Filly fever

Eight Belles out to challenge Derby's glass ceiling

On the Kentucky Derby

May 01, 2008|By RICK MAESE

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — LOUISVILLE, Ky.-- --From the dawn of time - when Adam forgot to put the seat down back behind the Tree of Knowledge - the battle of the sexes is a rivalry that has played out over and over. Joan of Arc, Gloria Steinem, Billie Jean King, Hillary Clinton, Danica Patrick. And now, galloping in their trailblazing footsteps is a beautiful 3-year-old girl named Eight Belles.

On Saturday, the filly will take on a field of 19 boys in the Kentucky Derby. You should see her - tall, proud, sturdy. She has no idea what she's up against. Either that or she just doesn't care.

In the 133-year history of the Kentucky Derby, only 38 fillies have even dared to take aim at the roses. Just three have won. They're at such a disadvantage that no filly has even entered the race since 1999.

"Got to take your shot," said Eight Belles' owner, Rick Porter. "Worst thing you can do is get beat."

The fact that Eight Belles is even in the field on Saturday says a little bit about her and a whole lot about the 19 colts she'll race against.

Eight Belles is not a favorite (she drew the No. 5 gate and opened with 20-1 odds yesterday), but betting lines aside, there aren't a whole lot of standouts this year. Pick any horse and I can point out the flaw. Big Brown has only three races under his belt. Colonel John has never raced on dirt. Gayego's biggest win came against a soft field.

Is Eight Belles' biggest weakness her gender? Her trainer, Larry Jones, doesn't think so.

Jones is a bona fide boot-and-hat cowboy, pretty easy to spot on the backside of Churchill Downs. He and Porter made their first trip here last year with Hard Spun, who surprised many by running second in the Derby, third in the Preakness and fourth in the Belmont Stakes. Outside of Barn 43 yesterday, Jones eyed Eight Belles and said she's just as big as Hard Spun and just as capable as the 19 colts running Saturday.

"When you look at numbers, she's running as fast as most of the boys have," said Jones, who's moving his operations this year to Fair Hill training center, where Porter is building a 38-stall barn. "Only one boy who's a huge standout has the numbers above her.

"I've always been told that if there's one horse in there to beat, you got to take a chance. If there's two or three, you have to be realistic. In a 20-horse field, anything can happen, so we're not going to duck just one horse."

That one horse is Big Brown. The bay colt is trained by Hagerstown native Rick Dutrow and is drawing a lot of attention. (He opened as early favorite with 3-1 odds.) Dutrow is an interesting character and certainly well-intentioned. But he managed to inject a little equine sexism into Saturday's Derby.

"I'm glad she's entered," he said, "because there isn't a filly in the world that can beat Big Brown."

Whoa, Nellie! Someone keep Martha Burk at bay!

At the mere mention of Dutrow's name, Eight Belle's owner started laughing. "It doesn't surprise me he said something like that. ... We'll have to find out whether that's a good assessment by Mr. Dutrow," Porter said with a chuckle.

Jones readily acknowledged there are clearly some obstacles.

Sure, Eight Belles has won four straight races, and she has a champion bloodline (her pop is Unbridled's Song, a Derby favorite in 1996, and her grandpa was Unbridled, who won here in 1990). But she has never raced more than 1 1/16 miles, and she has never been tested against the boys.

Jones entered his horse in both the Derby and tomorrow's Kentucky Oaks, the first test for 3-year-old fillies. Though he recognizes the disadvantages, he doesn't seem too concerned. When he drew the outside 12 post in the Oaks, he took it as a sign from above that Eight Belles belonged instead with the boys in the Derby.

"I don't want to sound like I hear from God every day the way Moses did," Jones said, "but there finally got to be a good peace over us."

It's not quite like having God on speed-dial, but Jones did consult with the last two trainers who have won the Derby with fillies - LeRoy Jolley (Genuine Risk in 1980) and D. Wayne Lukas (Winning Colors in 1988).

"The difference between [Eight Belles] and Winning Colors, like I told Larry, we tested the waters before we got to this level. ... We weren't really stepping outside of the box as far as he is," said Lukas, noting his filly had raced more and had already beaten boys before she got to the Derby. "I don't blame him for trying, though."

And that's what it really comes down to. The sheer fact that Porter and Jones have put their filly in the race illustrates how wide open the field might be this year. Anyone can win Saturday.

Maybe even a girl.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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