Girl Power: Fillies At The Kentucky Derby

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The lady is a champ ! Speed, power and grace are not the exclusive domain of male thoroughbreds at the Kentucky Derby.

Since Churchill Downs launched its first race in 1875, three female horses have won the famed Run for the Roses: Winning Colors (1988), Genuine Risk (1980) and Regret (1915).

Runners-up included Eight Belles (2008) and Lady Navarre (1906). The former collapsed with broken front legs shortly after clearing the finish line and was euthanized immediately on the track.

In the prize-seeking world of equine racing, girls have run with the best of the boys and are no strangers to the winner’s circle. At the Preakness, 5 females clinched the Pimlico track since 1903; Belmont saw 3 ladies outrun the gents.

At Europe’s most prestigious racetrack event, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, fillies and mares took first place in five straight years between 1979-83.

Unlike humans, the gap in physical strength between male and female horses is narrow. But only 40 fillies have ever been entered into the Derby’s four-legged dirt contention. So why is the Triple Crown mostly a male racing club?

At age 2, males and females are similar in physical development but at age 3, colts spurt ahead while fillies only catch up later. However, only 3-year olds are allowed to compete at the top three runs, a tradition that originated in England. That stage in a horse’s life was regarded as the optimal racing age for viewing and wagering thrills.

But a more probable reason for seeing more guys than gals on the field is money. Females have their own unofficial “Filly Triple Crown” consisting of the Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and the Acorn Stakes.

With purses already running well into the six figures, owners prefer to enter their promising fillies at the lady competitions instead of going up against tough colts in the more competitive stakes.

Money figures again in post-racing careers. Mares only foal once a year, while stallions can breed regularly. Smarty Jones claimed the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2004 and upon retirement, commanded stud fees of $100,000. American Pharoah, 2015 Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup title holder, doubled that amount to a princely sum of $200,000.

In 1982, owners and breeders hoped to strike genealogical gold by mating Genuine Risk with 1973 Triple Crown legend Secretariat. The chestnut-colored mare took Churchill Downs in 1980 and placed second in Baltimore and New York. The union would have produced the first offspring in history of two Kentucky Derby winners.

Unfortunately, Genuine Risk gave birth to a stillborn and subsequent breeding efforts with Secretariat failed. Over the next 17 years, she only delivered two living colts, neither of which became a racer.

Seems that chance, risk and unpredictability remain all-around hallmarks of thoroughbred racing.

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