The summer of 2011 marked 20 years since Dance Smartly, a magnificent Canadian 3-yr-old filly, cake-walked down the home stretch of Woodbine racetrack in Toronto to an easy win in the Queen's Plate - Canada's premier race for Canadian foaled horses, first race in their Triple Crown, and the oldest stakes race in North America. Dance Smartly would go on to win the Canadian Triple Crown and then the Breeder's Cup Distaff (think of that as the world championship for female horses).
I watched the '91 Plate on TV where, beforehand (and elsewhere in the media), there were doubts about her ability to win the race. Like all the major races in North America, such as the Kentucky Derby, the Plate is dominated by males. I heard frequent comments along the lines of, "It takes a GREAT filly to beat a GOOD colt." Such was the build-up that her easy win felt like a feminist victory. This response was compounded by the fact that the second place finisher, Wilderness Song, was the only other filly in the race and her jockey, Francine Villeneuve, was the only female jockey in the race. The two horses were entry mates, being owned and trained by the same connections, so worked in tandem. Wilderness Song led the race and set it up for Dance Smartly to breeze on by at the end. I am reminded, watching it now on Youtube that Jim Bannon, the CBC colour commentator, said afterward: "Francine Villeneuve had a lot to do with the way this victory was taken. She rode a great race."
Now, this contention that colts are superior to fillies seemed to me a pretty dubious one after watching this trouncing of the boys by these two girls. Horses, so far as I understood, had run in herds in the wild and were subject to the same predators so one would think they would be able to run equally well. There appeared to be no evident reason that male horses should run faster than female ones. So I went out to Woodbine, or rather, across the road from it, to Humber College where they have a very good selection of books on horseracing, and did some research about fillies and racing in Canada.
I found that in order to understand anything of Dance Smartly, and beliefs about the relative abilities of female horses, that one must know something of the Canadian industrialist E.P. Taylor. He built Woodbine and bred Northern Dancer, Dance Smartly's grandsire, but it was his pursuit of monopoly, in particular, that shaped horseracing in Canada (and impacted world racing in the same way). He was a leader in the transition that many sports went through, from small-scale locally owned enterprises to corporate monopoly, and it is within this context that views about Dance Smartly must be understood. The inferiority of females is not only good for the business of horseracing but is at the heart of it.
E.P. Taylor was a businessman who was born in Ottawa in 1901. He became a big racing fan during his university days in Montreal before he hit the business world. When he did he would settle in Toronto.
Taylor began his business career by inheriting Ontario's Brading Breweries from his grandfather. He developed an approach to business that he would later repeat with horseracing. Through acquisition and merger he took over almost 40 other small breweries in the province and developed a new company, Canadian Breweries. It was developed into the largest brewery in the world. The brands of beer from the small companies disappeared, replaced by a handful of Canadian Breweries' beers. The effects of his approach on communities were evident. Local control of business and consumer choice were eliminated. (It is only recently with the real ale movement that small independent breweries have again begun to emerge in the province.)
Taylor took the same business approach over and over to gain near monopolies in various industries. Target an industry. Acquire and kill off the small businesses which comprised it. Make one large super company able to compete on a global scale.
Argus Corporation, the company Taylor established to control his business investments, would become Canada's largest conglomerate. So monetarily successful was it that an attempt to take over Argus after Taylor's retirement led Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to establish the Royal Commission on Corporate Concentration.
Taylor got involved with horseracing and his business approach to it would come to shape modern racing, not only in Canada but world-wide.
In 1953 Taylor took over the Ontario Jockey Club. He led the OJC in its takeover of the 7 small tracks in southern Ontario, closed them and built 2 new, large, modern tracks in their place. One obvious benefit to being in horseracing was to provide a venue for advertising his beer - and every pro sport is subsidized by beer money - but a larger reason for his attempt to monopolize racing was to control legal gambling within the province. Taylor wanted to expand it. His bid to legalize off-track betting was repeatedly rejected by the Trudeau government in the belief that its effect would be to kill off small tracks outside of big cities. This was one of the rare occasions when Taylor's monopolistic intentions were thwarted.
