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Fillies have rich history in Triple Crown
BALTIMORE - It's fitting that Rachel Alexandra, the phenomenal 3-year-old filly, should make her first start against males here at Pimlico in the Preakness, since this track - this race - figures prominently in the mythology concerning equine battles of the sexes.
Twenty-nine years ago, Angel Cordero riding Codex on the lead looked over his shoulder at the quarter pole, saw Genuine Risk charging, and steered out. Pushed very wide, Genuine Risk lost her momentum, and Codex drew away to win the Preakness by almost five lengths. The howling began. Cordero had intimidated the Derby-winning filly of 1980. His aggressive - read: masculine - tactics had cowed the girl.
Nonsense, says Leroy Jolley, who trained Genuine Risk.
"I really don't think it had anything to do with the fact that she was a filly," Jolley said this week. "I don't think she was very easily intimidated. At a critical point, Codex came out, carried her out, and dropped away from her. What would have happened if they both stayed straight, I don't know."
That three-decades-old stuff still vibrates in the minds of hard-core racing fans. The general public's shorter Thoroughbred memory harks more quickly back to the Kentucky Derby of 2008. It was there that Eight Belles became the most recent of 112 filly starters in a Triple Crown race, and when she was euthanized after fracturing both front ankles following a second-place finish, another chorus of complaint rose: Eight Belles had broken down because it was asking too much of a filly to face males in the Derby.
False, says Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, and a regular contributor to national programs promoting horse safety.
"I think there was a real misunderstanding of the situation with Eight Belles," Arthur said. "A lot of people tried to equate that with her being a filly. I don't think that was the case at all. Of all the reasons Eight Belles broke down, that was not one of them. I see no cause for concern."
Sure, the Kentucky Derby is a demanding race. But try running 1 1/2 miles over a tiring turf course against 15 older Grade 1 horses of either sex. That's what 3-year-old filly Zarkava did winning the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe last fall in France. A few weeks later, the 3-year-old French filly Goldikova crushed the boys in the Breeders' Cup Mile.
"They do this in Europe and Japan all the time, and they beat colts," said Jess Jackson, who bought Rachel Alexandra, presumably for millions of dollars, after she won the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths.
"What I'm judging in every case is whether a horse has the bone, stamina, heart, cardiovascular system to compete at the highest level," Jackson said. "We make that decision based on the horse, not whether it's a filly or a colt."
Rachel Alexandra appears to have it all. In the five-race win streak she brings to the Preakness, Rachel Alexandra had won by more than 43 lengths combined. She clearly has marked herself the alpha-filly of her generation, and it is that kind of horse who has earned a chance to tackle males, according to Wayne Lukas, who has started four fillies in Triple Crown races.
"There's an element of this sport that's so tradition-bound, and you're stepping out of the box," said Lukas. "You have to have one that's exceptional and dominant."
Lukas had one like that, Winning Colors, who won the Derby by a neck over a very good colt, Forty Niner.
"She won the Santa Anita Derby by seven and one-half lengths," said Lukas. "When we pulled into Churchill, we had the biggest, strongest horse in the race."
Rachel Alexandra might not have the bulk of a Winning Colors, but she's not dissimilar, either.
"Maybe not quite, but she's fairly close," said Hal Wiggins, who trained Rachel Alexandra until she was sold after the Oaks. "She's got real good height. When you see her train in the mornings, you think you're looking at a colt. She's not overly muscular, but she's got a lot of length. She's got some kind of stride to her."
A more conservative and tradition-bound trainer than Wiggins would be hard to find. But even Wiggins was willing to take on males, if Rachel Alexandra's previous owners, Dolphus Morrison and Michael Lauffer, could have been persuaded.
"In fact, myself, I was kind of leaning that way a little," Wiggins said. "I thought the Belmont would have been a good spot for her."
Trainer Bob Baffert, like Lukas, said he would have run Rachel Alexandra in the Derby, not the Oaks. But then Baffert, like Lukas, already has tried fillies in the Triple Crown. Lukas's three besides Winning Colors finished between 8th and 16th, while Baffert sent out Excellent Meeting to a fifth-place finish in the 1999 Derby. In the Preakness, Excellent Meeting was eased after falling out of contention.
"Rachel Alexandra, she's got the style, she's got the size, she's fluid, athletic," Baffert said. "With incredible fillies like that, you can get away with doing it."
After Excellent Meeting fell away, Baffert tried Silverbulletday in the Belmont Stakes, but though she was a standout in the filly ranks that spring, Silverbulletday faded badly off a quick pace and finished seventh in the Belmont.
"That had nothing to do with her being a filly," Baffert said.
The Belmont produced the most recent female Triple Crown victory, Rags to Riches's grueling win over Curlin in the 2007 edition.
"I don't think I have any super-strong feelings about it being the right or wrong thing to do," Rags to Riches's trainer, Todd Pletcher, said of running a filly against colts. "As a rule, there's very seldom a need to do it. If you have options for a filly that are similar, then generally you always try and do what's easiest. Rags to Riches was a very case-specific situation. She was extremely talented, and at that point she'd proven everything she could against 3-year-old fillies. With her pedigree, the Belmont was the thing she was put on this Earth to do."
Rags to Riches raced only once following the Belmont before being retired, but Pletcher insists the filly-against-boys angle had nothing to do with her decline.
"Was it a hard race on her? I'm sure it was, but if there were any repercussions moving forward, it was from the start, when she fell on her head and stumbled," Pletcher said.
Lukas, Baffert, and Wiggins share some common history. All at one time trained Quarter Horses, where horses of both sexes regularly are found in the same race. In fact, despite having more female-only Thoroughbred races, Americans generally do less equine sex segregation than do other horsepeople in other countries.
"In the barn, often colts are stabled next to fillies," Pletcher said. "They're used to being around each other, and to me, it's not a big deal."
Pletcher said his operation does not hesitate to breeze a colt and a filly in company if the two horses seem like suitable workmates. Circular Quay and Rags to Riches regularly worked together in the spring of 2007 when Circular Quay was preparing for the Kentucky Derby, Rags to Riches for the Kentucky Oaks.
Which is not to say that colts and fillies mirror one another physiologically, said Dr. Arthur. "Absolutely, there are differences," he said. "But there's quite a bit of variation, too. I've seen fillies that make colts look like wimps."
Bigger does not guarantee better, of course, and there is no blueprint for a filly who will beat the boys. Steve Asmussen, who has trained Rachel Alexandra for all of about a week now, does not make a habit of taking fillies out of sex-restricted competition, but that's mainly because it doesn't make sense.
"It's like running a maiden against winners," Asmussen said.
Asmussen's favorite explanation of filly-versus-colt success was given by Alan Goldberg, trainer of Safely Kept, a champion sprinter who beat males several times.
"They asked him after a race how he explained Safely Kept's success against the boys," Asmussen recalled. "He hesitated, and said, 'She's faster than they are.' "
So, before asking whether its right that Rachel run against the boys, consider switching sides of the equation: Is it fair that the boys have to run against Rachel?