Where Are the Fillies?
The Belmont Stakes didn't generate much pre-race excitement, but when Rags to Riches won a thrilling stretch duel, she stirred the emotions of everyone who watched -- and she made history, too. Rags to Riches was the first filly in 102 years to capture the final leg of the Triple Crown series. To many casual viewers of ABC's Belmont telecast, it may have seemed extraordinary that a filly could defeat colts and overcome such historic odds. In the world of human athletics, the top female in a sport would have no chance against her male counterpart.
In fact, Rags to Riches's performance wasn't all that unusual. Female thoroughbreds can and do compete successfully against males, but in U.S. racing they rarely get the chance. Only 11 other fillies since 1900 had attempted to win the Belmont Stakes. Various factors -- many of them economic -- deter owners and trainers from pursuing a venturesome course with fillies.
An abundance of evidence in international racing proves that the supposedly weaker sex can succeed at the highest level of the sport. Females have beaten males numerous times in the various Breeders' Cup races. The French filly Miesque was one of the most impressive horses ever to win the Breeders' Cup Mile, and she did it twice, in 1987 and 1988. Females won Europe's most prestigious race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, five straight times from 1979 to 1983. Last year, the British mare Ouija Board took on the best males in five countries, winning two Grade I stakes and finishing second in two others.
So why do fillies appear so rarely in the U.S. Triple Crown races? Many years ago I talked with the late trainer Angel Penna -- who twice won the Arc de Triomphe with fillies -- about gender in thoroughbred racing. His explanation was a revelation. Just as with adolescent boys and girls, Penna said, young horses develop at different rates. As 2-year-olds, colts and fillies are relatively equal in strength. But by the spring of their 3-year-old year, the colts have spurted ahead in their development. The fillies don't catch up until the fall.
Penna's theory has held true over the years. Female racehorses can beat males late in their 3-year-old season or when they are older. Overall, males are better and faster, but the gap between the ability of the sexes is narrow when compared to human runners. The difference between the men's and women's world record in the mile is 29 seconds. By contrast, Secretariat's record for 1 1/8 miles at Belmont Park was 1:45 2/5 ; the filly Go for Wand ran the distance in 1:45 4/5 .
The Penna theory may partly explain why 3-year-old fillies so seldom run in Triple Crown races. However, there is another reason why owners and trainers are conservative in their management of fillies: money. U.S. racing gives fillies an abundance of opportunities to win big purses. Why run a top mare in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf, against the toughest males in the world, when she could find a soft spot in the $2 million Filly and Mare Turf? Why challenge the best males in the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont when the $600,000 Beldame Stakes might be a cakewalk?
Unlike males, fillies who win a prestigious race don't get a big payoff when they retire to a breeding farm. Smarty Jones won two-thirds of the Triple Crown in 2004 and upon retirement he commanded a stud fee of $100,000. He could be bred to as many 110 mares a year -- earning $11 million in income. That's why every owner of a 3-year-old colt is obsessed with winning a classic race.
Because a female thoroughbred can produce only one foal per year, winning a Derby or a Belmont won't make her fabulously valuable. Rags to Riches co-owner Michael Tabor was asked about the economics of the Belmont victory and he said: "If it were a colt, it puts a whole different perspective on it. As it's a filly, we are just here to enjoy and win."
Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Rags to Riches, manages his horses conservatively, and under most circumstances he would not run a filly against colts. But he saw a golden opportunity in the Belmont.
After winning the Kentucky Oaks on May 4, Rags to Riches didn't have a worthwhile next target until the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park on June 30 -- and it is worth only $250,000. When Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense defected from the $1 million Belmont, the field was left with only two legitimate contenders, Curlin and Hard Spun. Curlin had already had a very taxing campaign this spring, and Hard Spun didn't appear to have the stamina to run 1 1/2 miles.
Rags to Riches possesses a distance-running pedigree that is as good as any horse on the continent. Her sire won the Belmont, and her high-class dam produced the winner of last year's Belmont. She figured to improve at the distance, and her rivals might regress.
Yet Pletcher still hesitated, and his hesitation was characteristic of the thinking that deters many trainers from running top fillies against colts. Pletcher said at the post-race news conference: "She's so good, that . . . if I don't do something wrong, there's a decent chance that no filly is ever going to beat her. I was concerned about doing the wrong thing by the filly. . . . You get one that's this good and you want to protect them and you want them to never get beaten."
Pletcher made the right decision when he elected to run. Hard Spun couldn't go the distance, Curlin regressed slightly after his Preakness victory and Rags to Riches relished the longer route. She benefited from a perfect storm of racing conditions. She overcame a stumble at the start and delivered a commendable effort, but one that ought to be viewed with some perspective. This was not a once-in-a-century type of performance. It wasn't as good as the races Ouija Board ran in 2006. It is doubtful that Rags to Riches will ever beat top-level males again -- and it is uncertain that Pletcher will even try. But regardless of what she does for the rest of her career, she will always be remembered for her tenacity in the stretch run at the Belmont that produced one of the most exciting moments of the year.