Heartbeats & Hoofbeats: In praise of fillies—past and present

Let’s hear it for Girl Power!

It was a day for breaking records and making history at the 139th Belmont Stakes.

No, once again we don’t have a Triple Crown winner—but how about a literal “Rags to Riches” story for a consolation prize?

Not to discredit Curlin, who put forth a first-rate effort and ran an admirable race, but this time the filly was just a little bit better. For both the winning trainer, Todd Pletcher, and jockey John Velazquez, it was a sweet first-time victory in Triple Crown racing’s third jewel. The usually laid-back Pletcher was visually exuberant, cheering on his female champion in the last few winning strides. It was only last month that he sent five skillfully-trained horses of different owners into the Kentucky Derby. With five entrants, hopes were running high—but not one finished anywhere near the money.

With only a head separating first and second place, what made the winning difference? Some might say it’s the freshness factor; the filly didn’t compete in either the Derby or Preakness, while Curlin expended maximum effort in both. However, this girl took the Kentucky Oaks by a decisive margin, and her breeding suggested she could handle the distance. Others look at poundage; a weight allowance gives the female five fewer pounds to carry. Even a slight stumble at the start didn’t upset her equilibrium.

With this win, Rags to Riches becomes the first filly to take the Belmont since 1905, and only the third in history. Ruthless won in 1867 and Tanya in 1905. It must have been welcome vindication of his efforts for Pletcher, who had sent 28 horses to Triple Crown races, and now, on a historic day at Belmont, beat the odds with a filly. “It hadn’t been done in 102 years,” he told reporters.

And as the TV network recently saluted Barbaro with his own special after the Derby, this time we had a TV movie based on the life of the late, great Ruffian. Somehow, it seemed fitting, in the wake of Rags’ triumph, to pay tribute to her predecessor. Though Ruffian never ran in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes, she did win the Triple Crown for fillies, and was, in fact, pulling ahead of Derby winner Foolish Pleasure at the time of her tragic accident in 1975. I remember seeing the original race when all the hoopla was centered on the equine battle of the sexes, and the last thing on anyone’s mind was a possible tragedy. Now, seeing it in a movie decades later with the sad outcome already known, the grief became as fresh as today. It could have happened only yesterday.

What is it about the horse that fascinates us and holds us in thrall? Robert Vavra, in his book Equus (1977), recalled a childhood experience. Although he grew up with ranch horses, his uncle introduced him to a different kind of horse. “That chestnut filly, coming out onto the Santa Anita Race Track, sleek and gazelle-like, with large, lovely, dark doe eyes, and coils of charged-up muscle under her smooth coat—the beauty of that sight touched the deepest places of my soul. The infield grass was so green, the flowers so bright, and the silks of the jockeys so dazzling, that I grinned up at my silver-haired uncle… The horses were at the gate, they were inside while the world stood still for a moment, and then they were on the dirt, with the announcer’s voice booming out… Around the curve they glided, blossoms of color in the distance, swinging into the home stretch, coming so fast.”

That is the image that stays with us through the years, even when, fortunately not very often, it ends in tragedy. As we were told in the credits at the conclusion of the movie: “Ruffian is the only thoroughbred buried at Belmont Park. The race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure was the last match race between thoroughbreds ever held in America.”

from the June 13-19, 2007, issue

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