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Friday, May 15, 2009

Historical Context

The most contextually-useless fact continually brought up over this past week is that no filly has won the Preakness since Nellie Morse in 1924.

During that time—the last 84 years, to be precise—only 10 fillies have run, and three finished in the money—Snowflake (third, 1930), Genuine Risk (second, 1980) and Winning Colors (third, 1988). Three of ten is 30%. That’s not bad considering how many males have run and won. Two of those—Genuine Risk and Winning Colors—ran in the 1980s, while Excellent Meeting failed to finish in 1999. However, look more closely at those fillies from the 1920s and 1930s—running against the boys didn’t harm them, and, in fact, even if they didn’t win, some of these fillies had tremendous importance as broodmares.

Maid at Arms (Man O’War-Thrasher, by Trap Rock) who finished eleventh in 1925 went on to an easy six length victory in the Alabama at Saratoga in August. In September she finished second against males in the Jerome Handicap—behind another filly, Primrose. Before the Preakness, she had raced against males and won the Pimlico Oaks against fillies. The Preakness winner that year was a total fluke—Coventry went off at the longest odds of any Preakness winner ($45.60 win) until Master Derby in 1975. Coventry ran just five times in his life, and the Preakness was his only win—he broke down in his next race and was retired to stud.

Fair Star (Wrack-Etoile Filante, by Fair Play) who finished sixth in 1927 had won the Pimlico Futurity against boys at two, in addition to winning the Selima Stakes against fillies. The champion two-year-old filly didn’t have much stakes-success at three, but then again 1927 Preakness winner Bostonian only won two (out of 12) other starts at three, and didn’t race at four. Incidentally, Fair Star’s half-brother High Quest (Sir Gallahad) won the 1934 Preakness. And Fair Star herself gave birth to 1941 Kentucky Derby runner-up Staretor, and her direct damline descendents include some familiar names to fans of the sport: Pass Catcher, Arts and Letters, Silverbulletday and Grindstone.

Bateau (Man o’War-Escuina, by Ecouen) who finished eighth in 1928 later won the Gazelle and Coaching Club American Oaks, and came back as a four-year-old to defeat males in by the Suburban and Whitney handicaps. In fact, in the Southern Maryland Handicap, she defeated her nemesis Victorian—the 1928 Preakness victor—who not only was a full-brother to 1927 Kentucky Derby winner Whiskery, but also the son of champion mare Prudery—who finished third as the co-favorite in the 1921 Kentucky Derby. Prudery also finished second in the Travers.

Snowflake (Mad Hatter-Snowdrop, by Cicero) finished third in 1930, behind subsequent Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox. One week after the Preakness, she won the Ladies’ Handicap against older mares. Less than a month later, she won Coaching Club American Oaks, and then took the Illinois Oaks—over the eventual co-champion three-year-old filly, Kentucky Oaks winner Alcibiades.

Nellie Flag (American Flag-Nellie Morse, by Luke McLuke) was the daughter of 1924 Preakness winner Nellie Morse, but she could only muster a seventh place showing behind 1935 Triple Crown winner Omaha. A juvenile champion, she had previously run fourth as post-time favorite in the Kentucky Derby, the first Derby mount for jockey Eddie Arcaro. A Calumet foundation mare, Nellie Flag produced Kentucky Oaks winner Nellie L., as well as Top Flight winners Mar-Kell and Sunshine Nell. The direct damline descendents of Nellie Flag include Belmont victor Bet Twice, dual classics winner Bold Forbes, and the great Forego.

Jewell Dorsett (Cohort-Michigan Girl, by Rire Aux Larmes) finished eighth in the 1937 Preakness—behind another Triple Crown winner, War Admiral. Stakes-placed at two, she was a sprinter who unsuccessfully stretched out in the Louisiana Derby, but did finish third in the Wood Memorial. The Preakness chart says she tired badly after having speed to the back stretch. A real oddball, she made 60 starts over 5 years, winning 12 times. Her son King Dorsett made 92 starts, winning 18 times, including the Kent Stakes at 3, and Yonkers Handicap at 4. Interesting, the champion three-year-old filly of 1937 was Coaching Club American Oaks victress Dawn Play—who in June defeated males in the American Derby. In July, Dawn Play was among several horses knocked unconscious by a lightning strike at Saratoga, and she was retired, having never mentally recovered from her ordeal.

