We interrupt our regularly scheduled southern programming with this important news from Aqueduct:
“Distaff” is not a dirty word.
On Saturday at the Big A, the Distaff Handicap will be run for the 55th time. It’s been won by storied fillies and mares, several of whom have been profiled here: Hirsch Jacobs’s Searching (1957); her daughter Affectionately (1965), and the amazing Cicada (1963). More recently, Maryfield won in 2007, Carson Hollow in 2003, and Dream Supreme in 2001.
The race is part of the Breeders’ Cup national stakes program, but so far, it doesn’t appear that the BC has required that its name be changed to the Ladies’ Classic Handicap. Let’s hope that no one over at the Breeders’ Cup offices is reading this—I’d hate to give them any ideas.
About a year ago, after the Breeders’ Cup changed the name of the race from the Distaff to the Ladies’ Classic, I wrote about the etymology of “distaff,” emphasizing the unsuitability of using “lady” to describe the work done by fillies and mares racing at the top of their game.
A year on from the decision to re-name the race, we now have a flurry of commentary on ESPN’s decision to drop its coverage of the Kentucky Oaks, and the news that the race will now air on Bravo. Dana at Green but Game wrote about it, as have any number of columnists and bloggers, and yes, it’s true, a race on Bravo is better than a race on no channel. But that’s as far as I’ll go in terms of being happy about this change.
The Blood-Horse’s article on this development referred to a report in the Courier-Journal:
The Courier-Journal reported Bravo had already planned a one-hour Oaks day special focusing on food, fashion, and the celebrity experience of Oaks day, as well as Churchill’s fund raiser on behalf of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure (sic).
The Blood-Horse report was headlined by a banner reading “Kentucky Oaks: Ladies First.”
So once again, racing relies on antiquated stereotypes and frivolity to appeal to women (I guess we can be glad that it’s not HGTV that picked up the Oaks). While it’s difficult to argue against honoring and raising money for breast cancer victims and survivors on Oaks day, it’s become far too common—and unimaginative—for organizers of an event to use specifically female pathology to get women to pay attention. And the decision to link “food, fashion, and the celebrity experience” to outstanding female athletic achievement is reductive and demeaning.
And while I’m being cranky about this topic, let’s talk about Stardom Bound and Rachel Alexander. For me, the question is not “Are they good enough to run against colts?” or “Is it safe for them to run against colts?” It is: “Why should they run against colts?”
I ask this question as someone who was present at Rags To Riches’ Belmont, and as someone for whom that was the single most exciting sporting moment I have ever witnessed in person; I will never forget it, and I can’t believe that I was there to see it. That said, the quality of the female equine athlete seems to be singularly held to the male standard in ways that that of other female athletes isn’t.
We do not determine that Serena Williams’s accomplishments are any less impressive because she didn’t beat Roger Federer. For that matter, we don’t question Federer’s talent because he’s never beaten Williams. Those athletes stand side by side, lauded for what they have accomplished, without comparison to any “other.” Are Curlin’s accomplishments any less impressive because he never beat Rags to Riches?
Is it fun to think about colts and fillies racing against each other? Sure. And I wouldn’t mind seeing it more often; it’s exciting, and mixing of the sexes with more frequency would make it less taboo. But at the same time, until what each sex accomplishes on the race track is considered on its own merits, without comparison to the other sex, I’d say that we still have a long way to go, baby.
Long live the Distaff (Handicap)!