SARATOGA SPRINGS — Sometimes it’s as plain as the nose pushing the blue Jollyball around.
Trainer Brad Cox’s workers make sure Sassy Little Lila has one of the rubber toys hanging outside her stall. She also can get a little “territorial,” he said, when it comes to people being in her stall — hence the “Sassy.” And she is not big.
But she is fast. And she is here.
It’s not unusual to see female horses run against males in Europe and even in Canada, where a filly has won the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, the Queen’s Plate, three times in the last seven years.
It doesn’t happen very often in the U.S., though.
Saratoga Race Course fans, who were treated to Rachel Alexandra’s Woodward victory in 2009, will get another chance to see a nice filly against males in a big race on Saturday, when Sassy Little Lila runs in the Grade I Fourstardave.
With several race options on the table, Cox and her owners finally settled on the Fourstardave, a one-mile circuit of the inner turf course, for the simple reason that it just made the most sense, on more than one front.
She appears to be the only horse in the field who prefers a front-running trip, it’s a Grade I, the distance should suit her ... and the race is in her backyard.
In two other Grade I attempts, she just missed by small margins, so winning one is a priority; the Fourstardave is an opportunity.
“We are thinking outside the box a little bit, but Saturday, she’ll have answers to all these questions we’re getting right now,” Cox said on Thursday morning. Besides Rachel, who also beat males in the Preakness and Haskell, some of the prominent fillies and mares in races that were not gender-restricted in recent years include 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Zenyatta; newly enshrined Hall of Famer Goldikova, who won the Breeders’ Cup Mile three years in a row; Rags to Riches, who outdueled Curlin in the 2007 Belmont; and Xtra Heat, who tried the BC Sprint twice, without success, before there was a separate Filly & Mare Sprint.
Tepin became the Queen of the Turf when she won the BC Mile in 2015, then in 2016 was the first North American-based horse to ever win the Queen Annne Stakes (est. 1840) at Ascot as well as the Woodbine Mile.
Saturday’s Fourstardave field is a small but interesting bunch that includes a world record holder, a relative newcomer to the U.S., two Grade I winners ... and a 4-year-old bay filly who is expected to take charge early and see if she can hold them off.
“I know these boys are going to run at her, it’s just a matter of how much she has left,” Cox said. “We like the way the race is setting up as far as pace. That played a role. We tried to do our homework and find out who’s nominated, field size, stuff like that.
“Chances are, if this was a large field, there would be more of a pace presence. But it looks like we got a good draw, it’s not a huge field and if we get on the lead, hopefully we should be close or on the lead and not see any trouble out there. And we get a weight break, as well.”
One reason males and females usually stay separated in the U.S. is because there are enough gender-specific races for fillies and mares to stick to their own sex.
In Sassy Little Lila’s case at this point in the season, the De La Rose earlier in the meet didn’t make sense because it’s ungraded, Cox said, the Diana would’ve asked her to go nine furlongs against a difficult field and the Yellow Ribbon at Del Mar would’ve required a cross-country flight to California.
By running against males in the Fourstardave, Sassy Little Lila will be carrying from seven to nine pounds less than her rivals by virtue of the handicap conditions.
On top of all that, Sassy Little Lila loves the inner turf at Saratoga, based on the fact that she almost broke a course record while breaking her maiden by five lengths at a mile and an eighth last year.
“She likes Saratoga, we get to run her out of her own stall and it’s a Grade I,” Cox said. “She’s Grade I-placed, and that’s what we’re trying to do, make her a Grade I winner.
“When you run against the boys, it’s tough. But all these Grade I’s are tough, whether it’s against the boys or the girls. It’s not ideal to run against the boys, but there are a lot of things that fell into place. We didn’t start the year two months ago or before the Just A Game saying we want to run her against the boys. It’s just the way it fell on the calendar and the distance and the weight break and how much speed is in it. We’ll see what happens.”
Sassy Little Lila is coming off a three-quarter length loss to Antonoe in the Grade I Just A Game on Belmont Stakes Day and, in her other Grade I try, she led every step of the way except the final one in losing by a nose to Decked Out in the American Oaks at Santa Anita on New Year’s Eve.
“But that’s what she does,” Cox said. “She’s not a big filly, but she does have a lot of natural speed. That’s her weapon.”