Another reason for Taylor's teenage interest in horseracing may have been that it was the 'sport of kings' and he seems to have been wowed by British aristocracy and displays of wealth. Taylor won more Queen's Plates than any other owner and the most famous photos of his show him with the British monarchy. His house was their home away from home in Canada. The new Woodbine racetrack was strictly segregated by class into an exclusive area and an area for the rest of us.
Taylor took a paternalistic approach to the working class. He built the first suburbs in Canada, ostensibly to provide people with decent housing. And he would go on to be the world's biggest producer of dwellings for the poor in the 'third world.' Yet at the same time, he moved himself to an island in the Bahamas and pioneered the gated community to shut out the poor from his neighbourhood. Because the racing business runs on gambling dollars it is primarily funded by the small time bettor either off-track or in the cheap seats at Woodbine. It is the poor who make up the biggest gamblers. Desperation can have that effect. The idea of winning and jumping the class barrier is a seductive one. So, while Taylor spoke benevolently of the working-class, as if he wanted to take care of them, it was they who provided the funding for many of his business ventures.
But the horseracing business for Taylor wasn't just about advertising or gambling. Horseracing was a golden opportunity to exercise his business model. Woodbine meant bigger crowds, a world-class facility and a chance to join in the modern horseracing business. Taylor was spectacularly successful, dominating Canadian racing like no other had before or since. But his focus, even more than on racing, was breeding. He understood that control of the product was central to monopoly. He went to England to buy horses for their bloodlines and placed them at a stud farm outside of Toronto, which he named The National Stud (signalling his monopolistic intentions.) Taylor understood that the most lucrative commodity in horse racing is sperm and the selling of horses which are a product of the bloodlines that this sperm represents. Here again, he was only following the Taylor model. Go big time and go international, go aristocratic, dominate the breeding market so that, eventually, all little horses are products of a few lines of descent. It was the monopoly of sperm; the ultimate monopoly in racing.
As usual, Taylor succeeded wonderfully. His homebred colt, Northern Dancer, who had won the Kentucky Derby in the United States (the world's most influential race for breeders), became the most successful racehorse sire in history. Northern Dancer was the end product of breeding the world's top bloodlines together. His grandfather had been bred by the renowned Frederico Tesio (who formulated the self-serving and novel theory that 70% of a horse's genetic make-up comes from the father). Northern Dancer's stud fee for "covering" a mare, at one point, reached a million dollars with no money back if the mare didn't get in foal. So successful was Northern Dancer that as of 2011, estimates are that over 80% of all racehorses in the world carry his bloodlines (and that's likely a conservative estimate). Dance Smartly represents the Taylor business model come to fruition.
Back to Humber College Library where I was examining the prejudice against female horses and whether it is justified.I began by looking at the history of the Queen's Plate, which began in 1860. It was a period of county fairs, match races, disorganized fun and legendary horses (many of which were female). From 1860 to 1880, 11 of the 21 winners of the Queen's Plate were fillies. But then something changed. Suddenly fillies all but disappeared from the Plate. Since 1861 there have been only 22 female winners (and a corresponding dearth of female entrants); the last two winners before 2011 being Dance Smartly and her daughter, Dancethruthedawn.
So what happened? Well, in 1873, in the US, the American studbook was created which catalogued the sires of the leading horses. It marked the beginning of the rationalization of the business of horseracing. A stallion named Lexington emerged as the leading sire and he would continue to lead for 14 years as owners of broodmares from far and wide, looking for a competitive advantage, sent him their mares. The studbook propagated the idea that genetic inheritance rested with the male. Stud service became big business leading to more and more stallions from around the world being imported to North America.
Suddenly, females stopped running against males. Almost all races became segregated by gender and the entrants in the big open stakes races were mostly male. Female ability didn't decline, as the new sires were producing offspring of both sexes, but these races became significant in establishing potential sires. It was why many of these races were created at all. They were showcases for future sires and built the illusion that the significant talent that would give you an edge came from males. Fillies beating up on colts is simply bad for business.
At the time of Dance Smartly's run of wins, I remember Ron MacLean, TV host of the races saying that it's a pity she's a female as so much money could have been made off her. And that's the rub. A mare might have one offspring a year whereas a nice stud fee can bring in money 100 times per year. In addition, although breeders know that genetic inheritance comes from the mare as well as the stallion, the abundance of data on the performance of a male's offspring provides predictive data that is useful for bettors and investors. The only question of significance regarding mares is who her father was.
