The Preakness Stakes is not a particularly gender-neutral event. The second leg of the Triple Crown is, in fact, one of the last places where men dress like men of a certain era (waistcoats, wingtips, fedoras), and women dress like women as we grew up imagining them: in crisp yet feminine suits, low-cut, brightly colored dresses and high, high heels. I’ve been to the Preakness three years running, and I gave up on the dress-and-heels approach long ago. (Unless you book a limo to and from your box seat, the amount of walking and stair climbing required by Pimlico’s layout demands comfortable footwear.) On Saturday, I noted with empathy the strained expressions on the faces of some of the gorgeously decked-out women as they teetered on the arms of their fast-walking male companions.
In the infield, women usually seem to fare worst, maybe because they’re physically smaller. I usually see them after the races, most in their teens and early 20s, their flip-flopped feet and calves coated in muck as they stumble drunkenly along Baltimore’s not-so-friendly streets in their tiny tank tops and shorts. But this year, there were far fewer of them-the economic downturn and new restrictions on racegoers bringing their own liquor emptied the infield-and as I screamed my head off watching Rachel Alexandra outrun a scrum of male challengers, it seemed that, for whatever reason, much was changing in Pimlico and the world. “We have a black president,” a friend remarked after the race, “and now a girl wins the Preakness.” And what a girl! A gorgeous, eager, big-hearted horse with a princessy name, who seemed to genuinely enjoy her run along the storied track where only five fillies have raced since the last female Preakness winner, the perfectly named-for-her-era Nellie Morse, in 1924.
The next day, I gobbled up news stories about the race, savoring the admiring comments from other jockeys as they gave the winner her due. Then there was her owner, Jess Jackson, comparing Rachel Alexandra in notably human terms to Curlin, who won the Preakness in 2007 and whom Jackson called “a big, strong strapping boy.” Jackson sounded like a proud father when he said of Rachel Alexandra: “She just wants to run. Gender doesn’t matter. A thoroughbred wants to run, and if a filly is as good as the colts, they ought to compete.” I was particularly struck, after reading Meghan’s post on Rachel Alexandra , by the contrast between Jackson’s words and the language with which Ruffian, another champion filly, was slighted and dismissed in 1975. Some troubling conventions, like the expectation that female racegoers will stick out a long day in mile-high hot pink heels, are still with us. But watching Rachel Alexandra reminded me what it feels like to take off your shoes and run as fast as you can. It was a great day to be a woman at the races.