Last week, I felt like I was the only person paying attention to racing who wasn’t utterly charmed by Mine That Bird’s win in the Derby.
This week, I feel like I’m the only person paying attention to racing who isn’t utterly thrilled at the prospect of Rachel Alexandra going in the Preakness instead of in the Acorn.
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against fillies racing against colts. In fact, I wish that it happened more frequently, and that it weren’t such a Big Event when it happened.
But I also think that the calls for the most accomplished female horses to test themselves against males smack of sexism and devalue the great races restricted to fillies and mares.
I understand the notion that a horse should test herself in unrestricted company to prove her greatness, and I don’t necessarily disagree. That said: I never heard anyone say that in order for Curlin to prove his greatness, he should race against Zenyatta or Zarkava. It seems that only females need to race against the other sex in order to establish their quality.
I understand, too, those who say that notions of human gender and sex equality have no place on the racetrack, though I don’t entirely agree. No less than in culture in general, the standard for greatness on the track is male, regardless of the actual quality of the horses. Since the injuries to such horses as Quality Road and I Want Revenge, more than one racing commentator has opined that the current crop of three-year-olds is mediocre. I leave that to others to decide, but if it’s true, what does Rachel Alexandra prove by beating them? Is beating mediocre males more of an accomplishment than beating great females? Or: is beating mediocre males more of an accomplishment than beating mediocre females, given the general opinion of the field she beat in the Oaks?
The underlying notion that the Preakness is “better” than the Acorn smacks of an implicit sexism, one with which human females are quite familiar. It is the male who sets the standard, and we need to meet it in order to be considered as good. Fillies and mares need to race against and beat their male counterparts, regardless of the quality of those male counterparts, while the reverse is nearly never true.
Make no mistake: watching Rags to Riches beat Curlin in the 2007 Belmont is one of the two most exciting and personally meaningful sporting moments of my life (the other is the 1994 New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup victory), and the only one that I witnessed in person. I will never forget it, and I am grateful that I was there.
But in U.S. racing it is not, unfortunately, customary to race males against females, unlike in its foreign counterparts; I wish it were. I wish that we could see more mixed sex racing at all levels, from claimers to stakes winners, if only to debunk the absurd notion that racing females against males is somehow bad for the female. But we don’t. And to hold great female horses to a stubborn standard, one based only on genitalia, insults the sex-restricted races and the terrific fillies and mares who race in them.
I don’t want to see Rachel Alexandra excluded from the Preakness by means of gamesmanship and mean-spiritedness, and I’m glad that that foolishness has been put aside. But I will be one of apparently few who will be not-so-secretly happy if we see her in the Acorn on June 6th, instead of at Pimlico this Saturday.