by Laura Sillerman | bio

She stumbled as the door opened on what would become the greatest day of her life. She stumbled and lots of guys felt redeemed in their belief that she had no business there. She stumbled and lots of believers started doubting.

She stumbled, regained her poise, bided her time and then showed them what she had. And what she had on Saturday, June 9 was breeding and determination. And more than a little moxie.

She is Rags to Riches — and though there has never really been a ragged part to her brief biography, no one expected the richness of associations that will now follow her forever. She’s in the history books and with that comes entry into the hearts of even the most casual followers of horseracing.

And that’s where women come in.

"OK, it wasn’t exactly Billy Jean King versus Bobby Riggs, but there was definitely a groundswell of gender support for super filly Rags to Riches Saturday at Belmont," wrote Newsday’s Barbara Barker.

The history of fillies taking on the fellas is sad indeed. First of all, the story is always about how few times the lady triumphs — just two other Belmont Stakes races have been won by females, the last time by a broad named Tanya in 1905.

Fillies have had a similar showing at the Kentucky Derby. Before Winning Colors wore the blanket of roses in 1988, Genuine Risk won it in 1980. Now 30 years old, Genuine Risk is the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner (she "held court in her stall" over Memorial Day weekend as fans came to visit).

But before the 1980s, the only filly to triumph was the unfortunately named Regret, who took it in 1915. What did she regret? — one wondered in the drought years of male dominance. The initial lack of faith, or the pain that supposedly came to women who bested men?

All speculation aside, the truth is this: Every time a filly enters one of the triple crown races, the subtext is the same: Women are not as swift as men. Not as strong, not as up to the punishment of carrying a man on their backs for over a mile. It’s the racetrack as metaphor: Women are weaker.

It’s horse manure.

Every time a filly enters a big race we should get together and make some noise. We should be certain our daughters and granddaughters know that male horses get more attention and more money lavished on their training because of the sad financial truth about birthing foals. A stallion can produce dozens of offspring in a year, while a mare can produce … one. The more a horse wins, the greater his stud fees.

A winning filly isn’t much more valuable as a brood mare than one who never races. It’s all about who her Poppa and Grandpop were and more than a little bit about the boys her mom and grandma produced and how they did when they went round.

Rags to Riches not only won the Belmont Stakes; she did it the hard way. She stumbled coming out of the gate, she was in an outside position for a mile of it, she closed in on a horse that was burning up the last half mile and she had to claim the lead and claim it again in order to keep it. She won by a head by sticking her neck out. By giving her all.

That’s what women do. If we stumble, we pick ourselves up. We resign ourselves to being in less than advantageous circumstances and still we pursue the prizes that matter to us. We lay claim to what we deserve and if someone tries to take it from us, we try harder until we prove we do indeed deserve it.  We stick our necks out and risk winning until we win. And we give our all doing it.

Horse racing. The sport of kings, it’s been called. Tell that to Queen Elizabeth, who was in Louisville for this year’s Derby. Tell it to Penny Tweedy, who owned Secretariat, the horse that has held the record for the Belmont Stakes for 34 years. Tell it to the women trainers and jockeys.

Tell it to all the women who make a horse race out of every unfair competition they have to endure for the position that should rightly be theirs.

Tell it to Rags to Riches. "Queen for a Day," they called her yesterday. Try for a lifetime. Try for as long as we all can remember.

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  • Elizabeth Hemmerdinger June 11, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    Oh, Laura,
    What a glorious portrayal of a horse race, a horse, and more than half of the human race. Thank you for this essay.