Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
I was pleased to read in Claire Novak’s recent article in the Blood-Horse that the owner of Ria Antonia, Ron Paolucci, was working on a specific plan for his star filly that included Kentucky Derby preps, against the boys, and likely in New Orleans. He had talked about this plan after her win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, but I wondered at the time if it was a case of having a post-big win high, or if he was really serious about taking a truly ambitious approach with the large and talented daughter of Rockport Harbor. So now a month later, it’s nice to see that the idea of running the Jeremiah Englehart trained filly against the boys seems like more than just a whim.
As well as female horses have done against their male counterparts in recent years, I cannot blame Paolucci for shooting high. The news also got me thinking about other fillies who had connections daring enough to test their young female stars against males with the belief that they could succeed.
Probably the most successful case of a filly taking on the boys all spring began in the 1988 Santa Anita Derby. Never afraid to accept a challenge with his top horse, trainer D. Wayne Lukas knew his amazon, roan filly, Winning Colors was beginning to peak after a dominating eight-length romp in the Santa Anita Oaks. In Santa Anita’s Derby, she faced a solid field of colts, but off her impressive win in the Oaks she was made a lukewarm 5-2 choice. Those that backed Winning Colors in her first attempt against the boys went home happy when she dominated from gate to wire. The 7 ½-length score over the nice Charlie Whittingham colt, Lively One, was an eye-opening performance that sent her on to Kentucky as one of the favorites.
Four weeks after her first win against colts, she again led all the way, eventually holding off Forty Niner by a neck to become just the third filly ever to win the Kentucky Derby. Winning Colors followed that up with two more races against the males, including a game third in a Preakness, before tiring badly in the Belmont Stakes. Her four consecutive races against the males, with two important wins, remains the gold standard of what a talented young filly could do on the Triple Crown trail, although, another filly had a similar run eight years earlier.
Unlike Winning Colors, Genuine Risk did not win in her first try against the boys. Sent off at 8-1 in the Wood Memorial, the chestnut daughter of Exclusive Native ran a game third, beaten by 1 ½ lengths against some of the best young males in the country. Believing that she was not 100% cranked up for that one, trainer Leroy Jolley saw enough in that losing effort to run his previously undefeated filly in the Run for the Roses in her next start. His faith in his filly paid off handsomely when the 13-1 shot held off the late charge of Rumbo to win the 1980 Kentucky Derby by a length.
Fresh off her win at Churchill Downs, Genuine Risk proved that she was no fluke by running an infamous second in the Preakness Stakes. Many thought she should have been placed first after Angel Cordero Jr., the rider of the winner, Codex, carried the filly way out on the far turn. She would follow that up with another fine performance when a game second to Temperence Hill in the twelve furlong Belmont Stakes.
While both Genuine Risk and Winning Colors found great success in the Kentucky Derby after prepping against the boys, perhaps no filly was more impressive in winning against males before the First Saturday in May than Althea. A champion at two, the daughter of Alydar was no stranger at running against the boys. As a juvenile in 1983, she had won two-of-three meetings against males, including an easy score in the Del Mar Futurity. After a shocking loss in the Fantasy, perhaps only D. Wayne Lukas would have wheeled her back one week later in the Arkansas Derby, but that is exactly what the fearless former basketball coach did.
In a stunning display of front running prowess, the talented filly dominated a strong field of males, including Gate Dancer and Pine Circle, by seven lengths in 1:46 ?. While Gate Dancer and Pine Circle would go on to win the Preakness, and finish second in the Belmont respectively, Althea faded badly as the Kentucky Derby favorite.
The last filly I can recall winning a major Kentucky Derby prep was when Serena's Song, also for Lukas, won the 1995 Spiral Stakes. In recent years, fillies that have run well in Triple Crown races, Rachel Alexandra (1st-Preakness), Rags for Riches (1st-Belmont Stakes), and Eight Belles (2nd-Kentucky Derby), all came into those respective races previously untested against the males. This all makes the plan for Ria Antonia all the more intriguing. I wish her well.