Ciencia (Cohort-Science, by Star Master) finished sixth (and last) in the small 1939 Preakness field, as Maryland-bred Challedon shocked Derby winner Johnstown over the sloppy Pimlico track. All six horses finished within lengths of each other—and fifth-place Johnstown beat Ciencia only by a neck. Doesn’t sound quite as bad as some writers would lead you to believe, eh? Interestingly, Ciencia had defeated 13 males in winning the Santa Anita Derby, a race that later produced two other winning fillies—Silver Spoon who went on to a respectable fifth in the 1959 Kentucky Derby, and 1988 Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors. Direct damline descendants of Ciencia include, through her daughter New Weapon, a host of Australian G1 winners (including Melbourne Cup victor Subzero, Golden Slipper winner Marscay and Caulfield Guineas winner Centro), as well as Coaching Club American Oaks winner Miss Cavandish.

Strange that the conversation about Preakness fillies doesn’t consider three ran against eventual Triple Crown winners—and there have only been eleven colts who have achieved that honor. And the argument about such a race not only being physically taxing, but also adversely-affecting the quality of offspring is made moot when taking into account such important broodmares as Fair Star, Nellie Flag and Ciencia.

Disregarding Barbaro, why not discuss the number of Preakness winners since 1985 that subsequently broke down or pulled up in the Belmont Stakes? In the past 24 years, there have been four:

Tank’s Prospect (1985) lame, never raced again
Prairie Bayou (1993) euthanized
Charismatic (1999) broken leg, never raced again
Big Brown (2008) pulled up, raced (and won) twice more before retired due to injury

Running in the Preakness is no more dangerous or superfluous for fillies than colts, if they are made of the right stuff, and everything about Rachel Alexandra points to her being of that extraordinary caliber. Whether that means she will win or not is an entirely different issue, but let’s not cloud the picture with ridiculous misconceptions. She belongs. Period.


Superfecta said...

Thank you! I was getting so sick of the whole 'ohhhhh, but Eight Belles!' Ruffian!' thing that I nearly wrote something very similar myself.

Kevin said...

Impressive piece of research! It's amazing what a little history can do to completely contradict all of the silly statements made in the past few weeks. Is it that people are lazy or do they simply ignore facts that don't align with their worldview?

Thanks for posting this -- great stuff!

John said...

Nice work and thorough as usual, you will have to excuse me if I will not totally buy it.

I'd love to ask a trainer like Allen Jerkens, who has had incredible success with fillies why he rarely if ever runs them against colts even as mares. I bet he has a good reason.

Beside that I always return to Angel Penna who had great success with fillies.

Check out this Sports Illustrated article from 1974 in it Daniel Wildenstein repeats Penna's opinion about the best time to run fillies.


"Female horses are more difficult to keep at top form than males. In the spring, when their sex cycle peaks, they tend to soften up, break down, lose their racing edge. In the autumn they may suffer what are called "false heat" periods. But they do remain more themselves in the fall, and they also get an advantage in weight handicapping. This is a special bounty in Europe, Wildenstein points out, since the colts there tend to be raced harder earlier in the year, which means the fillies are fresher later on."

Penna is quoted by Andrew Beyer in the Winning Horseplayer saying pretty much the same thing.

Granted time has passed and who knows what kind of tinkering they do with fillies and their cycles now (if any) but Penna's accomplishments say alot about how to train fillies to reach the highest level.

There are developmental differences between the sexes and many wise horseman approach running fillies earlier in the year in open company with some caution for good reason.

Kincsem1874 said...

Great information! Somewhere in my many long half-finished research projects, I have statistics on pre- and post- stakes wins for the victors of Triple Crown races since 1915. So much "common historical knowledge" in racing can be clarified with some in-depth fact-checking.

Tony Bada Bing said...

Context is always good, especially in a media-crazed world that pushes hype as fact. Thanks.