As modern horseracing took shape, sexist attitudes developed about fillies. They should avoid these races because after all, they aren't as good as males. They have their own little races with smaller purse money. The reading I did at Humber was like stepping back in time. The views of female horses were adapted from the most reactionary judgements of humans. Females are temperamental I read, sulky, especially when menstruating. Unlike males, you can't hit them. They are weaker and frailer. Train them easier than males. And on and on. It suggested a self-fulfilling prophecy. Theories to explain the genetic superiority of males were such nonsense that even a non-racing person like me could easily poke holes in them.
I saw too that the same sexist attitudes were applied to human women as well. Female jockeys weren't strong or tough enough to ride, for example. It is only lately that women have made inroads as jockeys and trainers showing the inanity of such theories. And a parallel situation existed with African-Americans. Many of the first successful jockeys and trainers were black. But they too were suddenly shut out of the business as it became more lucrative, with a white monopoly on the better jobs developing. Non-whites were reduced to doing the least rewarding types of labour.
It was also clear that the monopolistic approach in horse racing was well established by the time that E.P. Taylor came along. He didn't invent it, he only perfected it, and one can speculate that, since he was devoted to horseracing before going into business, that the monopolistic practices of racing taught him the business approach he took with many industries. If it is not pushing things too far, I wonder if perhaps the characteristics of the horseracing business as it developed in the 19 th century - monopoly resting on systemic sexism and racism - was an influence in shaping the modern business world.
In July, I went to Woodbine for the 2011 Queen's Plate. It was reading that a filly named Inglorious would be among the favourites for the race that has made me think of Dance Smartly again.
Woodbine has been refurbished since 1991. A statue of Northern Dancer was erected at the front entrance. There are televisions showing racing from tracks all over North America that patrons can bet on. The place is awash in numbers and betting machines. Horseracing has always been a driver of scientific advancement. Probability theory and the first computer programme had their roots in horserace gambling. The grandstand now includes a casino and still has exclusive areas.
As for racing, Woodbine's slate of big races has been enhanced with the addition of the Northern Dancer Stakes and the Dance Smartly Stakes, two turf races that are run on the E.P. Taylor turf course, the longest in North America and the course most like those found in Europe. The course helps to draw European horses to Woodbine's big races. I see from the newspapers each year that it is a constant source of validation when Europeans come here to compete.
The purses have grown. While the dirt track at Woodbine is synthetic, supposedly for the benefit of the horses' health, there is an increased use of legal drugs that enhance performance. The impetus for this is obviously higher than ever. (My understanding is that the synthetic track is also sold to race courses on the promise that it creates more of an even playing field for the horses and bettors, and allows racing to continue longer in the autumn and on stormy days.)
There are 17 horses in the Plate and 16 of those are grandchildren of Northern Dancer. Inglorious is the only filly. There are only two female jockeys and two female trainers. One of the lady trainers trains Inglorious. By the time the race begins, Inglorious is the third betting choice.
There's a huge crowd. They are pumped. It's a fast race. There is frenzied foreplay as the little dominatrixes on the horses slap their unwilling participants while sweat flies. There is lots of screaming and everyone rises for the orgasmic stretch run showing that gambling is a sexual surrogate for everyone, not just the poor; all love the anarchic thrill of getting free money.
Coming down the stretch, Inglorious suddenly accelerates and leaves the boys in her wake. It is an easy win. After the race her owner is quoted as saying he had worried about the wisdom of sending a filly to compete against boys.
In the end, in spite of the beauty of the animals, in spite of the excitement of the crowd, in spite of the glory that is Inglorious, it is the same old monopoly that triumphs. Northern Dancer begat Storm Bird who begat Storm Cat who begat Hennessey who begat Inglorious. That's her father's side. Her mother was the result of a pairing of Dance Smartly's half brother with a granddaughter of Northern Dancer.
After so easily beating the boys, Inglorious was entered in the Alabama Stakes for her next race, a race restricted to fillies only.
She finished last.