In her entertaining blog Foolish Pleasure, Valerie Grash wrote that American racing is lagging behind European racing because of the greater emphasis on racing fillies against colts overseas.
I would offer a different perspective on this point. There is little reason to argue that American racing (both in Canada and the States) has much less mingling of the equine sexes on the racetrack.
That is most certainly the case.
Our racing program is arranged with a large segment of races set aside for fillies and mares, and it is one of the great advantages for owners, breeders, trainers, and even the racetracks that we do have this broad program of racing restricted to fillies.
Grash is correct that this program can leave racing at times a bit anemic due to the lack of participation from our best fillies taking the measure of colts. For instance, who would not have wanted to see Zenyatta try for the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Pacific Classic, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup last year?
That would have been the biggest draw in racing since … Easy Goer and Sunday Silence, Affirmed and Alydar?? It would have been Zenyatta versus everything with a Y chromosome.
But, I write here not to make Grash’s point for her but to argue that the overall program is much the best.
The reason that fillies race mostly against other fillies in the US is that the great researcher and former Blood-Horse editor Joe Estes (and other writers and racing professionals in a position to speak) labored for years to get racetracks to offer a serious program of races restricted to fillies.
On average (and this is what made Estes so adamant about this necessity), fillies are more lightly made and less powerful than colts. It’s a matter of hormones, not of class. Aside from those with the size of a colt or the power of a colt (for instance, Zenyatta or Ruffian), fillies tend not even to be considered as competitors with colts of their class.
This was a huge impediment for practical breeders and owners because, just a few decades back, there were few races restricted to fillies. This meant that most fillies had no shot of winning a race, unless dropped to a low level, and their owners and breeders would have no way of evaluating their racing class if kept out of cheap claiming races.
As a result, the first means of judging which horses to breed from (the racing test that Estes emphasized) would be missing for many fillies who were not of obviously very high racing class. It did not make sense to keep them in training unless fillies were stakes class or unless, alternately, they were considered only racing fodder and were tossed into the fray to survive if they could.
This seemed a haphazard approach at best, but it seemed outright blind and wrong to the researcher because Estes’s studies into the most likely avenues of finding the best racehorses taught him many things. He believed that “If for ten successive years we were to destroy our best individuals and use their inferior full brothers and sister for breeding purposes, we would set the race of Thoroughbreds back so far that it would take us fifty years to repair the damage we had done.”
While American breeders were not destroying their best stock, they were not discovering the merits (and demerits) of hundreds, nay thousands, of fillies used for breeding.
This non-logical approach was the sort of thing that drove Estes over the edge. He wrote and lectured breeders for decades that the “possession of racing class is the best preliminary evidence that an individual will be able to pass it on to the next generation.”
Estes was not arguing that only top stakes winners should be used for breeding. But he did want owners to train their stock, see which could handle the mental and physical rigors of competition, and select those who ran well. It was the sensible thing to do, and he wanted the American Thoroughbred to achieve its potential through the active involvement of breeders, not by passive chance.
Breeders and owners heard the evidence, made their decision that Estes was correct, and across the country, racing operations began offering a program of racing for fillies and mares that began to improve through the 1940s, and flourished through the 1950s and 1960s to become the widespread racing opportunities we have today for proving the athletic class of any Thoroughbred.