The Distaff lives

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)!

8 thoughts on “The Distaff lives

  1. I couldn’t agree more about the whole ‘pathology’ angle – it’s such a lazy way to avoid doing real work to find your audience and an easy way to look like you’re ‘giving back’ (even though there are many cancer charities that direct a much higher percentage of their intake to research).I can assure the good people at Bravo that at the Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership (the umbrella organization for our archives), we don’t sit around thinking about fashion – but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

  2. The reason the Blood Horse cited the Courier-Journal is because Thoroughbred Times broke the story, and the BH obviously couldn’t tip its hat to the competition.

  3. I would run Stardom Bound in the Santa Anita Derby, if the field isn’t too big.(Already announced it’s not gonna happen.) Running Music Note against the boys in the Travers could’ve been trouble—the stampede of 12 on both turns. SB has NOTHING to lose. She is gorgeous. What a magnificent neck. If she were to run fourth in the SA Derby and come back happy, great. Who cares! Next. If she loses to Rachel Alexandra—who cares! Next. Gotta tuffen these horses (and people) up. But a small field against males is key—her swoooooooop would be a swoop.You have to bring up Rags’ Belmont?

  4. If the trainer thinks the filly is good enough, then I am all for the battle of the sexes.As a fan, I’m more put out watching obvious sprinters forced to race as rabbits for longer distances…or an obvious turfer racing repeatedly on the dirt.If the horse fits the course, let em run!

  5. You point out the hypocrisy well… if they never run in “open” company (can we even call it that given how infrequently the company is actually open?) then it’s “how good are they really” vs. “why throw them to the wolves?”. While I agree that running in one’s own company should be “good enough” (and that it’s an added insult that it’s somehow not), I’d also love to see more open competition where the best get to compete against each other, regardless of their genitalia. I know, utopian.And nothing gets men to an event like a fund raiser for prostate cancer! Can you imagine if that was a men’s marketing angle?

  6. Oh, and Stardom Bound vs. Rachel Alexandra is THE 3yo rivalry so far if not the only real rivalry (am I forgetting something?). Looks like it’s shaping up to be another year where “the ladies” have the best division… not that anyone would ever promote that (besides bloggers!).

  7. I’m mildly concerned that the Bravo coverage of the Oaks will be less than I’m looking for. That said, I’m delighted that I’ll be able to see it the comfort of my home; we do not subscribe to the many ESPN-knock offs, and that seems to be where Derby-related races often landed last year. I continue to yearn for NBC’s coverage, which even before I wagered one dime on a race captured my attention. And dear goodness, I am oh, so tired of breast cancer as a “draw” for women. While I have a sincere interest in this topic, I don’t want it spewed at me in my entertainment options.All of that said, the Perfecta Princess attended the Oaks last year, and enjoyed the fashion and food, though in her seats, wagering was more important than celebrities. (All of this to say: though I have never visited Louisville during Derby week, I do indeed own a dress that was there for the Oaks!)

  8. Each of your comments could be a full post in and of itself–I am tempted to write a “from the mailbag” post just to give them all the airtime they deserve.I love the idea of promoting the Kentucky Derby by linking it to prostate cancer. And linking the Oaks to exclusively women’s issues is an insulting pigeon-hole–what, men shouldn’t pay attention to filly races? Sorry, Ernie, to bring up the painful memory, and sorry, Eddie, for not linking to the TT. Will correct that oversight next time. QQ: good point about basic cable coverage, though I hope that folks can find Bravo.TDH: I don’t mind the sexes racing against each other at all; what gets me is the idea that the male races are the only ones that really count.

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