It would be nice to see some fillies in the Kentucky Derby
by John Furgele, Special Thoroughbred Edition
She was tough. She was rugged and she was a fierce competitor. Her name was Genuine Risk, one of horse racing’s great fillies. Heck, why even bother with the gender reference; she was one of the sport’s best horses.
She was born on February 15, 1977, the daughter of Exclusive Native. You never know the reaction when fillies are born. Are people happy? After all, fillies are often more durable, less precocious and unlike colts, never have to be gelded. Or, is there disappointment knowing that as great as this little filly may be, she will likely never win the Kentucky Derby and certainly won’t win the Triple Crown.
While that may come off as sexist, it isn’t meant to. Horse racing is strange like that; in fact all of sports are. For some reason, we devour men’s sports, but not women’s sports. The US Open golf tournament is covered by all the outlets while the US Women’s Open barely gets noticed. There are some exceptions—women’s tennis gets good run as does the US Women’s Soccer team.
Horse racing does try. The Kentucky Oaks is a great race, situated the day before the Derby, but what if it wasn’t? Would it still garner national attention? After the Oaks-Derby double, most can’t recite which filly race accompanies the Preakness and even fewer the complement to the Belmont.
But when the girls run against the boys, America takes notice. In 1979, Genuine Risk began her racing career. She got off to a good start, winning her first three races at Belmont and Aqueduct. She then entered graded stakes action and took first in the Demoiselle Stakes and after winning her first two starts in 1980, the winning streak was now six.
Trained by the Hall of Famer, the legendary Leroy Jolley, it was time to see if Genuine Risk was the real deal. She was entered in the Wood Memorial and now we would see how she would do against the boys in graded stakes company. She would finish third, but the connections were not deterred. The next stop: The Kentucky Derby.
She didn’t get a lot of love in Louisville. In a field of 13, she was set off at odds of 13-1 and was able to stalk the slow pace nicely. By the top of stretch, she had it, taking the lead and bolting to a four length lead. Rumbo came at her late, but the filly had it all the way, stopping the clock in 2:02 to become only the second filly to win the Run for the Roses. Regret did it first, 65 years earlier in 1915.
The intrigue was just beginning. Two weeks later, the scene shifted to Old Hilltop, Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. The Preakness offers new shooters; horses that didn’t run in the Derby and one of those shooters was Codex.
Codex wasn’t supposed to be there. His owner thought the grind of the Triple Crown was too much, so he wasn’t nominated for the Derby and was entered in the Preakness by mistake by Jeff Lukas, the son of the horse’s trainer, D. Wayne Lukas.
Despite those concerns, Codex was more than a nice horse. Prior to the Preakness, he had won the Santa Anita and Hollywood Derbies, so he was certainly ready for the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
In the race, it was the new shooter, Codex, against the Kentucky Derby winner, Genuine Risk. At the top of the stretch, it looked like the duel was on with Codex on the inside; the filly charging on the outside. Then, it happened. The filly went to make her run and Codex veered to his right. The two bumped; the filly seemed startled while Codex was able to right himself and win by four lengths.
The crowd gasped as the “objection,” sign appeared at Pimlico. Replays showed that Codex veered into the path of the filly and all three ABC broadcasters—Howard Cosell, Jim MacKay and Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro believed that there was going to be a disqualification. Arcaro was asked point blank by Cosell: “If you were a steward how would you rule?” Arcaro’s response was a swift one: “I’d take the number down.”
After several agonizing minutes the results were made official with Codex the winner of the 105th Preakness. There were some boos as Codex made his way to the winner’s circle. As we know, stewards are reluctant to take down a winner of any race, let alone an American classic like the Preakness and it didn’t appear that they had the stomach to do so in Baltimore on the third Saturday in May.
Many thought that would be it for Genuine Risk, but three weeks later, there she was running in the Belmont Stakes. Codex was there and so too, was Temperance Hill. By the top of the stretch, the filly had put Codex to bed, but Temperance Hill, ridden by Eddie Maple surged to win with the filly settling for second. Three races: a first, a controversial second and a “regular” second. Genuine Risk certainly proved that the fillies could not only run well against the boys, but they could also beat them.
She will go to the front. When she tires, we’ll get her. That was the strategy going into the 1988 Kentucky Derby when another filly, Winning Colors, decided to take on the boys. But unlike Genuine Risk, she beat the boys in the Santa Anita Derby, no doubt striking at least some fear with her competition.
Those that guessed Winning Colors would catapult to the lead were right. The filly, ridden by Gary Stephens led through the quarter, the half and three-quarters, but unlike what many suspected, she didn’t tire and prevailed by two lengths with Forty Niner second and Risen Star third.
The filly then headed to Pimlico and tried to do what her filly counterpart from 1980 couldn’t do; win the Preakness and head to Belmont for a shot at Triple Crown glory. But, it was the third place horse from the Derby that was just getting started. His name was Risen Star and he was the son of the sport’s greatest horse, Secretariat. Secretariat went to stud in 1974, but 14 years later, none of his offspring had won an American classic race. That was about to change. In the Preakness, Risen Star lived up to the hype, cruising by about three lengths. For the filly, a solid third. She was there, in striking distance at the top of the stretch; she just lost to a better horse.
In the 1973 Belmont, Secretariat put on a show, winning the race by an astounding 31 lengths in 2 minutes, 24 seconds, a record that may stand forever. Now, 15 years later, it was the Derby winner and Preakness winner squaring off in what is called “The Test of the Champion.” Winning Colors took the lead and through three-quarters it looked like she had a chance, but like his father did in ‘73, Risen Star rose to the occasion. He took the lead right after the 6-furlong mark and in the stretch, ABC broadcaster Dave Johnson compared him to his Daddy as “Star” won by 18 lengths in 2:26 1/5, which at that time, was the second fastest time in the Belmont. Winning Colors was third and like Genuine Risk competed admirably in all three Triple Crown legs.
On Saturday, they will run the Kentucky Derby for the 145th time and once again, there will be no fillies entered. Why is that? Why don’t more fillies take the chance against the boys? We saw in 1980 and 1988 the power of the filly, but today, it’s rare indeed to see the girls take on the boys.
We had the superfilly, Rachel Alexandra win the 2009 Preakness, we saw Rags to Riches score for Todd Pletcher in the 2007 Belmont and of course we saw two epic races with Zenyatta winning the 2009 Breeder’s Cup Classic and then miss by a whisker the next fall at Churchill Downs, but other than that, we just don’t see it as much as we should.
One reason is fear. For some reason, trainers like to keep the fillies away from the boys. Why run against them when there are plenty of “women only,” races to choose from. The Kentucky Oaks runs for $1.25 million, so why not seek the glory there?
Second is the point system. Right now, the only way a filly can get into the Kentucky Derby is by earning points and the only way they can earn Derby points is by running in Derby prep races. The powers that be could change things by designating a race or two for fillies and giving them Derby points, but right now, for a filly to make the Derby field, she would have to do what Winning Colors did in 1988: win a major prep race like the Santa Anita Derby.
We all know running the girls against the boys makes for great theater. We saw that with Rags to Riches, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta and those old enough saw it with Genuine Risk and Winning Colors. The Derby is the most watched race in the United States; adding filly intrigue only helps television ratings. We haven’t seen a filly run in the Derby since Eight Belles finished second in 2008. Even though she suffered a life ending injury in that race, she proved once again that fillies have a place on the first Saturday in May in the big, bad Kentucky Derby.
Three fillies have won the Derby and based on what we’ve seen recently, it doesn’t look like we will see a fourth for a very long time.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.