07/23/2014 2:42PM

Hovdey: Untapable trying to join boys' club

Barbara D. Livingston
Untapable, in challenging the boys in the Haskell, finds herself in the shadow of many great fillies who have gone before here, such as Regret, Rags to Riches, and Rachel Alexandra.

Untapable’s attempt to beat colts in the $1 million Haskell Invitational on Sunday comes along at an appropriate time, at least in terms of relevant history. It was just shy of 100 years ago that the filly Regret made her racing debut in the 1914 Saratoga Special and beat the best colts around, including subsequent champion Pebbles.

Regret set the bar by which all subsequent fillies and mares have been measured, at least when it comes to competing against males. In her first three starts she beat them in the Saratoga Special, the Sanford, and the Hopeful at Saratoga, after which she took a few months off and then came out as a 3-year-old to win the Kentucky Derby in her first start of 1915.

As legend has it, Regret got her name because her people were hoping for a colt. The lesson is clear – be careful what you wish for.

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Still, such a sentiment is hardly a surprise. The equine world has long been stacked in favor of one gender. Colts can become gems of great value, potential oil wells on the hoof, while fillies – even the best of them – are severely limited in their market potential by the very nature of the procreative process. In the wake of his victory in the Belmont Stakes with his filly, Rags to Riches, Michael Tabor noted, “If it were a colt, it puts a whole different perspective on it. As it’s a filly, we are just here to enjoy and win.”

The economic reality – one foal per year as opposed to 150 covered mares at 40-grand a pop – has colored the way the genders are both perceived and managed. Dolphus Morrison, an original co-owner of Rachel Alexandra, was asked why he ran his clearly superior filly in the 2009 Kentucky Oaks rather than the Kentucky Derby.

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“The Triple Crown is the showcase of the future stallions of our industry,” Morrison said. “Colts should run against colts, and fillies should run against fillies.”

And go barefoot and have babies.

Compared to the rest of the Thoroughbred world, when it comes to fillies running against colts American racing makes noise like a bashful adolescent tittering over his first brush with the opposite sex. The headlines go all retro with boy-vs.-girl clichés. There is giggling and pointing, along with desperate searches through history for any sort of precedent. And the worry. Oh, the worry.

“If something goes wrong it’s painful and it’s embarrassing,” Bob Baffert told columnist Pat Forde. “You better be prepared to take a lot of flak for it.”

Baffert was right. The protective component of racing’s paternalistic culture is always attuned to possible disaster, which is why every time Untapable, or Rachel Alexandra, or Serena’s Song, or Rags to Riches, or Silverbulletday, or Three Rings, or any other talented filly is tossed in against colts, the Dept. of Worst Case Scenarios springs into action.

It would be nice if there were as much worry over every Thoroughbred, male or female, going forth in a race of intense scrutiny, like the million-dollar Haskell. But apparently the boys can take care of themselves. So, instead of names like Prairie Bayou, Union City, Blue Exit, Mr. Brooks, Funfair, or George Washington waved in warning, we get a grim reminder of the fillies who have gone down tragically while competing against colts. We get Lamb Chop, Ruffian, Eight Belles.

No American filly ever was thrown into the deep end right off the bat like Regret. A century later, her record still sparkles. She ended up racing just 11 times over four seasons, winning nine, and in addition to those first four victories, she defeated 3-year-old colts in the 1915 Saranac and won the 1917 Gazelle Handicap under 129 pounds. Her best race may have come in the 1917 Brooklyn Handicap when she faced the older stars Old Rosebud and Roamer, plus Kentucky Derby winner Omar Khayyam. She lost by a nose to her stablemate, Borrow.

Untapable has a ways to go, but she has at least proven herself worthy of a chance to earn even higher consideration.

Rosie the riveted rider

For what it’s worth – which is considerable to the promoters at Monmouth Park – Untapable will be ridden in the Haskell by a woman, who also happens to be the 10th-leading rider this season in purse earnings.

Rosie Napravnik has returned full throttle from yet another significant injury – the fifth of her career. This time it was her left shoulder, suffered in a morning workout accident June 15. In July of 2011, she fractured a forearm that required a second surgery. Before that there was the fractured tibia and fibula of her left leg in 2008, and the broken wrist and finger in July of 2007, which came barely five months after the compression fractures of three thoracic vertabrae. And then there was the fractured left clavicle from November of 2005.

Napravnik, 26, has come back strong every time, and this time she came back quickly. There is no discounting the healing properties of a filly like Untapable.