Growing up in the 1970s, with a neighborhood full of boys for playmates, I heartily admit to being a rough-and-tumble tomboy. There was no ditch wide enough, no makeshift ramp steep enough that I didn’t attempt to jump on my bike, and, in a time when it never occurred to us to wear a helmet, I often limped home with skinned-up knees, road-burned forearms or a blistered nose, covered in dirt and gravel. It may have hurt like hell sleeping that night, muscle-sore with abrasions only beginning to scab over, but more often than not I was right back out there the next day, engaged in more rough play—a pick-up game of baseball where we’d often try to back each other off the plate with a close pitch to the head, or wandering over to the neighboring farm to ride the semi-wild horse bareback around the fields. No physical challenge is too intimidating when you are young—only with age comes fear.
In that context, I was surprised to read on a forum board this week a comment that basically said, “I love Rachel Alexandra and Stardom Bound—both are very talented fillies and probably could compete with the boys. But, I don’t want either one to run in the Kentucky Derby, because we don’t need another Eight Belles experience this year.”
On so many levels, this attitude is disturbing, mostly because it is based solely on emotion and not logic.
To the best of my knowledge (and I would love to be corrected if wrong), there is no statistical data officially maintained on breakdown rates in American thoroughbred racing, let alone any solid evidence (not anecdotal bullshit) that suggests female horses breakdown at a disproportionate rate to male horses. That fact that Eight Belles suffered a catastrophic injury is no more related to her sex than the fact that she was a gray. It could have just as easily been Big Brown, Anak Nakal or Big Truck. If it had been, would the same intense outcry have carried over to this year for male horses not to run? I don’t think so.
Eight Belles’ necropsy report indicated no pre-existing condition, nor did later testing reveal any drug use. It was a tragic accident. Yet, why is it that I hold my breath when Old Fashioned runs? It’s not the uncanny fact that he possesses the same connections—owner and trainer—and is also gray; it’s because he’s another progeny of Unbridled’s Song, bred for early speed yet with a reputation for fragility. That bothers me more than what sex a horse is.
Americans wear blinders when it comes to thoroughbred racing (and just about everything else in society...but that's a whole other issue). For some unfathomable reason, we just can wrap our brains around the concept of mixed gender racing as commonly practiced abroad, such as in Australia where it occurs not only in the highest grade races, but every single day at lower level events. I can argue until I'm blue in the face about the proven competitiveness of fillies and mares against colts, geldings and horses, but for some it won't change their mind one smidgen.
Even when So Shiny upsets Desert Party in the UAE Derby, Indian Blessing kicks ass in the Golden Shaheen, Front House shocks in the Dubai Sheema Classic, and Tuesday Joy and Vodka (or maybe Lady Marian) flesh out the exacta in the Dubai Duty Free (yes, Kip Deville will be viewing the behinds of two females this time, not just the one Goldikova)...even then American minds will not be changed regarding mixed gender racing. That's a shame, as introducing that concept more into our racing would not only make for far more interesting and competitive races, but also provide an angle that ultimately appeals to both old and new fans.
As for the question as to whether or not Rachel Alexandra or Stardom Bound should run in the Derby, ultimately that needs to be determined by their own individual abilities. It should not be based on irrational emotion, driven by fear not logic.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.—Frank Herbert, Dune.