Since the beginning of time, American racing interests have accepted the stereotype that female horses are inferior to male horses. Yet the results on the racetrack over the past three years have suggested anything but. The boys keep getting their tails kicked by the girls.
It's been a golden few years for fillies, in the Breeders' Cup, and all across the American racing landscape. Rachel Alexandra was Horse of the Year in 2009, the same year Zenyatta beat the males in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Despite losing last year's Classic by a whisker, Zenyatta won the 2010 Horse of the Year crown. Should Havre de Grace win Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic she will be the third straight female to be named Horse of the Year. A loss might dim her star a bit, but she could still be Horse of the Year if she runs well and an outsider, such as Headache or Drosselmeyer, wins the Classic. Then, of course, there's Goldikova, who has beaten males three straight years in the Breeders' Cup Mile and will be after an historic four-peat this year.
Is this simply an aberration or has American racing grossly underestimated how good the fillies actually are? The answer is, a little of both.
European trainers have always had more faith in fillies than Americans do. That's why a horse such as Goldikova regularly faces off against males. She's run against fillies only once this year. Fillies run in the Arc de Triomphe all the time, and two (Danedream, 2011, and Zarkava, 2007) of the past five winners have been females. English trainer Henry Cecil is apparently so confident that a good filly can beat males that he is passing up the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf this year with Midday and running her instead against the boys in the Turf. Her biggest challenge in that stakes race may come from another filly, the French-based Sarafina.
The Europeans have always stepped outside the box and have no qualms about running fillies versus colts. I did it regularly in the '80s and got some criticism for it.
”-- Trainer D. Wayne Lukas
"We have always underappreciated fillies," said Wayne Lukas, who won a Kentucky Derby (Winning Colors) and a Horse of the Year title (Lady's Secret) with fillies. "The Europeans have always stepped outside the box and have no qualms about running fillies versus colts. I did it regularly in the '80s and got some criticism for it."
Based on speed figures, males are generally faster than females. According to just about anyone's numbers, the average $10,000 male claimer is always a few lengths faster than the average $10,000 filly claimer. But what we are starting to see is that a very good filly can beat very good males, and maybe there's not a lot that separates the genders at the highest levels.
"I don't think they are better than the boys, but I do think a very good filly or mare can run with a good boy," said Larry Jones, the trainer of Havre de Grace. "Just because a horse is a girl, I don't think you should just rule her out. If they're good they're good."
Said Steve Asmussen, who trained Rachel Alexandra: "It's just a matter of giving them the opportunity and them being good enough."
Perhaps it was more owner Jess Jackson's doing, but Asmussen ran Rachel Alexandra against males three times and she beat them every time.
But there are a lot more people out there who stick to conventional wisdom, even if conventional wisdom is wrong. Before she was hurt, Blind Luck was in Havre de Grace's class and is the only horse to beat her this year. Yet her trainer, Jerry Hollendorder, was steadfast that she wasn't going to run in the Classic.
"I'm not going to run in the Classic," he said. "I don't believe in that. If others want to do it, God bless them. If we win the Ladies' Classic, that's plenty good for us."
You don't have to like Havre de Grace's chances in the Classic. You might think that Uncle Mo is faster, that Havre de Grace isn't at her best at a mile-and-a-quarter or that Flat Out is sitting on the race of his life. But if you bet against her just because she is a girl you'd be betting against her for the wrong reason. Or perhaps you just aren't paying attention to the latest trends, three years where girls have ruled.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.