You’ve never truly seen a horse race until you’ve seen one from the rail, where the horses are close enough to touch, and the sheer power of the stampede quakes the ground and sends a tremor through your heart. I’ve been to several live horse races, and one of the most memorable stretch runs comes from Proud Spell’s bid for the lead in the 2008 Kentucky Oaks. It had rained all day long, and several races before, the storm had opened up and unleashed a downpour that made the horses hard to see. By Oaks time, the track at Churchill was a slop book-ended in rivers.
Few fans dared brave the rain. The decked out women in their huge flower-laden hats were seeking shelter inside the grandstands, hopping over puddles in strappy high-heels. Outside, a smattering of fans remained for the big event. They wore trash bags and ponchos, juxtaposing the drenched soldiers from the National Guard who stood by the rail during the entire downpour, smiles still stretched across their faces. It was the day before Derby Day, and even in the rain, the spirits were affecting.
The Oaks was the biggest race on the day’s card, and I had admittedly hidden under cover during some of the previous races. Let’s face it; I didn’t dress appropriately for a rainstorm. But for the Oaks, I emerged in a rain coat and clung to the rail, surrounded by empty bleachers and abandoned Derby glasses. I’m glad I did, because for that race, I experienced something I’d never felt before. Our seats were positioned between the stretch and the final turn, in the exact spot where most stalking horses begin to make their move. I learned that day that watching racing on TV does not show half the story of how a horse uncoils when making their move.
Coming around the final turn, the rain spitting down, the bay filly Proud Spell began to straighten out. Her strides turned into monster bounds, her neck arching as her legs reached and grabbed, reached and grabbed. The acceleration was breathtaking. She was taking off like a launching rocket before our very eyes. She flew past us in a blur of rain and fire. You could hear her breathing quickening and the sounds of the jockeys urging their charges on. As she whipped past us, my heart caught in my throat. Proud Spell went on to win by five lengths. It was and still is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from along the rail.
Everyone talks about the colts in the horse racing world because the colts enter the prestigious races. There’s no particular reason for this, as colts and fillies are more evenly matched in athleticism than men and women are. Generally, they stay in their own specific groups, but once in a while, a remarkable filly goes up against the boys. Last year, we were blessed with the freak filly Rags to Riches, who took down Curlin by a head in the Belmont, the first filly to win it in over 100 years. In the beginning of this year, Eight Belles took on the colts for the first time in the Kentucky Derby and beat all of them but the impressive Big Brown.
As 2008 unfolds, the picture is becoming more and more apparent that it’s the fillies that are more consistent and exciting to watch than the colts. Whereas this year’s colts have disappointed time and time again, if you’re a fan of the fillies, chances are you will not leave a race disappointed.
One of the most exciting races of the year was in the Alabama Stakes on August 16th, where fillies Proud Spell and Music Note battled neck-and-neck down the stretch, and the tenacious Proud Spell won by a hair’s breadth. The race was set up almost as a rematch between the two talented fillies after the Grade I Mother Goose Stakes, where both fillies stumbled at the start and Proud Spell was disqualified from a strong second-place run after being checked in the stretch.
The second most-exciting race this year may just go to Ginger Punch, a resilient five-year-old mare whose heart won her the Personal Ensign, beating Lemon Drop Mom by a head bob. In a previous race, Ginger Punch showed her courage in the Grade I Go For Wand Handicap, where she shot between horses like a fish pinched in a slippery grip, going on to win by a length. Ginger Punch’s arch rival, Hystericalady, has also been sporting a stellar year, winning the Grade II Molly Pitcher Handicap for the second year in a row, as well as previous races where she’s been spotting the rest of the field by at least four lengths to the wire. A possible rematch of the Breeder’s Cup Lady’s Classic (formerly the Breeder’s Cup Distaff), pitting these two champions together, will be a race for the ages if the rest of the field can handle the synthetics.
And speaking of synthetics, no filly or mare has touched the great Zenyatta yet in her career of seven starts thus far. The big four-year-old has also proven herself on dirt, winning the Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap earlier this year. As the rest of the fillies will be virtually coming to her home turf at Santa Anita for the Breeder’s Cup, they will have to be in top form to compete with the Pacific Colossus.
The fillies have got you covered on every surface and distance. If you’re a turf and synthetics fan, Pure Clan is a nearly sure bet. If you like shorter distances, Indian Blessing is almost a sure thing. The Bob Baffert trainee will be testing older females for the first time this Saturday in the Grade I Ruffian Handicap at Belmont Park. But she will be going up against Tough Tiz’s Sis, the only filly who has given Zenyatta a run for her money.
If you’re like me and tired of the soap opera that is the Curlin vs. Big Brown drama, stick with the girls and you will find nothing but gritty, no-frills racing. Funny that the boys seem to be surrounded in more drama than the girls. Maybe if Big Brown would go up against a filly for a change, his big mouth trainer wouldn’t criticize Curlin for losing to a girl. Zenyatta, after all, could stare down Big Brown. Let’s face it; in the world of horse racing, girls rock.