-Monomoy Girl wins in the 2018 Kentucky Oaks-
by Audax Minor II
"What Happens When Boy Meets Girl?" This question used to be innocent enough. It was, in fact, the basic prompt for every romantic comedy ever made. But that was when it was about "social" interactions. When it moves to sports, however, as Dr. David suggested in a recent column in these pages, it becomes a minefield. (Bubble Wrap, Trump and My Foray Into "Fake News")
He argues, citing the upcoming 2020 Olympics, that the issue of men (or women who were born as men) competing against women has become highly politicized. Along with religion and politics, it's a topic to be avoided if you want to keep the conversation polite.
And yet it keeps coming up. It came up when I read Dr. David's opinion piece. It came up for me slightly earlier when a question was put to me at the San Miguel Writers Conference.
-Writers avoiding writing-
Like most writers I like talking about writing with other writers. The principal benefit of these writers' conversations is that they enable us to put off doing the writing we know we should actually be doing at the time. That's why I go to the San Miguel Writers Conference.
Other people go to the Conference for other reasons: like maybe because it's just a wonderful event. That seems to me a valid enough reason.
The event exists primarily because of the energy, conviction and wisdom of a remarkable woman named Susan Page. (Perhaps here would be the appropriate place to insert a disclaimer: I am not a relative, a paramour or even a close friend of Susan's. I am a casual acquaintance, but mostly I just stand on the sidelines and look on in awe.)
I was living here when the Conference first began and I had doubts about its potential success. Susan never did. She took the avocado pit of an idea, put it in San Miguel soil, watered it, nurtured it and watched it grow into probably the most important cultural event in town. Not to mention a major revenue producer for the city.
Susan would be the very first to acknowledge that she had an awful lot of help along the way. I'm sure Susan would give credit, for instance, to her co-founder Jody Feagan, now departed – not from this earth, but from Mexico. She even had a bit of help from men, but make no mistake, Susan is the engine.
-Susan Page with Calvin Trillin at 2014 Conference-
I acknowledge there are better reasons for attending the Writers' Conference than mine. I go simply to talk about writing and to avoid it.
So there I was a few weeks ago when a woman I know offered me the opportunity to do both. She suggested we have a glass of wine and avoid writing for an hour or so before the next keynote speech, which, of course, would offer us another way to avoid writing.
This woman is a committed feminist. In the '70s she was on the front lines, manning the feminist barricades. (It occurs to me that in that last sentence that's probably not the ideal verb to use.) She also knows I'm a horseracing fan, though she doesn't know I write these columns. If she reads them, however, I guess she will after this one.
She asked me about women in the racing business. I was happy to tell her that women had made tremendous advances in the last three or four decades.
There have always been prominent female breeders and owners, but now there are also many important trainers and jockeys. My favorite female jockey was a rider named Rosie Napravnik. I say "was" because a few years ago, at the age of 26, she announced she was retiring. She made this announcement after winning a very important Breeders' Cup race. She broke the news to her mother in the winner's circle on national TV. She said she was starting a family.
-Rosie Napravnik telling her mother she's pregnant on national TV-
It was great theater. How many jockeys get to tell the world they're going to have a baby on national television? Eddie Arcaro never did.
"But what about the horses themselves?" my friend asked. "How do the fillies and mares fare against the males?"
If we were talking human athletes instead of equine ones, I wouldn't want to wade into the waters that question raises. For the reason Dr. David points out. But even with horses, there isn't a simple answer. Because there are really two different answers:
Conventional wisdom is one. It holds that males are generally stronger and faster than females. This becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because "conventional wisdom" says fillies can't win against the boys, their trainers don't enter them against the boys. So they don't win the big races. Like the Kentucky Derby.
The second answer is that when good fillies run against colts, they often do quite well. The physical differences between fillies and colts aren't nearly as great as those between men and women.
A friend of mine is a former trainer and I asked him why fillies are not more often entered in open races.
"As a trainer, you play the percentages," he said, "and most owners believe fillies can't win against colts – conventional wisdom. Are there exceptions? Of course there are; you can write a book about the exceptions. But as a trainer you can't make a living on the exceptions.
"You play the percentages. The percentages say that if you make a habit of running fillies against colts ... well, you better keep your cab license current."
Conventional wisdom has resulted in only three of the 144 Kentucky Derbys being won by fillies. Part of that is because there are so many attractive alternatives for fillies. In horseracing – as in tennis or golf or soccer – there is a parallel universe for females.
You've heard of the Triple Crown in racing – the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. Those races with notable exceptions are won by colts. But there's also a Triple Crown for 3-year-old fillies (sometimes cloyingly called the "Triple Tiara.") The three filly races offer comparable purses to the Triple Crown races and you don't have to race against colts.
If you were a trainer with a good filly, which route would you advise the owner to take? A very difficult race against colts for a nice purse, or an easier race for about the same amount of money against girls. Remember, it's a business.
-Jaywalk winning at the Breeders' Cup Filly Juvenile-
On November 2st of last year, a horse named Game Winner won The Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the most important race for 2-year-old colts. In doing so, Game Winner became the immediate favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, he remained the favorite for a full four months.
Note this, however: the day before Game Winner's Juvenile victory, the Breeders' Cup Filly Juvenile was run over the same track at the same distance. It was won by a 2-year-old filly named Jaywalk. Her time for the race was actually a split second faster than Game Winner's. If they had been in the same race, the filly's time would have meant Jaywalk would have won by a neck over the colt.
Logic and stopwatches suggest that maybe Jaywalk should have become the Derby favorite. Or at least co-favorite. Why didn't she?
As a 3-year-old, she is certainly eligible for the Derby, and on the record would seem to have the stuff to pull off winning it, but I offered my feminist friend 50-to-1 odds against her winning the Derby. The truth is that in all likelihood, she won't even be in it.
The most important race for 3-year-old fillies is the Kentucky Oaks. It's run, like the Derby, at Churchill Downs, but it's run the day before the Derby. My bet is that Jaywalk will be running the day before the Derby in the Oaks against other fillies.
Of the 150-plus horses that have competed in the Kentucky Derby in the last eight years, not one of them has been a filly. I'm sorry, a filly will not win the Derby this year.
"Well that's a bummer," said my friend.
I acknowledged that it was a bit of a bummer for the feminist cause, and I think for racing. However, I pointed out, it's a tremendous boon for those of us trying to pick the winner of the Derby.
In 2016 just over 20,000 thoroughbreds were born. Theoretically all of them are eligible for the 2019 Kentucky Derby so theoretically we've got one chance in 20,000 to pick the winner. Long odds. If we eliminate all the fillies from consideration – which I've just done – we've just cut our possible-winners down to 10,000.
I've just doubled your chances of finding a winner! You're welcome.
Audax Minor II is the pen name of a writer who divides each year between here in San Miguel, and a small town (pop. 400) in southern Ontario, Canada. Now retired, he travels to racetracks all over the world (four continents so far, hoping to add a fifth this year). He grew up in the Midwest of the United States and made his living as a writer for 35 years.
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