Rachel Alexandra against the ‘Old Boys’?

Aug 6th 2009 12:32 pm |

One of the things I avoid on this site is ranking the merits of horses across eras. Racing has changed enough over the years that most such comparisons are useless. This week, however, I am going against this maxim in light of the latest feat by Rachel Alexandra. While this isn’t going to be a “she’s better than post…”, I’d like to consider the possibilities of her place in racing history if her connections make some bold moves over the next few months.

Image: Rachel Alexandra winning the Haskell as seen through lens of the brilliant Sarah K. Andrew

Its easy to get caught up in the moment but some deep breaths and a look in the history books is always a good way to go.

The comparisons that I have heard most often for Rachel Alexandra are to Ruffian. I have a hard time understanding her as a point of comparison. There are many still around who have a living memory of Ruffian, and that is one of the reasons – I believe – she dominates the “best filly” discussion. (If I had seen Ruffian live, my opinion might be different).

The two fillies noticeably absent from the debate are — oddly enough — the only two three-year-old fillies to actually win Horse of the Year: Busher and Twilight Tear. There is a precedent that applies here and I think (for once) using a comparison from over 50 years ago is a worthwhile endeavor.

The obvious difference is the number of times Twilight Tear and Busher ran during their three-year-old season in comparison with Rachel Alexandra but we can compare quality of wins and competition. This is especially relevant when you consider that a three-year-old filly has the most hills to conquer outside of their division (colts, older males, older females).

So what does it take for one of racing’s rarities: A three-year-old filly winning Horse of the Year? Let’s take a look at Twilight Tear and Busher.

Twilight Tear (pictured with her first foal) won HOY in 1944. Here is the resume for the daughter of Bull Lea:

* In 17 starts during her three-year-old campaign, won 14 and finished off the board only once

* Beat three-year-old fillies in the Pimlico Oaks, Acorn, Coaching Club American Oaks, Princess Dorreen (Washington Park), and the Queen Isabella (Laurel)

* Beat colts seven times including a win in May, beating future HOY Armed in the Rennert Handicap at Pimlico

* In July 1944, she beat Pensive – the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner – three times at Washington Park

* Beat older fillies and mares in a handicap at Belmont

* In her final start of the year, she beat Devil Diver — 1944’s champion older male — in the Pimlico Special. She won by 6 lengths and matched Seabiscuit’s stakes record.

A year later, in 1945, Busher (pictured) became the second, and last, three-year-old filly to win Horse of the Year. The resume for War Admiral’s greatest filly:

* Won 10 races from 13 starts and never finished out of the money. [Due to racing restrictions related to the war, Busher did not start her three-year-old season until May]

* Beat fillies in an allowance and the San Susanna Stakes at Santa Anita in her first two starts

* Beat colts for the first time in the San Vicente in her third start and soon after finished second by a half length in the Santa Anita Derby

* Beat older females in the 5th start of the season in the Santa Margarita

* Shipped to Washington Park for the summer, where she won 4 of 5 starts including two wins against older males

* Beat four-year-old Armed in the Washington Park Handicap

* In her final two starts of the year, she beat colts again in the Hollywood Derby and older females in the Vanity

What stands out in the accomplishments of Twilight Tear and Busher is that they beat older males. It was this feat that solidified their Horse of the Year status.

Rachel Alexandra may have done enough already to win Horse of the Year but, for her to be mentioned in the same breath as Twilight Tear and Busher, she has more to do. So far, Rachel Alexandra has won the Preakness and beaten both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont winners. This is remarkable, but a real possibility exists that she could pull an even more impressive feat. While she wouldn’t be facing the likes of Armed and Devil Diver in racing against the current crop of older males, if she won Woodward or the Clark (just a few possibilities) it would put her in elite company. Then we could say we were witness to greatness without caveats or conditions.

Certainly, Rachel Alexandra deserves the over-used adjective “great” even if she doesn’t beat older males. However, to move into a class of greatness that spans the long arc of modern racing history — she has one more (manageable) hill to climb. While a great filly can beat colts, an immortal one can beat any horse regardless of age or sex.

Either way, it has been a privilege to watch the campaign that Rachel Alexandra has run up to this point. Looking forward to see what happens next!


