Running Blind

The best 3-year-old in California might just be a filly. Blind Luck, who is expected to head the field in Saturday's Santa Anita Oaks, has won five of seven career starts, including three Grade I races, and, at times has overpowered her competition the way only special horses do. At the very least, she would seem capable of giving the best of the 3-year-old male division a stiff test.

Yet trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who also owns a piece of the filly, has already made it known that Blind Luck is on the road to the Kentucky Oaks, and not the Kentucky Derby.

"My partners asked me to nominate her to the Triple Crown, so we did, but we're not thinking that way," Hollendorfer told the Daily Racing Form when asked why Blind Luck was nominated to the Triple Crown. "But at least we have that option in case some opportunity presents itself."

That Hollendorfer would be thinking Oaks and not Derby is not exactly a surprise. He's a talented trainer, but he's also old-school. Blind Luck is the best filly he has trained since Lite Light, who used a win in the 1991 Santa Anita Oaks as a stepping-stone to a 10-length win that same year in the Kentucky Oaks. Like most U.S. horsemen, he seems to believe that fillies belong against fillies.

Trainer Hal Wiggins thought the same thing. Before Jess Jackson swooped in and opened up his checkbook, it was Wiggins who trained Rachel Alexandra. He had said all along that he had no intention of running Rachel Alexandra against males, which is why she, too, raced in the Kentucky Oaks, which she won by a staggering 20¼ lengths. There is no way of knowing what would have happened had Rachel Alexandra run instead in the Kentucky Derby, but it's very hard to imagine that she would have lost that race. Because of their position that fillies shouldn't run against colts, Wiggins and former owner Dolphus Morrison likely cost themselves a Kentucky Derby win.

Jackson is different. He understood that Rachel Alexandra was more than a good filly and ran her in the Preakness, the first of three Grade I races she won for him against males. Rachel Alexandra's 2010 campaign is sure to include some starts against males, including, hopefully, one in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

The only horse who compared to Rachel Alexandra in 2009 was Zenyatta. Cautiously handled throughout most of her career by trainer John Shirreffs and owner Jerry Moss, she was put to the ultimate test in the Breeders' Cup Classic and responded with an electrifying win over males. By the conclusion of the Breeders' Cup program, it was clear that the two best horses to race in the U.S. last year were females.

It would seem that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra would have helped to change racing's mindset, making our way of thinking more along the lines of how they do things in Europe. European horsemen aren't the least bit afraid to run fillies versus males. France's biggest race, the Arc de Triomphe, has been won 17 times by a filly or mare.

But it seems little has changed. Only eight fillies were nominated to the Triple Crown and none seems to be setting her sights on the Kentucky Derby. Even Wayne Lukas, who has run four fillies in the Derby and won it with the filly Winning Colors in 1988, didn't nominate the top female in his barn. The Lukas-trained Tidal Pool won a Feb. 18 allowance at Oaklawn, earning a 102 Beyer speed figure, the best number any 3-year-old filly has run this year.

None of this is meant to conclude that Blind Luck would win the Kentucky Derby. In what is always a very tough, very demanding race, she well could get trounced. Yet, doesn't she deserve a chance to show what she can do? Whether it's Blind Luck or any other star female, fillies ought to run against colts more often than they do.

Should Blind Luck win the Santa Anita Oaks, Hollendorfer and his partners ought to go next in the Santa Anita Derby. It's a perfect place to test a filly like Blind Luck. A loss in the Santa Anita Derby would prove that Blind Luck doesn't belong with the best males and that the Kentucky Oaks is the best fit for her. A win would show that she's good enough to handle top males and deserves a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. What's there to lose?

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 wnfinley@aol.com.