The Highbrow

The Lady Is a Champ

When fillies beat the colts at Belmont.

It was a historic race—the kind you always hope to see. At the 139th Belmont Stakes on Saturday, two red horses with white blazes came driving down the stretch neck-and-neck. As one pulled ahead, the other surged back. But it was the horse on the outside—smaller but faster—who finally pulled ahead. For the first time since 1905, a filly had won the Belmont. In the last strides, Rags to Riches, winner of the Kentucky Oaks, dramatically held off Curlin, Preakness champion and odds-on favorite.

Before the race, ABC’s commentators had been jawing on about the impending “battle of the sexes.” One went on about how Rags to Riches was not just a “petite” filly who might be “intimidated” by the colts. No, she had “the moxie to look the colts in the eye.” Indeed she did. She looked them in the eye and passed them by. It didn’t look like it would turn out that way at first—she stumbled breaking from the gate, causing the announcers to gasp. (There’s a picture here.)  Then she had to come wide around the final turn at Belmont (a big track, with larger-than-usual turns). Even so, when she made her move, at just the moment Curlin did, she seemed to jump to a gear he didn’t have. When he powerfully challenged her she looked him in the eye—moxie indeed—and turned on the speed to pass him.

There’s no doubt that Rags to Riches is, as Charlotte the spider might have said, some horse. She made an indelible impression in the Las Virgenes Stakes this February, when she got bumped then was forced wide around both turns before catching Baroness Thatcher. A month later, she trounced her peers in the Santa Anita Oaks, a prep for the fillies’ Triple Crown, where she demonstrated what the track announcer called an “electrifying turn of speed” as she demolished the field. “They would need to sprout wings to get to Rags to Riches; she is romping in the Santa Anita Oaks!” he exclaimed, sprouting improbable metaphors himself. Her appearance in the Kentucky Oaks heralded more of the same. (Watch her races here, here and here.)  Her owners, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, began to entertain the notion of running her against the colts. When Street Sense, the Derby winner, pulled out, it became official: She would become the 22nd filly to enter the Belmont Stakes.

A superstitious person might say Rags to Riches passed Curlin in the stretch with the ghost of another great filly whispering into her ear. That filly is Ruffian, the brilliant champion buried at Belmont not far from where she broke down in the famous 1975 “Boy vs. Girl” match race with Derby champion Foolish Pleasure. In one of those unearthly coincidences, ABC was scheduled to broadcast Ruffian, a made-for-TV movie chronicling her achievements, later that night. And sportswriter William Nack had just published a moving memoir (by the same name) about the big black filly, celebrating her brilliance and mourning the horrific injury—a broken leg—that ended her career in front of a crowd of 50,000 people. (Ruffian was operated on, much like Barbaro, but she came out of the anesthesia trying to run, like the great athlete that she was, and broke another leg. She was promptly put down.)

The Rags to Riches/Ruffian confluence was all the more moving because Ruffian never got the chance to beat the guys. Her trainer, Frank Whiteley Jr., ran her only against fillies. None could compete with her, so she raced against records instead, breaking stakes records or tying track ones as she sailed to the wire 10, 12, 15 lengths ahead of the field. She never trailed at any pole. But the aborted race against Foolish Pleasure was her first against a colt. And so a certain constituency never granted her the greatness she clearly deserved. After she broke her leg, Moody Jolley—father of Foolish Pleasure’s trainer—famously said, “First time they throw some speed at that bitch, she comes unbuckled.” (Never mind that Ruffian had pulled ahead when she took the bad step.) One of the services of Nack’s book is to rewrite Ruffian’s grandeur in a way that transcends gender. The big black filly, he implies, might have been better than Secretariat—a gracious statement from the man who wrote Big Red of Meadow Stables, a wonderful biography of Secretariat. Both Lucien Laurin, Secretariat’s trainer, and Andrew Beyer, inventor of racing’s speed figures, agreed, Nack informs us. (Beyer claimed that Ruffian’s speed figures as a 2-year-old were probably bigger than Secretariat’s.)

Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian raced as second-wave feminism had taken the streets. Thirty years later, in a cooler climate, why is the “battle of the sexes” still so gripping? Clearly, one reason a brilliant filly gets sportswriters and track-goers excited is that we’re trained to believe the girls just can’t compete with the guys. So evidence that heart transcends biology—in a sport that seems to be all about biology, no less—is awfully powerful. Both Ruffian and Rags to Riches remind us that people—and animals—aren’t confined by gender, much the way that Seabiscuit reminded us that the little guy can win. At a moment when op-ed columnists everywhere like to tell women (subscription required) that there are biological and genetic reasons we don’t make good CEOs, or dislike golf, how refreshing that a chestnut filly can tear down the accepted “truths” of horse racing. Tellingly, Rags to Riches’ owners—who are British—make less of a fuss over running fillies against the colts than most American trainers do. Maybe if Americans did the same, we’d find more fillies gracing the lists of Derby and Preakness winners.

Instead, even Rags to Riches’ triumph was marked by a strange ambivalence. Despite her impeccable record—four wins in five starts—there was an element of disbelief in the announcers’ voices when they recited her qualifications before the race: Only two other fillies had ever won the Belmont. (Then again, a mere 22 had entered.) Afterward, they gave credit to Rags to Riches with one hand (she “earned” it) while taking it away with the other: Curlin had been asked to race recently in the Preakness, unlike her; he was carrying 126 pounds, compared to her 121. They described a “Battle of the Sexes,” but made sure to remind us that the girls got a break. It sounded like sour grapes: After all, Rags to Riches went wide on the turns while Curlin saved ground—and then there was that stumble. Come on, boys: The lady was the champ, as they used to say of Lady’s Secret, the gray daughter of Secretariat who regularly trounced the guys.

So it was bracing to watch Rags to Riches hold her own in the shadow of Ruffian’s grave. Ruffian’s death remains a tragedy. But the brilliance of Saturday’s Belmont felt like it began to make right something that went wrong at Belmont more than 30 years ago. Rags to riches indeed.