For Female Horses, Fame Lies in Winning Battle of Sexes
The best way for a filly or mare to win horse-of-the-year honors has been to beat males.
In 1899, long before the Eclipse Awards and other methods were used to determine the horse of the year, Imp, a coal-black 5-year-old mare, was generally considered to be the best horse in the country.
Imp won 13 races that year, but the signal victories were those that came against males. In New York, she spotted seven males between 17 and 30 pounds and beat them at 1 1/8 miles. Late in the year, Imp scored her biggest victory, becoming the first filly to win the Suburban--one of the most important handicaps in racing.
In 1904, Beldame, a 3-year-old filly from the same Kentucky farm that later bred Man o’ War, was America’s unofficial horse of the year. She won 12 of 14 races, the last five against males.
Regret became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby, and her victory at Churchill Downs led to horse-of-the-year honors for 1915.
“Donerail’s upset (at 91-1) in 1913 and Old Rosebud’s win in track-record time the next year got the Derby going,” said the late Col. Matt Winn, a former president of Churchill Downs.
“Then the race only needed a victory by Regret to create some more coast-to-coast publicity that would really put it over. She did not fail us. Regret made the Kentucky Derby an American institution.”
The 15th filly to run in the Derby, Regret beat 15 colts--at the time, the largest field in race history--while coming off an 8 1/2-month rest and running farther than six furlongs for the first time in her career.
Pebbles, the colt who ran second, two lengths behind, had also lost to Regret the previous year, when he was thought to be the best 2-year-old colt in the country.
Females routinely beat males in Regret’s time, but by the post-World War II era, trainers no longer looked to the Derby if they had exceptional 3-year-old fillies. When Silver Spoon, the Santa Anita Derby winner, finished fifth in 1959, she was the first filly to run in the Derby in 14 years.
A couple of 3-year-old fillies, Twilight Tear and Busher, won successive horse-of-the-year titles in 1944-45 without having to run in the Derby.
Trainer Ben Jones said Twilight Tear was a better horse than Pensive, Lawrin and Whirlaway, all of whom had won the Kentucky Derby for him under the colors of Calumet Farm. Whirlaway also swept the Triple Crown.
Twilight Tear suffered from a bleeding problem and ran only once as a 4-year-old; thus the country was deprived of seeing her challenge Busher, the new star filly.
After a wartime racing blackout, Busher, the smallish daughter of War Admiral would become the national male handicap champion in 1946 and horse of the year in 1947.
There wasn’t another female horse-of-the-year winner for 38 years, until All Along, French winner of the Arc de Triomphe, humiliated America’s best Eastern grass runners after arriving in the United States at the end of the season. John Henry stayed in California while All Along, in less than a month, won the Rothmans International at Woodbine, the Turf Classic at Aqueduct and the Washington D.C. International at Laurel.
In Europe, where all racing is on grass, females beat the males regularly. But it still doesn’t happen that frequently in the United States, and usually it’s only accomplished by foreign horses. Royal Heroine, the latter-day Pebbles and Miesque--twice--have won open Breeders’ Cup grass races, and in 1986 Estrapade became the only female to win the Arlington Million. Four fillies--Dahlia, Nobiliary, April Run and All Along--have won the D.C. International.
On the main track in America, it doesn’t pay for trainers to race fillies against colts with any frequency, because there’s already enough money to be made simply by keeping the distaffers within their own division. This year, there are at least 64 races on dirt worth $100,000 or more for 3-year-olds and older.
Even if a filly beats colts in a major race, the realities of breeding make her achievement less lucrative. A stakes-winning stallion can be bred to about 40 mares each breeding season; an important mare is capable of delivering only one foal a year.
Genuine Risk, beaten in the Wood Memorial two weeks before, wouldn’t have won the Kentucky Derby in 1980 if her owners, Bert and Diana Firestone, hadn’t overruled their trainer, LeRoy Jolley. Winning Colors won the Derby in 1988 mainly because her trainer, Wayne Lukas, is a high-profile horseman, a relatively recent arrival from the quarter horse game who consistently runs fillies against colts.
Lukas has run at least one horse in every Derby since 1981, and in 1984 he became the first trainer to run two fillies at Churchill Downs. In particular, Lukas believes that some 2-year-old fillies mature more quickly and actually have an advantage competing against colts.
Besides Winning Colors, Lukas has beaten colts with fillies such as Terlingua, Althea and Lady’s Secret, who in 1986 became the last female to win horse-of-the-year honors. Of Lady’s Secret’s 10 victories that year, one of the most important to Eclipse Awards voters was her success in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, even though it came against a mediocre field of male opponents.
It was a filly’s upset of a star colt that also helped Lady’s Secret’s cause at the ballot box. In the Silver Screen Handicap at Hollywood Park, the filly Melair ran a mile in 1:34 2/5 to soundly defeat Snow Chief, the 3-5 favorite. No filly had run that fast, and in the spring of 1989, Bayakoa also ran a 1:34 2/5 mile at Hollywood Park.
Snow Chief, winner of the Florida Derby, the Santa Anita Derby, the Preakness and the Jersey Derby, was a horse-of-the-year candidate until he met Melair. A week after the loss, Snow Chief underwent knee surgery and was through for the year. He had been done in by one of those rare American fillies good enough to beat a colt.