09/11/2009 12:00AM

Rachel's feats routine overseas


NEW YORK - Have we gone overboard in our praise of a 3-year-old filly beating older horses? Rachel Alexandra certainly deserves a great deal of credit for winning the Woodward Stakes, but she wasn't doing anything that hasn't been done dozens of times around the world in the last 50 years. The rush to create divinity where only excellence exists does neither Rachel nor racing any favors.

Let's put things in their proper perspective.

We could list all of the 3-year-old fillies who have beaten older males in big races but will content ourselves with naming only some of the more prominent. Most were as good as Rachel Alexandra. Many were better.

From 1979 to 1983 fillies, and mares won all five runnings of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Three of them - Three Troikas, Detroit, and Akiyda - were 3-year-olds, as was Zarkava, who turned the same trick last year in what is arguably the best race in the world. How quickly some people forget.

The 1970's was a great time for fillies in Europe, when 3-year-olds Dahlia and Pawneese won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, a race that rates second only to the Arc in the international 1 1/2-mile pecking order.

Since the turn of the new century, a number of the best milers in the world have been 3-year-old fillies. In 2003, Six Perfections beat older males in both the Prix Jacques le Marois and the Breeders' Cup Mile. Last year, Goldikova captured the Prix du Moulin de Longchamp and the BC Mile, repeating a double first pulled off by Miesque in 1987. That same year, Milligram and Miesque engineered a 3-year-old filly one-two in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, England's best weight-for-age mile.

In 2003, Nebraska Tornado won the Prix du Moulin, as did Darjina in 2007. Sonic Lady took that race in 1986 as well as the Sussex Stakes, a race won by Marling in 1992. In 2003, French invader Vallee Enchantee won the Hong Kong Vase against older colts. A year later, Alexander Goldrun traveled from Ireland to take the Hong Kong Cup under similar circumstances, no mean feat for a 3-year-old filly.

Many European fillies of late have had equal success against colts of their own age, presaging Rachel Alexandra's Preakness victory. Salsabil and Balanchine, winners of the 1990 and 1994 Irish Derbies, are the most notable. Since 1977, four fillies have mastered colts in the grueling 1 3/4 miles, 132 yards of the St. Leger Stakes: Dunfermline, Sun Princess, Oh So Sharp, and User Friendly. Two years ago, the filly Vodka won the Japanese Derby. And there are, of course, the Kentucky Derby victories of Genuine Risk in 1980 and Winning Colors in 1988, as well as Rags to Riches's gallant Belmont Stakes triumph two years ago.

The foundation for the success of 3-year-old fillies in Europe against the supposedly stronger sex goes back more than 100 years, when two of the best horses of the 20th century, fillies both, dominated British racing. In 1902, Sceptre manufactured her personal, unprecedented, and unmatched Quadruple Crown, beating colts in the 2000 Guineas and the St. Leger as well as thrashing her own sex in the 1000 Guineas and the English Oaks. She would also beat colts in the St. James's Palace Stakes. Two years later, Pretty Polly followed her victories in the 1000 Guineas and the Oaks with a St. Leger triumph of her own.

There is a more open-minded approach about running females against males in Europe, one born in part by fewer opportunities for fillies at the Group 1 level against their own sex than there are on this side of the Atlantic. So let us praise Rachel Alexandra, but not too highly. Let us also take the opportunity to question why a horse that some people are touting as the greatest filly in history will not be running in the Breeders' Cup. Is a chance at immortality being trumped by fear of a synthetic surface? If so, where is the greatness in that?