Detailed career overviews from the Unofficial Hall of Fame for Busher and Twilight Tear

Article at about.com by Ron Hale on Busher

Article from 1990 by Bill Christine in the L.A. Times about racing’s “battle of the sexes”

Twilight Tear and Busher both from Brooklyn Backstretch (also a thank you to Teresa from BB for sending me a piece she wrote on Twilight Tear that was published in this years Belmont Stakes program)

CAVEAT: This is specifically about American racing where cases of 3-year-old fillies competing against older males has been non-existent over the last 50 years. Three-year-old filly Goldikova shipped in from Europe to win the BC Mile on turf last year, but when was the last time an American-based 3-year-old filly beat (or even raced against) older males on dirt in a race of significance? Please post a comment if you are aware of any examples in the U.S. that I missed.

REVISION (9/1/2009): Allen Carter from the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame put together this outstanding piece of research examining 3-year-old fillies racing in open company. Valerie on her FilliesFirst site also wrote an excellent piece contextualizing Rachel Alexandra’s accomplishments this year.

Gary West brought up the topic of Rachel A running against older males in a July column. He mentioned it again on his blog after the Haskell.

Valerie at Foolish Pleasure also wrote recently about the possibility of running Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward

Speaking of Valerie she is starting a new site called Fillies First about racing’s fillies and mares. Valerie does great work and it looks like this site will include a fair share of history — looking forward to it!


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8 Responses to “Rachel Alexandra against the ‘Old Boys’?”

  1. Frank says:

    Good stuff — thanks for doing the digging.

  2. Superfecta says:

    Nicely done!

  3. Valerie says:

    An excellent post (as always)—the 1940s were truly the Golden Age of racing! Interesting that Twilight Tear’s daughter A Gleam also defeated males (albeit not older ones) at 3, in the Westerner Stakes (now Hollywood Derby) and even finished ahead of future Kentucky Derby winner Hill Gail in the San Gabriel Stakes.

    Not that I want to get her to the breeding shed any faster than she will, but, boy, I can’t wait to see Rachel’s progeny run—likewise Rags to Riches’ foals.

    Thanks for the kind words and encouragement with the new endeavor. 🙂

    • Ryujin says:

      Every year I go into the Saratoga paddock to icpnest the 2-year-old maidens, and every year I fall in love with one of them. They usually turn out to be pretty good (Eskenderaya, My Typhoon, etc.) But this year was special: Winter Memories kept me rooted to the ground as she circled her tree. Of course she’s gorgeous, but it was her demeanor that captivated me: calm, professional, sure of herself. When I went back to my seat, I told my pals I couldn’t help their betting, as I was so in love with this filly that I had no objectivity. And then she exploded on the track!

  4. Teresa says:

    Add to the list…in researching the Test, I came across a filly named Emotion, who won the first Test, and it appears that she beat older males in Maryland when she was three years old. She was named three year old filly champ, at a time when such decisions were fairly individual and not terribly well recorded.

  5. Anonymous says:

    About half of Busher and Twilight Tear's races were 7f or less so I think the pure sprinter Ta Wee can be considered. As a 3yo in 1969 beat older males in both the the Fall Highweight and Vosburgh(DH for 1st) in winning the SOY award. Won the Fall Highweight again and repeated as SOY the following year. Ta Wee and Shuvee(JC Gold Cup twice) members of a super crop of fillies foaled in 1966.

    I would think Bewitch would qualify for going up against Citation so often.

  6. Colins Ghost says:

    Thanks all for the comments and contributions.

    Val: In the image of Twilight Tear above she is pictured with the yet unnamed foal who would become A Gleam. (Image is from H.P. Robertson's History of Thoroughbred Racing)

    Teresa: Thanks for the contribution — I focused mainly on 1936 and later – when the end of year champions became "official". It would be interesting to see how common it was before then. Beldame is the one that immediately comes to mind (1904). She beat older males in the Carter – her first race as a 3yo (also ran 3rd in the Met Mile, won Saratoga Cup, and won two stakes at Gravesend).

    RG: Ta Wee is one I should have mentioned. Can't fault her for being a sprinter. For the record: Busher's two wins against older were both at a mile and a quarter. Twilight Tear ran 3rd against older males at 6 furlongs (in her 1st race of the year) and won the Pimlico Special at 1 3/16ths. Bewitch beat Citation at 2 but had some injury problems at 3 although she did beat older females in the Modesty at Arlington Park as a 3yo. She ran into her 6yo season and ran consistently well against males. She definitely deserves a place among the best race mares of the 20th century.

    Thanks again everyone for your comments!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Very nicely done. Love this kind of stuff! Not easy to find information like this.