Most trainers won't risk sending a filly against colts and possible defeat, because there's no need to. There are plenty of stakes races in North America exclusively for females, in which a filly can prove she can run and can pick up generous purses along the way.
Also, fillies generally don't have to race as often or for as long a time as colts do. This is a matter of economics and also a matter of the birds and the bees. Any good thoroughbred is raced not only to win purses but also to prove his or her value as a potential parent of top runners. But whereas a stallion at stud can contribute to the genetic makeup of as many as 50 foals a year, a mare can produce only one offspring in that time.
Simple arithmetic says that breeders can thrive with only a few exceptional stallions but need many quality broodmares. Says LeRoy Jolley, trainer of 1980 Kentucky Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk, "The difference between the two sexes as far as horse racing goes is that a filly only has to win one major stakes race in her life [to demonstrate exceptional breeding potential], whereas a colt, to be valuable as a stallion, has to be a top-rated performer almost every race of his life. So the pressures and the criteria for success are much different."
Furthermore, for a filly to make it to the top, she must not only beat the other horses on the track, but also overcome long-standing prejudices that have limited the role of fillies in American racing. Among them:
1) A filly is too delicate to race against bigger, stronger colts who are likely to intimidate and overpower her. Big, beautiful and nearly coal black, Ruffian was the first filly media star, but in a match race in 1975 with the colt Foolish Pleasure, winner of that year's Kentucky Derby, Ruffian snapped a leg and had to be put down. Despite Ruffian's many successes, her demise may have been a significant setback for fillies' lib because, in the view of some, that tragic race serves to illustrate what can happen when you send a girl out to play with the boys. But, of course. Ruffian's fatal misstep had nothing to do with being a filly.
2) A hard-raced filly will make a poor broodmare because she has left most of her energies on the racetrack. In 1980 Genuine Risk became only the second filly to win the Kentucky Derby. (Regret was the first, in 1915.) In fact, Genuine Risk was the first filly in 21 years even to enter the race—and her trainer, Jolley, and owners, Bert and Diana Firestone, debated for days over whether to send her. The owners won. Two years after her Derby triumph, Genuine Risk was bred to Secretariat, but her foal was born dead and she has remained barren ever since. This confirmed for many horsemen the adage that a race-worn filly will not be a good producer. Others scoff at the notion. "I think a healthy, fit mare has a better chance of getting in foal than one that's been lying around and doesn't have any muscle tone," says Lukas. He should know. His great filly Lady's Secret—who was raced hard, beat colts and was voted Horse of the Year in 1986—is in foal to Alydar.
3) When a filly is "horsey," or in season, she's undependable and probably will not race well. This may be true, but fillies are in season for relatively short periods of time. Besides, although they don't like to talk about it, trainers have been giving hormones to fillies for years to control that variable.
Attitudes about fillies are changing—but slowly. Lukas, who has had remarkable success with fillies and has been the top trainer in the U.S. for the past five years, may well have been the catalyst. He races his fillies hard, often against males. "Two or three years ago I was criticized for racing my fillies against colts," he says. "But now it's accepted. It enhances the reputation and value of a filly if she can jump up and beat a colt like Forty Niner or Gulch. After all, we breed them to race. I think we should develop their star status before they go off to the breeding shed."
With 50,000 thoroughbreds born each year in the U.S.—and with a yearling sales market that has fallen in recent years—buyers consider more than just a mare's genes. They take a close look at her racing record too. John Williams, who was general manager of Spendthrift Farm from 1976 to '84 and who now sells thoroughbreds as an agent, says, "Pedigree is nothing more than a tabulation of performance in a family. And equine athletes have a better chance of producing an athlete than those who were not athletic. People are buying horses who are out of mares who were good runners themselves or are good producers. We'll probably see fillies kept on the racetrack longer in the future. They've got to prove themselves. They've got to be runners."
After the Distaff, Personal Ensign will be retired to begin her breeding career. And if her offspring come up for sale in the years to come, there will be no doubt that their mother was a runner.