A Dominant Filly and the Problems with Racing, 1904

Sep 4th 2009 11:40 am |

On Saturday, Rachel Alexandra will try to become the first filly or mare to win the Woodward Stakes. She also tries to join the elite company of three-year-old fillies to beat older males. Valerie Grash at Fillies First and Allan Carter from the National Museum of Racing recently provided thorough historical context for Rachel A’s entry into the Woodward. Both pieces are Herculean feats of research and I highly recommend them for anyone interested in understanding the big picture for Saturday’s race.

Image: Beldame in 1905

A little over 100 years ago, another three-year-old filly dominated racing. In 1904, Beldame won 12 races from 14 starts. She started her three-year-old season with a win in the Carter Handicap against older horses and followed that up with a 3rd place in the Met Mile. Her only other loss that year was in the Test (an open race in 1904) where she lost by a single length after getting “off slowly” and a “poor ride”.

Beldame went undefeated against her age group (male and female). She won the Gazelle by ten lengths and the Alabama by six lengths. After her win in the Alabama, she beat older males in the Saratoga Cup at a mile and three quarters. She capped off her three-year-old season with wins against older in the First Special at a mile and a quarter and the Second Special at a mile and a half. It would be difficult to argue against her sophomore season as one of the best ever for a three-year-old filly.

So what was the New York Times writing about when Beldame was beating all comers male and female in 1904? Check out this headline:

Hand-wringing about the troubled American thoroughbred? Sounds familiar, right?

The same month that Beldame finished her remarkable season with two stakes wins against open company at Gravesend racetrack, the New York Times had this:

“The elimination of the very best horses of the mature division has progressed with startling regularity through the present racing season, and at the very opening of the Fall campaign it would be difficult to name a single animal rated as really high class in the Spring, that can be counted on with any certainty to race again this season or train on through another year…”

“In view of the evident fact that the career of the highest type of American thoroughbred horse is short, extending in but few cases into the fifth year of the horse’s age, comparison of American with English and French thoroughbred has engaged the attention of horsemen…”

“…Charley Ballard, at one time a successful jockey on the New York tracks, who had ridden and trained abroad…stated his belief that the moderate use made of the English and French horses prolonged their term of racing life, he thought that the turf courses abroad were less severe on the feet and legs of the horses than the hard earth or ‘dirt’ track of America…”

“…According to horsemen, other than those who have raced abroad, the shortening of the race horse’s career has kept pace with the increase in the number and value of the stakes for two-year-olds and the tendency of even the greater stables owned by rich men who race for sport to make their young horses earn all that is possible campaigning them early and late.”

“The horsemen in effect condemn commercialism in racing as the influence which is working evil to the breed of horse which racing supposedly is conducted to improve…”

“…That the horses have improved in speed within the last fifteen years is conceded by horsemen, but the improvement in the records is perhaps due in far greater measure to the tracks than to the superiority of the horses. While fast time thus has been achieved, the horses have suffered proportionately, in the strain on their feet and legs….”

The article points to the negative effects of two-year-old racing on the American thoroughbred, concluding that Beldame’s light schedule at two, made for her successful campaign at three:

“The judicious [two-year-old] campaign then made with Beldame left her with full power and vigor at the end of the season, and her development into the grand three-year-old that she is must be attributed in a great measure to the fact that she had a chance which does not often come to an American two-year-old with Beldame’s speed and ability to win rich races.”

Historical parallels never cease to amaze me. The more you study history, the more you find that, with the exception of technological advances, little has changed. The debate about two-year-old racing, racing surfaces, and early retirements has been around for over 100 years.

Here we are a century after Beldame, getting set to watch another three-year-old filly make her own history, still trying to figure out, “What is wrong with racing?”


Read the full article “Excessive Racing the Horse’s Peril“, New York Times, Sept 11, 1904 (registration required)

These two article are outstanding:
Rachel Alexandra’s Date with History
Rachel Poised to Make History in the Woodward

Beldame’s page
at National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame

I posted an article about Busher and Twilight Tear – the last two 3yo fillies to win Horse of the Year – a few weeks ago. Here is a wonderful image of Busher from the Life Magazine archives

RIP Milo Valenzuela — Read his obit from the L.A. Times

Good Luck to Rachel A in the Woodward….Thanks for Reading!

Filed in Beldame,problems,Rachel Alexandra,thoroughbred racing history,training methods,two-year-old racing

3 Responses to “A Dominant Filly and the Problems with Racing, 1904”

  1. Superfecta says:

    Great stuff!

  2. Steve Munday says:

    Wow, great research! As the cliche goes: "The more things change, the more things stay the same."

    The US racing industry should try to increase the number of turf races. Most trainers consider turf racing safer and to cause less wear and tear on race horses than dirt. This is evidenced by the full fields seen in most turf races. As a handicapper, I prefer turf races in part due to the full fields but also because the variability in the results makes the handicapping more challenging and profitable.

  3. Cangamble says:

    Amazing, and horses probably ran 1.5 times to twice as much as they do today as well. When looking at it in that context, it shows how and why stars are hard to come by anymore, and why the public's interest isn't kept long enough.