Note: This post is up over at The Rail. Come on by for a visit…
Two weeks ago today, the conversation that began with Rags to Riches a year ago continued when Eight Belles broke down in the Derby, and her connections were pilloried for having the audacity and bad judgment to run her against the boys. Two weeks later, opinion is still divided about whether racing fillies against colts is dangerous to the fillies, in the short or the long-term.
If you read Pat Forde at ESPN, you get the sense that most folks think that the cost of running fillies against colts is too high, that such a risk should be avoided. On the other hand, Railbird makes a fairly impressive list of fillies and mares who have beaten the boys with little or no negative effect, including Makybe Diva, Ouija Board, Personal Ensign, and Miesque.
While most eyes in the racing world today will be turned towards Pimlico, some of us will watch the feature at Belmont, the Shuvee, named for the filly who won the 1969 Triple Tiara (the Acorn, the Mother Goose, and the Coaching Club American Oaks), and who went on to win virtually every notable race in New York for fillies and mares: the Frizette at two; the Triple Tiara at three, plus the Alabama; the Top Flight, the Beldame, and the Diana at four; the Top Flight (again) and the Diana (again) at five. She was named best older filly or mare champion in both 1970 and 1971.
Oh, yeah, and she won the Jockey Club Gold Cup at age four. And it took so much out of her, so damaged her, that she came back the next year and did it again, by seven lengths. She was third in the Whitney that year, too, beating the horses who’d won the Met Mile, the Brooklyn, and the Suburban. She carried more weight than the two who beat her. Ruinous, it was, racing her against the boys.
She had eight foals and three stakes winners, the best of which, Shukey, won the Beaugay and was second in the Ballerina.
In 1971, Sports Illustrated published an article by Whitney Tower titled “Making Passes At Girls Who Take Classics: When she retires, the breeders will all want Shuvee for their stud.” Other than having one of the best titles in history, the piece seems prescient today, addressing as it does the relationship between a mare’s race record and her success as a broodmare, and discussing whether the girls should take on the boys. In 1971, it seems, the females on the racetrack had a far easier time being accepted in a man’s world than their human counterparts had in the workplace and social spheres.
Times have changed since Shuvee’s conquests in 1970 and 1971. Racing has changed, and breeding has changed, and medications have changed. But if fillies were good enough and strong enough to beat boys throughout racing’s history—starting in the eighteenth century and continuing through the days of Shuvee—why are they no longer? The factors that make horses more fragile now apply equally to both sexes; the fillies have not become more brittle while the colts have stayed durable. Sure, we can recite a litany of fillies who have broken down racing against colts, but what about all of those colts who break down racing against each other? Why do different rules apply to the girls?
In 1971, Whitney Tower wrote about the impressive fillies and mares racing that summer, “Filly Lib is nothing new. Racing has always provided an arena where a female can prove her superiority over the other sex.”
Here’s hoping that that continues to be the case.
Below, a partial look at Shuvee’s 1970 win in the Gold Cup.