Fillies in the Kentucky Derby
by Trevor Whenham - 04/08/2009
As we head towards another Kentucky Derby, one of the biggest stories is still last year's post-race death of Eight Belles, the filly that placed second against the boys but injured both front legs soon after the race and had to be euthanized. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about the incident, and most had a common theme - this happened because a filly was running against the boys. That is ridiculously stupid - stupid to the point of being an insult to our intelligence.
Here's how I see it: What happened to Eight Belles was a terrible tragedy. I hate to see it, and I wish it had never happened (obviously). Here's the thing, though - horse racing is a beautiful sport with a brutal streak. Horses are big animals running incredibly fast at incredible forces. When people run they get hurt. Usually they are okay over the long term. When horses get hurt they often aren't okay because they aren't good at two big things - understanding what is wrong, and standing still so that they can heal. Eight Belles broke down not because she was a filly in the Kentucky Derby, but because sometimes terrible, lousy things happen in the sport as a result of terrible, lousy luck.
Whatever happened to cause the injury could have been an existing problem that would have become an issue even if she had only ever run against other fillies, or it could have been just because she took an uneven step. None of those things are because of her gender. This event put a very unfortunate spotlight on the sport I love, but any action coming from it that limited the number of worthy fillies to run in the race would be a ridiculous misunderstanding of cause and effect. Barbaro suffered an ultimately fatal injury in the Preakness thanks to a bad step, but that doesn't mean that we should ban colts from running in the Preakness, or that we should ban Kentucky Derby winners, or... you get the point.
This would only have been an issue of really serious concern if Eight Belles were the first filly to have ever run in the Derby, but she's not. Far from it. There were 38 fillies that came before her, including three that have won the race. Regret was the first in 1915. There was a long gap until Genuine Risk came out on top in 1980, and a much shorter wait until Winning Colors did it again in 1988. Three filly winners isn't many for a race that is 135 years old, but fillies have a much, much better success rate in the biggest of races than the colts do. Some fillies have done better than others, but Eight Belles was the only one to suffer an injury, and it didn't happen until well after she had finished a very convincing second.
It's not very common to see a filly in the Derby - there hadn't been one since 1999 before Eight Belles. That's in large part because it takes an exceptional filly to warrant the risk of running in a race that is so hard to win when the Kentucky Oaks is less prestigious but much easier to win. If I were to bet right now then my guess would be that we won't see a filly run in the Derby this year. I hope I am wrong, though. One filly, Rachel Alexandra, should definitely run, and two others, Stardom Bound and Evita Argentina almost certainly wouldn't embarrass themselves. Part of what is working against deciding to run those fillies is that the colt field this year looks stronger than normal. Here's a look at those three fillies:
Rachel Alexandra - This filly is an absolute beast. She has won her last four races, and she has done it in incredible style. She faced a small field last time out in the Fantasy Stakes because she scared horses off, and she absolutely devoured them. She won by more than eight lengths, and she did it while her jockey sat on her without moving a muscle. We don't know how good she could be because she has never been asked to run, but my hunch is that she could be very, very special. Her connections are saying she is aiming towards the Kentucky Oaks, but they flirted with running in the Derby in the past, and it's my real hope that they will revisit that flirtation again. She might not be good enough to win it all, but I'd love to see her try.
Stardom Bound - She was the champion two-year-old filly, and after crushing the field of fillies in the Las Virgenes at the beginning of February I felt sure she was heading for the Derby. But then she was an underwhelming winner in the Santa Anita Oaks, and then a shocking third place finisher in the Ashland. That last result almost certainly confined her to the Oaks. If she had held that Las Virgenes form, though, then she would have been an imposing foe.
Evita Argentina - She has actually faced the boys already, beating nine of them in the San Vicente at Santa Anita last time out. Now she goes back up against fillies in the Beaumont at Keeneland this week. It's not a particularly distinguished field she faces, so she would have to thoroughly destroy it to get Derby consideration. She's far more likely to face Stardom Bound and Rachel Alexandra in what would be one heck of an Oaks showdown, but anything is still possible at this point.