New meaning attached to the saying when the ultimate Horse of the Year won the Woodward Stakes at the end of a gender-bending Saratoga meet in which Linda Rice became the first woman to win the trainer’s title. If any doubt that females had risen to a higher place in the male-dominated game remained, Zenyatta dispelled this notion by capturing the Breeders’ Cup Classic in early November.
Rachel Alexandra on the East Coast and Zenyatta on the West divided emotions equally. They concluded their seasons unbeaten. They accounted for 100 percent of the Eclipse Award votes in the Horse of the Year category. And, most significantly, they let it be known that American girls, like their European counterparts, had as much right to the sport’s biggest prizes as the boys.
Although a colt’s head appeared first in the spotlighted mirror at Churchill Downs several weeks ago, Zenyatta ended 2010 at the top of the sport or, at least, a notch down from the top. Three races earlier, on the same starry card, Goldikova, a five-year-old Irish-bred mare from France, won her third Breeders’ Cup Mile, an unprecedented feat. She became Cartier Horse of the Year subsequently.
Since 1887, only 10 fillies have earned the USA’s Horse of the Year accolade. But since 2002, there’ve been two. Zenyatta came second in the voting in 2008 and 2009. Rachel Alexandra won in 2009. And Zenyatta will finish first or second again in 2010. In addition, Rags to Riches accomplished something in 2007 that no other filly had done in 102 years – she won the Belmont.
“I would say we have been lucky to see several very talented females allowed to show their superiority over several seasons, while their high-profile male counterparts have been rushed off to stud,” noted Terence Collier, director of marketing for the sales company Fasig-Tipton, via email.
Despite the past decade, Collier isn’t convinced there’s a long-term shift toward females dominating males on the racetrack. “Females beating males in the USA delivers superstar status much more readily here than it does in other parts of the world,” Collier said, implying that the “Year of the Girl” could be a Yankee affect.
“It is not surprising that superior females attain higher visibility,” Collier said. “The North American and European Thoroughbred industries tend to retire their superstar males to stud very quickly and the top females will often race longer,” he noted.
To Collier’s point, Blame was a four-year-old colt that had won eight times in 12 starts before he conquered Zenyatta. But the rest of the Breeders’ Cup Classic field was composed of two five-year-old colts that were 30-1 and 20-1 in the morning line, four other lightly-raced four-year-olds that collectively won fewer than half of their 23 starts as three-year-olds and five sophomore colts, of which only two or three will be invited to the breeding shed next spring.
If the market is any indicator, it, too, appears unconvinced that the ladies’ time has come. A good filly will bring approximately 80 percent of what good colts bring on average and sales toppers are usually males at the yearling sales. Prices at auction for fillies and mares coming off the racetrack have dropped drastically in the last three years, even as Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra were living out their fans’ dreams. The primary cause for the drop, of course, is the depressed economic conditions.
Collier’s ephemeral viewpoint is shared by Ben Huffman, the racing secretary at Churchill Downs, the only track at which fans have seen Zenyatta, Goldikova and Rachel Alexandra each compete. Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra raced at Oaklawn Park, but Goldikova didn’t. Zenyatta and Goldikova raced at Santa Anita, but Rachel Alexandra didn’t.
“The big three just happened to come along three years in a row. Also, the willingness of the owners to race these mares past the ages of three, four and five years is remarkable,” Huffman said, which suggests that if one was retired earlier that there might be less notice of how female horses have excelled in recent years. Nevertheless, the weight of evidence in favor of females raises at least a suspicion of misogyny.
Huffman recommended that horse trainers, not he, give an assessment of the relative difficulty of races for colts and geldings versus those for fillies and mares. He couldn’t say whether American-raced males faced more competitive challenges than females or whether it was harder for a male to distinguish himself. But he said, “I do believe lofty purse money for 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds can be tough for owners and trainers to resist, therefore decreasing the chances of an older horse campaign.” Could there be a correlation between the sales value assessed to sires and the requirements of achieving that status?
Regardless of who or what is to be believed, female horses have enjoyed a long run of success. Choose your own measure of time to determine if their ascendancy is a fad or a trend. But, one thing is certain - it’s not the “Year of the Girl.” It’s the decade.
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