Racing’s “Girl Power” Era Rolls On

Reed Palmer Photography, Churchill Downs

Reed Palmer Photography, Churchill Downs

The “Girl Power” era that has produced an unprecedented three-year run of “Horse of the Year” honors for Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and Havre de Grace has continued its roll this year, with big performances in recent days by both equine and human racing stars.

The success by fillies and mares against their male counterparts is enough to make one think that it will soon be much more commonplace in U.S. racing for top female horses to take on the boys. And, with recent successes by jockeys Rosie Napravnik and Chantal Sutherland tossed in for consideration, it is a wonderful thing to anticipate the arrival of racing’s “Girl Power” double: the day a filly or mare, ridden by a woman, wins a major U.S. race.

The most recent star turn by an equine female occurred last Saturday at Britain’s famed Ascot Racecourse, where the German star Danedream, a four-year-old filly, unleashed a furious stretch run to nail defending winner Nathaniel, a four-year-old colt, on the wire to win King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, one of Europe’s most prestigious and important races for older horses.

In doing so, the King George win by Danedream validated a fairly shocking win last fall in France’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. With that victory, Danedream is now being proclaimed the best horse ever to race in Germany.

She is also being considered in rarefied company for all of Europe. Although she won the Arc by five lengths in track-record-time, that victory might have been considered a fluke without Saturday’s winning performance in the King George. Danedream is the first female to win both races – a statistic that becomes more impressive when one considers that superstar fillies and mares All Along, Zarkava and Urban Sea won the Arc.  She is the first female in nearly 30 years – and only the fifth ever – to take the King George.

Her victory propelled Danedream into the early role of second betting choice for the Arc, behind Camelot, the unbeaten three-year-old winner of the Epsom Derby who could be England’s first Triple Crown winner since 1970 by the time the Arc rolls around in October.

The only sad note in Danedream’s story for U.S. racing fans is that we are unlikely to see her on our shores for this year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. She bypassed last year’s event at Churchill Downs and her probable fall campaign includes a bid for a repeat in the Arc, followed by a trip to the Japan Cup to wrap up her year.

But the absence of Danedream does not mean we won’t have opportunities to cheer for a four-legged female in the big races on Breeders’ Cup Weekend. I still have high hopes for Royal Delta, a winner at Churchill Downs in last November’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic and the Grade II Fleur De Lis Handicap in June, who could still run herself into “Horse of the Year” consideration and a match against males in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Reed Palmer Photography, Churchill Downs

Reed Palmer Photography, Churchill Downs

That dream survived a scare last Saturday when Royal Delta had held on for narrow victory over 28-1 shot Tiz Miz Sue in the Delaware Handicap. The victory margin by the odds-on favorite in the mile and a quarter race was shy of what her backers had hoped, but she fought hard in the final yards over a Delaware Park track that can be a demanding, love-or-hate surface.

It was a good road win by Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s star, who improved her career record to 7-2-1 from 12 starts with earnings of $2,263,851. Mott said Royal Delta would likely run next against females in the Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga.

Mott has not revealed any plans to run his star against males, but owner Besilu Stables, who purchased Royal Delta following last year’s Breeders’ Cup, sent her to Dubai in March to take on males in the $10 million World Cup. She endured an extremely difficult journey that day and finished ninth, and the race is a throw-out.

Royal Delta would almost certainly need to face and defeat males once or twice to have a shot at continuing the recent female domination of the Eclipse Award’s “Horse of the Year” category. But she’s a strong and marvelously-talented filly, and Mott, the all-time win leader at Churchill Downs, will have Royal Delta ready for any path that is chosen.

The human “Girl Power” parade enjoyed new success last weekend when Napravnik piloted unbeaten two-year-old Bern Identity to victory in the Grade III Sanford Stakes at Saratoga. The victory was her first at Saratoga and another significant step in a career-year topped by her success in the Kentucky Oaks.

Napravnik, now in her eighth year of riding, has crashed the top 10 in total earnings by American riders for the first time, and also ranks solidly in the top 20 in 2012 victories.

Bubbling below the top 100 in earnings by U.S. jockeys is Sutherland, who finished second aboard Game On Dude in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, falling just short of becoming to first woman to win that race. But she teamed with Game On Dude to make history this summer with a victory in the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup, becoming the first woman to win in the 73-year history of a race first won by Seabiscuit in 1938.

If both women stay healthy and avoid injury, they have strong chances for success in the Breeders’ Cup and other major races through the late summer and fall. Game On Dude would likely be a lukewarm favorite for the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic if the race was run today, and Sutherland has a firm grasp on that mount. Napravnik and Believe You Can will have chances in the coming weeks to prove that the Oaks winner belongs in this year’s Ladies’ Classic. And the major success by both riders this year will likely lead to opportunities to secure other quality mounts in big North American races through the remaining months of 2012.

American racing and its fans suffered a collective punch in the gut when Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown bid was ended by injury just shy of the Belmont Stakes starting gate, and the sport awaits the emergence of new stars to fill the void. Continued success by racing’s growing roster of female heroes, equine and human, should add significant sizzle to the run to the Breeders’ Cup and the final months of 2012.