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The ladies have arrived in thoroughbred horse racing

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By JIM MOORE

For The Highland County Press

 

Racing colts against colts and racing fillies/mares against

fillies/mares has been the longstanding horse racing tradition here in the United States, a tradition that sets us apart from the racing communities of Europe, Asia and the U.K. where often little or no distinction is given to gender in their races. We here have long felt, rightly or wrongly, that it is unfair to require female racehorses to compete against males on equal footing.

Truthfully, in the past there has been ample evidence to support that

assumption but to quote the songwriter;  “the times they may be a-changing”.

The 2009 racing season has unfolded with stunning accomplishments by fillies

and mares and ignited excitement about the possibility an entirely new

source of heroes (or heroines) in a sport, and nation, that is in desperate

need of honest heroes.

    If “Girl Power” has arrived in the world of thoroughbred racing, it has

been ushered in by many fillies but by none as convincingly as three

magnificent competitors named Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Vodka.

Zenyatta, besides easily winning every major race around for females,

entered and won the daunting Breeders’ Cup Classic. She broke from the gate

with a shaky start, got hung up in traffic, and still finished a length

ahead of the best colts in the country. Zenyatta’s lifetime record is 14

wins for 14 starts. Twelve of her races were graded stakes, eight were Grade

1 races and her lifetime winnings were a cool $5.4 million.

The prestigious Kentucky Oaks is a fillies’ counterpart to one of the

Triple Crown races and is usually the third most-attended race in the

nation. Most would consider it the pinnacle of achievement for their racing

filly. Rachel Alexandra went there in 2009 and won it – by 20 lengths. A

week later an unknown colt named Mine That Bird from Arizona came through

with a huge upset win of the Kentucky Derby by a large margin and signed up

for the Preakness. Rachel Alexandra’s owners decided to enter her in the

male-dominated Preakness in spite of the Arizona rocketship that had waltzed

away with the Kentucky Derby.

What followed was perhaps the most memorable Preakness ever as two

phenomenal equine athletes put on performances for the Ages. As expected,

Rachel went to the forefront early and Mine That Bird settled well behind

the pack. As expected, Rachel was still in charge coming into the stretch

and showing no signs of tiring. The crowd was already on its’ feet cheering

for the filly. But then when it seemed impossible,  Mine That Bird hit his

turbo-charge and came screaming through the traffic, wide around the field

and down on Rachel Alexandra like the Spear of Achilles. The crowd was

stunned and then realized they were seeing the horse race of their lives and

the noise of the cheers tripled. When there just couldn’t be anything left

in the tank, Rachel found some more and dug in to hold off the Arizona

avalanche roaring up beside her. Mine That Bird’s burst of speed was so

blazing fast it looked like momentum alone would carry him passed Rachel and

it probably would have in another three or four leaps but the Finish Line

was where it was and Rachel Alexandra won by most of a neck.

The Haskell International and the Woodward Stakes are two of the most

revered and challenging races for any racehorse of either sex and any

breeding. But Rachel Alexandra went on to be the first filly in 42 years to

win the Haskell and the only filly to win the 50-year-old Woodward Stakes.

Only a very few colts in all of racing history can claim to have matched

that performance.

Yesterday, as if inspired by Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, the

Japanese mare Vodka – first filly to win the Japan Derby in 2007 – lined up

along with 15 of the best colts in the World for the Japan Cup – the richest

turf race on the planet. Among those colts was Conduit, the 2008 American

Champion Turf Horse, Eclipse Award winner and the only horse to win the

challenging Breeders’ Cup Turf race in two consecutive years (2008 and

2009). Also in the field was Japan’s darling colt Oken Bruce Lee who had

earlier won the grueling 3000 meter St. Leger in Kyoto.

Almost borrowing a page from Rachel’s 2009 Preakness, the beautiful

dark bay Vodka with her perfectly rhythmical movement went to the lead early

and stayed there with ease. The crowd was on its’ feet again - and again in

the stretch one of the colts – this time the mighty marathon warrior Oken

Bruce Lee charged wide from the pack like a four-legged F-16 with Vodka

square in his sights. Vodka put it to the floorboard and immediately pulled

away from the pack – but Oken Bruce Lee was flashing through the pack and

still gaining on her with huge strides. The crowd of 93,000 in the stands

was roaring  with cheers for Vodka and went insane as Oken Bruce Lee pulled

alongside Vodka in the last couple hundred meters. Then it seemed like every

one of 93,000 held their breath as the two grand Thoroughbreds flew

virtually dead even for graceful bound after bound until they reached the

Finish Line and no one could tell who had won.

Many long minutes later the results of the stewards’ examination of the

photos were announced and the photos shown. Vodka had won by a fraction of a

nose – but she won.

Maybe it is partly just a world sick-to-pieces of phony “heroes” and

“leaders.” And maybe it’s partly just common coincidence. But maybe there

has been something special in the winds of 2009. Maybe some form of

“Girl Power” has arrived in Thoroughbred Racing to double our chances of

finally seeing something in the news we can feel good about.


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