…fillies and mares who do defeat males are highly special. In American racing heroines have come along with enough frequency that a female’s outrunning a male is not seen as a freakish occurrence, but it is not so commonplace as to deny each such Amazon her recognition as deserving unusual status. This has been true for more than two centuries. –Edward L. Bowen, Preface, Women of the Year
In 2004, 10 writers each wrote a chapter on the fillies or mares who to that point had been honored with title of Horse of the Year. As Bowen notes, that title has not always been awarded in a consistent manner:
In 1970 The Blood-Horse published a book entitled The Great Ones, an exposition
of the career of seventy-six runners. For an appendix the principal author of
that volume, Kent Hollingsworth, who was then editor of The Blood-Horse, waded
his way through sundry historical accounts to determine a legitimate, though
unofficial, list of champions dating back a century to 1870.
The book, then, is at least in part a collection of Horses of the Year According to Hollingsworth, which, one could argue, is as good a conceit as any when talking about horses who raced in 1883; dissenters might quibble with the liberty of the book’s title, but the fan of racing history will appreciate any reason for bringing together the stories of ten memorable, impressive fillies and mares.
Each chapter is a discrete story; one might read the chapter on All Along, who raced in the 80’s, before reading the chapter on Regret, who raced in the second decade of the last century, without any loss of narrative. That is both a strength and a weakness: a strength because it makes for easy readability, a weakness because this reader would have liked to see some connections and comparisons made among these magnificent horses.
An impressive array of writers contributed to this anthology: Steve Haskin, Avalyn Hunter, Ray Paulick, Eliza McGraw, Edward L. Bowen. The chapters are meticulously researched, bringing each of these horses to life in the fifteen or so pages devoted to her. Each chapter includes brief notes on women’s history during the decade discussed; in the chapter on Beldame, Hollingsworth’s Horse of the Year for 1904, readers learn of the establishment of the National Child Labor Committee by Lillian D. Wald and Florence Kelly, and psychologist G. Stanley Hall’s description of professional work as “alien to the female mind.”
Racing history is considered alongside and in the context of social and political history, though the latter is generally given a rather cursory glance. And that’s mostly OK, because the racing history is compelling enough. We learn about Imp and Regret and Twilight Tear; we are reminded of Lady’s Secret and Azeri.
Though the book lacks an index (too often true in racing books, and maddening), it does contain the past performances for all ten horses, and they are in and of themselves a captivating read: Imp raced 171 times and her past performances take up four pages.
A particularly good read in this year of a female Horse of the Year, Women of the Year leads readers to consider the accomplishments of Rachel Alexandra—and Zenyatta—in light of her predecessors. And regardless of where Rachel Alexandra is placed—particularly compared to Twilight Tear, Beldame, and Busher, all of whom at three also beat older males en route to a championship title—one thing is clear: it’s time for the next edition of this book, with a chapter devoted to the most recent Woman of the Year.
Women of the Year: Ten Fillies Who Achieved Horse Racing’s Highest Honor, edited by Jacqueline Duke. Published in 2004 by Eclipse Press. 199 pages including past performances. Currently available for $5.00 at Exclusively Equine.
More Brooklyn Backstretch reading on some of the horses included in the book: