Eight Belles: a History Lesson. But Not the One You Think.
Yesterday, I awoke with the very clear idea that I should write about Eight Belles. I don't have to tell you that the talented, powerful, driven, steel-grey f!lly broke down at the Kentucky Derby on May 3, 2008--after coming in second to Big Brown. I was there that horrible day, and experienced, first-hand, the grief that swept over 157,000 devastated human hearts. Men and women alike wept openly. Parents held their children close. It was a rotten day for horse racing--but obviously the most pain was suffered by Eight Belles' connections.
In the falling-all-over-themselves media rush to "inform" the public, horse racing was trashed immediately and soundly in virtually every corner of the U.S. The cacophony began before Eight Belles' grieving connections left Churchill Downs.
And much of the nonsense that emanated from those media read, said or declared loudly that Eight Belles wouldn't be dead if she hadn't raced against males.
That is an outright lie. She died because she ran with all her heart--because she was THAT competitive--because she went all-out. She died because--like every other horse in that Derby and the majority of Thoroughbreds in the United States--she was a descendant of Native Dancer. Native Dancer was known for his weak ankles.
If anything, Eight Belles is the poster child for more creative breeding. As I drove to Churchill Downs that morning, I prayed that none of the weak-ankled Native Dancer's grandkids would be injured. It was inevitable that all that inbreeding would reproduce the old boy's weakness in spades.
I prayed, also, that horse racing would get smart and follow the late, great Jess Jackson's insightful warning--and start to breed back to the Byerly Turk, whose line is all-but-extinct.
Eight Belles may have broken down in any other race during her career--she could have died running against the slowest f!llies in the country. She might have tripped coming out of her stall. Native Dancer condemned her to bad ankles--it may have been her ironic, genetic destiny to die in front of so many people, perhaps as a lesson on inbreeding.
But she absolutely, positively did not die because she had female body parts.
She didn't trip because she was distracted, thinking about the handsome Big Brown.
She wasn't "overstimulated" by running that fast and that hard against males.
Her femaleness was not a factor in her tragic death in such a public place. The most inane argument, ever, against females racing against males is that they shouldn't do it because they're females. (That logic isn't correct, I call it Mobius Strip Thinking: two-dimensional, and infinitely illogical.)
So I awoke yesterday, thinking of the rock star horse who gave her life five years ago, and that I felt compelled to work through these thoughts:
* Eight Belles did not break down because she was packin' lady bits.
* Unfortunately, the "Eight Belles Factor" may have contributed to racing's continued bias against f!llies.
* And that this bias against female horses--in spite of big, strapping Queens like Black Caviar, Rachel Alexandra and Makybe Diva--may have come to a head in the elimination of f!llies from racing in the Kentucky Derby.
A Great Find
I awoke, and was on a mission. I didn't want to accuse anyone of creating the Kentucky Derby Dead-End for f!llies, unless I had evidence to back up the accusation. So I went online, and found a brilliant article in "The Washington Times," by Martha M. Boltz. (Fillies are Not Allowed to Run in Kentucky Derby 2013. Citation below.) Her article was so direct that I felt safe--PHEW!--writing my own take on the situation. (I posted it to my Facebook wall, it's that good that I would share it with my FB peeps.)*
at the Girls Couldn't Play.
Oh, those boys who run the Kentucky Derby.
They stacked the deck against f!llies.
This is how I imagine it played out: Somewhere in a backroom in Louisville, some human male-types were feeling uneasy. (Maybe even some females who acquiesce in the mislead belief that they'll advance through the ranks by nodding and smiling.) They powers that be had seen three females take Horse of the Year in a four-year period (Rachel Alexandra--2009; Zenyatta--2010, Havre de Grace--2011)--and they decided to put the kibosh on any uppity women with high aspirations.
Genius! They devised a point system, by which horses could earn their way into the Kentucky Derby. They thought that no one would notice that, by creating this system, they had ensured that no f!lly would be able to play on May 4th--or any subsequent First Saturday in May.
They marketed this corporate misogyny as being the most-fair way to eliminate those not truly worthy of the Kentucky Derby. To 49% of the population, this system may seem to be intelligent, fair and valid. A good measuring stick for entry into the first race in the Triple Crown.
The problem with the points system is that not a single race for f!llies is part of the system.
Shock! Amazement! Are we surprised, really, that--in one of the very few countries on Earth where it's an anomaly for f!llies to race against males because of lingering misogyny--that the boys (and nodding, smiling girls) would devise a way to eliminate f!llies altogether from the 20-horse field?
Imagine that--the idea that no races for f!llies were designated to be good enough, or high enough, or tough enough to merit points in the system. (Remember, folks, that this is the same American horse racing tradition that historically pays approximately half the purse money for f!lly races that are the same level, difficulty, distance and surface as their "male" counterpart races.)
The idiotic, weak argument is that if the girls wanted to earn their way into the Derby, they would have to run against males in the races that ARE in the points system--and win. In theory, the womenfolk-horses would have been forced to run and win races that aren't necessarily their thing: distances, etc.
So Dreaming of Julia and other talented females who entered the Oaks on Friday--well, several may have been cheated out of getting a fair shot at immortality. At least via the Triple Crown.
The exclusion of f!lly races from the points system tells you what the powers that be really think of female horses, doesn't it?
Hardly seems fair...
Let's boil this down. Read this slowly and deliberately, please:
Horses of exceptional caliber ran in the Kentucky Oaks on the First Friday in May, because they couldn't earn berths into the Kentucky Derby.
It wasn't that none of them were good enough.
It's not because no f!lly is capable, strong, fast or powerful.
Simply put, f!llies weren't
invited to the party.
Old Habits Die Hard.
I can't blame anyone for being afraid of the future--for wanting things to stay the same. The old saw, "If it ain't broke--don't fix it" applies here. But the problem is that any system that prevents an entire genderful of horses from entering the Kentucky Derby--and therefore, which eliminates their chances at Triple Crown glory--IS broken.
To many, female horses are an afterthought. I've head some folks express that they should go straight into the broodmare barn, with no stop at the track. Seeing so many exceptional f!llies and mares taking the field--and the Eclipse Awards--may make some old-timers (and those influenced by them) say, "Whoa!"
(I must note here that obviously not everyone, or everyone who's male, in horse racing in the US is biased against female horses. That would be an illogical argument, and obviously, a ridiculous overgeneralization. Many wonderful men in the sport are enlightened--it just happens that they don't run the Derby. Great, wise men like Hall of Fame Trainer, LeRoy Jolley, certainly knows that a f!lly can win the Derby: he took Genuine Risk into the Churchill winner's circle in 1980. Mr. Jolley knows and respects the power of women in racing. Surely, not everyone who's been around the sport for a long time has outmoded attitudes.)
But for many others, things are moving too fast for comfort. But progress isn't progress unless we're running forward, not backward.
After all, this is the 21st Century, isn't it? Interesting, because the proverbial Powers that Be at Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby administration are stuck somewhere in--well, I can't say that they're stuck in the 19th Century. The 19th Century produced some great fillies and mares who won against males as a matter of course. Their owners didn't see anything odd or "freakish" about putting their girls up against a field of boys.**
That's just how those intelligent Europeans do it.
And, for the record: in virtually every other country in the world, females race against males. Those who race both Arabians and Thoroughbreds regularly enter their f!llies and mares against colts. I could start ticking off the names of the countries, but the list is exhaustive. Suffice it to say that in Sweden, Oman, the UK, the UAE, France, Australia...well, you get the drift. The US is out of sync with the rest of the horse racing world, on so many points.
Pervading Attitudes vs. Scientific Fact.
Certainly, the powers at Churchill aren't the only ones in American racing who are stuck somewhere in a chauvinistic land, far, far away. Across-the-board, many people still think that female horses are weaker, less-capable and not as fast as males...or at least, potentially not so. Rock star horses like Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Havre de Grace--aren't seen as being the potential for f!llies--they're called, "freaks."
The problem with the negative attitude--that females just aren't as big or strong as males--is that it's scientifically incorrect. I've been told several times by (male) turf writers that they've seen the evidence with their own eyes--that by-and-large, females aren't... well... physically as capable as males, or as big. An authority (turf writer) has witnessed f!llies' inferiority--so it has to be true.
The only real physiological difference between the two genders is that the f!llies are packin' lady bits.
You see, the problem with this unscientific conclusion of inferiority is that it's just not based on reality. The lie has been shattered by an actual scientist who intentionally studied male and female horses, precisely to determine IF there's a physical difference between the two genders--a difference that would account for differences in racing speed, etc.
Dr. Pauline Entin, Ph.D., is a Physiologist at Northern Arizona University. She conducted an extensive scientific study of both racing Greyhounds and Thoroughbreds, to define the physiological differences between dogs (predators) and horses (prey)--and the prevailing human attitudes toward the males and females of the species being studied.
Her paper was presented in 2008. One of her conclusions in the fascinating document was that there is a negligible 1.2% difference in lung capacity and muscle mass--physiological measurements--between female horses and male horses.
(In humans, the accepted physiological difference is 10%.)
Another conclusion was that negative human attitudes carry more weight in determining a female horse's racing destiny than her physiology. A long-held tradition of negative human attitudes creates a human culture of oppression.
When cold, hard fact comes up against long-held, incorrect attitudes--those holding the incorrect information often buck. You know the expression, "Don't confuse me with facts--I've made up my mind!"
The Power of Language.
As a writer--and many of you reading this are professional communicators--I/you/we know the power of language.
Language can start a war--and end it..
Language can woo, comfort, convince or control.
Language can--and does--determine many rituals, traditions and misconceptions, for generations.
Being a "tradition" doesn't turn a belief system into a sacred, untouchable concept. Cannibalism is a tradition in some cultures, but not everyone involved in the transaction benefits thereby.
And one of the traditions of American horse racing is that f!llies aren't as good, really, as males. It may not be spoken out loud every day by every person who believes it--but it shows itself in myriad ways.
The fact that no f!lly races were put into the points system for the Derby is evidence that I'm not imaging it: this belief is real.
Those female horses who prove themselves over and over again are considered to be freakish. (Note: great human females have often been disparaged, in an effort to control them: the word, Virago, was the word used in the Middle Ages. A Virago was a woman who was educated, intelligent, creative, strong, powerful. Being called a Virago indicated that a woman was "almost as good as a man." But not quite.
The word was intended as an insult, but Viragae like Saint Catherine of Siena and Mechtilde of Magdeberg claimed the word--called themselves Viragae--and thereby took the authority out of the hands of the males who'd used the word in a failed attempt to hold them back.)
So, since being a f!lly seems to be a bad thing, let's look at the word.
"f!lly" is just a word. In and of itself, it has no power or meaning other than "young female horse."
This five-letter word has caused many a young female Thoroughbred not to be taken seriously.
But because of the cultural bias that's attached itself to the word, the word sounds cutesie, doesn't it? You almost have to say it with your voice in a higher register, and fast. (Think of yourself as being a Valley Girl, and say it: "Filly!")
A week before the Kentucky Oaks, I heard a handicapper say that he hadn't even looked at the field, because...well, he sort-of mumbled because his words indicated that...it's a f!lly race.
And that, of course, meant that it wasn't very important.
Oh, OK, no problem.
The word has become synonymous with pink cartoon ponies and little girls who are being taught to speak always in higher registers--so that boys will like them.
It's all around us in popular culture: f!llies are cute, and no threat to anyone.
We're going to change this: the word's always been spelled, "filly." But the association with "no threat to anyone" is precisely why, 10 years ago I knew that I had to publish a magazine about women in horse racing, and call it, f!lly. The exclamation mark takes the place of the cute little letter, i, and gives it some punch. The logo on the magazine and in branding will be dark, metallic red, and not pink of ANY shade.
The physical word, itself, is evolving.
We who work on f!lly hope that the meaning of the word will evolve, as well, to imply that a f!lly is infinitely powerful, intelligent, capable, focused and strong.
By claiming the word that, by its historic use has indicated childlike sweetness, naivete and innocuousness--we are taking that word, and literally shaking and re-shaping it. As we work to introduce so many brilliant females--horses and humans alike--in the pages of f!lly Magazine, we hope to give new meaning to the word, and give it back to the world.
Still female, still feminine, still beautiful--but beauty tempered by brains, strength and authority. If we can change language, we can change attitudes. And maybe even level the playing field.
So, no Kentucky Derby--and therefore, no Triple Crown--in the cards for f!llies this year. But maybe by 2016, when Rachel Alexandra's f!lly is three...the word, f!lly, will have a new tradition of meaning, and the system, itself, will have evolved--and become fair for everyone.
A parting thought: does it occur to anyone else, that perhaps the real reason there's been no Triple Crown winner since 1978...is because of stale attitudes and unmerited prejudice? Just an idea.
* Martha M. Boltz in "The Washington Times":
** A primo example of 19th Century horses made of steel, highly regarded, regardless of gender: Kincsem (Hungarian for "My Treasure," or "My Precious"), a chestnut filly foaled in 1874, won 54 times--yes, you read that correctly--she won 54 races during her career. Her sire, Cambuscan, was owned by Queen Victoria and sold to Hungarian interests, who raced her all over Europe. She earned her way into national icon status. She trounced her competitors, without exception--male and female alike.
*** Dr. Pauline Entin:
Entin, P.L. Do racehorses and Greyhound
dogs exhibit a gender difference in running speed? Equine
and Comparative Exercise Physiology. 4(3/4): 135-140,
2008 Dr. Pauline Entin, Northern Arizona University