(By Avalyn Hunter)
Whether or not Unlimited Budget can cash in on her shot at history in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), Mike Repole's willingness to test her against the boys is welcome. Barring solid evidence that racing fillies against males carries a higher risk of breakdown than racing them in sex-limited competition, there are actually some good reasons for owners and trainers to cross the gender barrier.
First, there's potentially more money to be had by venturing into open company. Take just the stakes listed in the National Stakes Conditions 2nd Quarter 2013 (free download). During that period, there are 79 North American stakes races open to all 3-year-olds carrying purses of $100,000 or better. In the same period, there are 59 North American stakes at that purse level for 3-year-old fillies. 32 of the races for open company carried purses of $200,000 or more; the corresponding figure for races limited to fillies was 22. Want a race with a pot of $500,000 or more? There are 16 open to 3-year-olds of both sexes but only six restricted to 3-year-old fillies. A couple of well-spotted raids across gender lines can be quite lucrative for the owner of a good filly, especially when a top filly can pick up more money for a tilt against second-tier males than she can in a top-of-the-division race among her fellow females.
Second, there's the prestige factor. Not only can a win against males look very good indeed on a championship ballot, it can also look quite good on a catalog page. At a given level, races against males generally are perceived as being more difficult to win, giving them an increased weight in the minds of voters and buyers.
Finally, there are better opportunities for a distance-loving filly in open company provided she has the class to take advantage of them. In the listings above, there were just two races for 3-year-old fillies at 10 furlongs--the Alabama Stakes (gr. I) on dirt and the American Oaks (gr. IT) on turf--and none at distances longer than that; there were seven races at 10 furlongs or longer open to both sexes. Frankly, the distance opportunities for both sexes are woefully low, but stepping into open company obviously gives a staying filly more chances at a major win.
Not every filly is suited for a crack at open company, of course; some are easily intimidated by bigger, more robust horses and are probably best left to their own division. But as the Europeans, Australians, and other horsemen around the globe have demonstrated repeatedly, there is really no reason not to race a filly outside her division if a spot looks favorable and she has the requisite physical and mental toughness.