02/12/2016 12:56PM

Simon: Points ceiling keeping fillies out of Derby


A filly in the Kentucky Derby is an exciting proposition. It gets every fan’s blood pumping, even when fans are divided on the prospect – it’s either a great idea or a terrible idea.

Fillies bring extra spice and a new dimension to the Derby, and they have done well historically, much better than their total number of winners suggests. So, when looking at the racing scene today, one naturally wonders how a filly like Songbird would fare in the Derby against the best of the opposite sex.

Songbird was arguably the best juvenile of either gender in 2015, and she has a look of dominance about her, a running style that keeps her clear of trouble, and the appearance of being something special.

But the chances of her running in the Derby are a longshot right now for several reasons. First, there’s the stubborn fact that Rick Porter, the owner of Songbird, has said he plans to keep his splendid filly in her division and pointed for the Kentucky Oaks. Porter, of course, has started a filly in the Derby, Eight Belles in 2008, and that ended tragically.

Then there’s the problem of the new points system that Churchill implemented in 2012 that makes it far more difficult for a filly to get into the starting gate for the Derby. Instead of being based on money earned in graded stakes, it was changed to points earned in designated races, all in open company. No longer can the owner of a good filly who has done well in graded stakes prior to the first Saturday in May wait until Derby week to make a decision on whether to run her. A different course has to be taken, one that goes through a race or races for colts first, not necessarily the best option for getting a filly into the starting gate for the Derby if one worries about taking too much out of her before the main target. (Unless the unlikely event occurs that fewer than 20 horses are entered and qualifying points are not a factor.)

Whether or not it was Churchill’s intention to keep fillies out of the Derby, the new system may have the same effect, and that ultimately takes something of value from the race itself.

Fillies have performed admirably in the Derby, no doubt bolstered by the fact that only the best were asked the question. In 141 runnings of Louisville’s classic, 40 have started, and in 1915, Regret was the first to win. From then through 1959, only 15 additional fillies competed, with the best finishes being a pair of third-place efforts – Viva America in 1918 and Prudery three years later. After Silver Spoon ran fifth in 1959, a filly was not seen under tack at the Derby until 1980, when Genuine Risk achieved what most by then thought impossible. Then, eight years later, Winning Colors became the third female Derby winner.

Both Genuine Risk and Winning Colors had previously competed against colts, though some trainers have preferred to wait for the big event itself before their filly faced the opposite sex, perhaps concerned that the initial experience might take too much out of them.

Much of that seems to have depended on the constitution of the filly in question. Genuine Risk and Winning Colors were both large, physically imposing, strapping mares who could handle tough races and hard training. Both were trained by notably stern taskmasters in LeRoy Jolley and D. Wayne Lukas.

Starting with Genuine Risk, here’s the background of the 10 most recent fillies to contest the Derby.

Genuine Risk, a daughter of Exclusive Native, was undefeated in six starts when she faced males for the first time in the Wood Memorial, in which she finished third. She came back two weeks later (yes, you read that right) to win the Kentucky Derby by a length over a good colt in Rumbo.

In 1982, the New York-bred Cupecoy’s Joy was more of a circus sideshow because of her owner than a legitimate Derby candidate, but she had beaten males in a statebred stakes earlier that year and had finished third in her final Derby prep, the Jim Beam Spiral Stakes at Latonia, now known as Turfway Park. In the Kentucky Derby, she ran 10th after setting the pace for a mile.

Lukas, never shy about making bold moves, sent two fillies, Althea and Life’s Magic, into the 1984 Derby. Althea had beaten colts at age 2 in the Del Mar Futurity and thrashed them again by seven lengths in the Arkansas Derby but finished 19th at Churchill after racing on the lead for seven furlongs. Life’s Magic, who had run unsuccessfully against males twice at 2 in Grade 1 races, prepped for the Derby with a fifth in the Santa Anita Derby … before running eighth in Kentucky.

Lukas was back with Winning Colors in 1988. The gray daughter of Caro had won the Santa Anita Derby by 7 1/2, and in the Derby itself, she made all the pace before hanging on by a neck over the closing Forty Niner.

Lukas returned again in 1995 with Serena’s Song after the Rahy filly had captured Turfway’s Jim Beam Stakes. She set the Derby pace through the opening mile before fading to 16th but later beat the boys in the Haskell Invitational.

Two fillies tried in 1999, Excellent Meeting and the star-crossed Three Ring. The latter, a Florida-bred who had dominated her division that winter at Gulfstream Park, was in over her head. Coming off a 6 1/2-week layoff, she could do no better than 19th. Excellent Meeting was in open company for the first time that day after previously proving one of the best fillies of her division. At Churchill Downs, she ran well to finish fifth, beaten just 2 1/4 lengths by Charismatic.

It would be nine long years before another filly ran in the Derby. Eight Belles, facing colts for the first time, finished a terrific second to the favored Big Brown but broke down catastrophically while pulling up on the clubhouse turn.

The most recent distaff Derby starter was Devil May Care, who in 2010 entered off a six-week layoff. She rallied to be third at the head of the lane before tiring to split the 20-horse field in finishing 10th.

Thus, the last 10 Derby fillies compiled a combined record of two wins, one second, and a fifth – a pretty good success rate by any measure. The first six of these had faced colts prior to the first Saturday in May; the last four were meeting males for the first time on Derby Day. Most of the last 10 fillies who ran in the race were factors at some point.

Songbird might not run in the Derby, but when fillies do run, their presence makes that running all the more memorable – to the public and the sport.