant on a 2-cans-connected-by-a-string odds-relay-system results in stabbing at selections in the dark. If we were bats, maybe we could pull it off. No video from N.Y. and ancient odds being posted in N.J: Customer service so obscene, it might be a violation of the Mann Act.
Agree with virgin_queen's point -- with the goal of trying to get their horses to peak at the Breeders Cup, it appears many of today's trainers are happy to use the rest of the racing season as nothing more than preparation for the One Big Day. As a result, racing's biggest fans get to see fewer and fewer appearances from the sport's star performers. Thank God there was no Breeders Cup when the likes of Ta Wee, Shuvee, and Ruffian ran. Now that horses are running about once every 6 - 8 weeks while being babied between starts, modern-day fillies will be hard-pressed to compile a body of work similar to pre-BC stars. The notable exception is Zenyatta who now has run (and won) 17 times, although it has taken her 3.5 years of racing to hit that number. In contrast, Shuvee ran 44 times during her 4-year campaign, averaging 11 starts per year. That's at least double the number of times you'll see the best horses run nowadays. By the way, Shuvee beat the boys twice in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at 2 miles late in her 4- and 5-year old seasons. It appears all those other races she ran didn't burn her out.
All great fillies mentioned on this list, and many others offered within the various comments. To me, the one filly who represented the greatest combination of raw speed, stamina, and competitive drive was Ruffian. Never headed. She simply went to the front and the race was over, at any distance. The true one-of-a-kind.
Don't forget Yanks Music! Tough as nails and beat Serena's Song twice. Injury cut her career a little short, but 7 wins in 9 starts and the 2 losses were 2nd place finishes w/valid excuses.
I am of the conviction that Ruffian was at the head of any class. A little tough to compare all these greats. But for heart and class. I will spell it again. Ruffian. George in Tampa