The Belmont Stakes, assessed.

The Belmont Stakes, assessed.

The Belmont Stakes, assessed.

Examining culture and the arts.
June 11 2007 10:16 AM

The Lady Is a Champ

When fillies beat the colts at Belmont.

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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.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at the New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now out in paperback.