Filly Could Have a Chance in the Derby
by Trevor Whenham - 04/15/2008
As the field starts to fill out for the Kentucky Derby, one horse that looks like it stands a very good chance of walking into the gate on May 3 is Eight Belles. That isn't particularly noteworthy in that the horse will have reasonably high odds and won't have a ton of people picking it as a potential winner. What does make the potential entry of Eight Belles interesting, though, is that she is a she - a filly. It's pretty rare to see a filly in the Derby, and it takes an exceptional filly to be competitive against the boys. That doesn't mean that Eight Belles should be ruled out just because she's a girl.
As I said, a filly needs to be good to be in the Derby, and this horse has given us every indication that she is good. She has won four races in a row, and she had done it by a combined 30 1/2 lengths. That's more than 7 1/2 lengths per race if you don't want to do the math yourself. Her most recent win was in the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn on April 6. She won that race by less than a length, but it may have been her most impressive race yet. She was behind the very good filly Alina, and that horse had lots left down the stretch, but Eight Belles, a horse that is used to having a big lead, was able to dig in and chase down the leader in a powerful stretch duel. From that race we learned that this is a horse that loves to win.
She's obviously new to the Derby trail, but her trainer isn't. Larry Jones was the same guy who kept Hard Spun near the top of his class all year last year. Jones isn't one of the elite trainers in the country, but he clearly knows his stuff, and his recent experience is obviously a big asset for this filly.
Part of what is attracting Jones and the rest of his fillies connections to the Derby is the field. There are lots of promising and intriguing horses aimed for Churchill Downs, but there aren't a whole lot of horses out there that are good enough to scare contenders away. Indeed, unlike most years you really have to feel that any horse could win the Derby this year. The last round of prep races have created more questions than answers, and have done more to tear down horses than it has to build them up. This is in contrast to last year where there were enough strong horses that Rags to Riches opted out of the Derby even though she was clearly good enough to compete - she went on to win the Belmont.
If Eight Belles runs she will be the first filly to run since 1999. There were two that year. Excellent Meeting was a solid fifth, and Three Ring never fired and finished 19th. Those with a morbid curiosity may be interested to know that Three Ring died later that year in a freak accident in the paddock at Belmont while she was being saddled for a race. The previous fillies showed just how hard it is for a filly to run and win. Serena's Song finished 16th and was a total non-factor in 1995 despite being the favorite at 3.40-1. She went on to win 18 races and retired as one of the great race mares of all time.
It would be fitting if a filly won the Derby this year, because this is the year that the last filly to win the Derby, the great Winning Colors, passed away. She was a gigantic gray filly who dominated the boys in 1988. Her win wasn't a huge surprise - she had won the Santa Anita Derby by 7 1/2 lengths, so she was clearly the best the west had to offer. Her win came eight years after Genuine Risk became the first filly in the modern era to win the roses. She never finished out of the money - 10 wins, three seconds and two thirds in 15 starts.
The first filly to win was Regret. She won way back in 1915, and took home Horse of the Year honors that year as well. She has the distinction of having never lost to a female horse throughout her career.
Overall, we have had 38 fillies enter the gate, including seven who went off as favorites. Nine of those fillies ended up finishing in the money. That doesn't sound like much until you consider that that is a 23.7 percent rate of hitting the top three, which is considerably higher than the overall rate of success for horses that enter. That makes sense because a filly has to be pretty extraordinary to be entered. Based on that logic, Eight Belles will have to be one of the horses you consider in the coming weeks.