Derby Day won't be Ladies Day

Political correctness be damned: This year's Kentucky Derby is not welcoming females, at least female horses. They'll just have to mind their place and show up a day earlier in the less prestigious, less lucrative Kentucky Oaks.

The way they allot starting spots in the Kentucky Derby this year was changed, and the new system ought to have feminists everywhere up in arms. They've made it very difficult for a female horse to run in the Kentucky Derby, a race fillies have won three times.

Only 20 horses are allowed to run in the Kentucky Derby, and actually getting into the race can be half the battle. Prior to this year, the spots were given to the 20 horses who had made the most money in graded stakes events. Graded stakes are considered the top echelon events in the sport. It didn't matter if the graded stakes was a sprint, a marathon, on the grass or the dirt, or for fillies or colts. If you had enough graded earnings, you were in.

On Saturday at Gulfstream Park, a phenomenal filly named Dreaming of Julia won the Gulfstream Oaks Stakes by 21 3/4 lengths. In what was arguably the best performance by any 3-year-old horse this year, she ran the mile-and-an-eighth distance in 1:48.97. Four races later and at the same racetrack, Orb won the Besilu Stables Florida Derby by 2 3/4 lengths and finished the mile-and-an-eighth in 1:50.87. All things being equal, and based on the times of the two races, Dreaming of Julia would have beaten Orb by about 10 lengths.

Orb is on his way to the Kentucky Derby, where he'll be one of the favorites. Dreaming of Julia most likely won't be allowed to race in the Derby.

Another very good filly also had a very good day Saturday. At Fair Grounds, Unlimited Budget stayed undefeated by winning the Fair Grounds Oaks. Dreaming of Julia and Unlimited Budget are both trained by Todd Pletcher and both seem capable of beating the best of the boys.

For her tour-de-force performance Saturday, Dreaming of Julia got no closer to the Derby than did the last-place finisher in a claiming race at Podunk Downs.

This year, Churchill Downs changed the system for getting into the Derby. Instead of basing it on money earned in graded stakes races, officials went to a points system. Points are awarded based on how horses perform on the way to the Derby, but only in certain races. Races restricted to fillies, like the Gulfstream Oaks, do not count. For her tour-de-force performance Saturday, Dreaming of Julia got no closer to the Derby than did the last-place finisher in a claiming race at Podunk Downs.

Is that fair? The old boys club over at Churchill Downs can always argue that if her owner and trainer were convinced that Dreaming of Julia was that good in the first place, they should have run her against the boys in the Florida Derby. Had she won that race, she would have been guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

But prior to the Gulfstream Oaks, Dreaming of Julia gave Pletcher no indication that she was ready for the admittedly difficult assignment of racing against male horses. She didn't even win her previous race, finishing second against fillies in the Davona Dale Stakes. Running her in the Florida Derby didn't look like the sensible thing to do.

Male or female, 3-year-old horses are relative babies and can change overnight. Some get better. Some get much, much better. Dreaming of Julia put it all together Saturday and made a statement. That doesn't mean she would win the Kentucky Derby, and maybe her owners wouldn't even want to run her in the race. But is it fair that the option has essentially been taken away from them?

The most coveted award in U.S. racing is the Horse of the Year title. In three of the past four years it has gone to a female horse, all of whom have beaten the very best males in the nation. The greatest horse in the world is a female: the Australian sprinter Black Caviar, who is undefeated in 24 career starts. The idea that fillies don't belong with colts seems as silly as denying women the right to vote.

The idea behind the new points system was supposed to be getting the 20 best horses out there into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. If it excludes Dreaming of Julia or any other worthy filly, it isn't working.