Racing: Maze in pursuit of a woman's World

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Kipling may have been right about bears, cobras and Native Americans when he proffered his views about the female of the species. But - and with no affront meant to the three high-class distaffers to have run this season, Feathard Lady, Solerina and Asian Maze - where steeplechasers and hurdlers are concerned, with very few exceptions males are undoubtedly more deadly.

Only one mare, Glencaraig Lady, can claim to have been the champion over fences of her year, and only two, Lady Madcap and Dawn Run, the best over hurdles.

There is no real mystery; it is a case of good big 'uns beating good little 'uns. Mares and fillies are generally smaller than geldings and, all other things being equal, are at a disadvantage in an athletic activity that requires power and strength as well as stamina and speed.

Hence the introduction 22 years ago of the 5lb sex allowance and, more recently, races confined to females.

Tom Mullins trains Asian Maze, who put herself right in the World Hurdle picture when chasing home Macs Joy at Gowran Park on Saturday, and rode Dawn Run. At the age of 18 he won twice on the legendary mare, handled by his father Paddy, in 1982, and recalls that she was more or less a bloke in disguise.

"She was built like a gelding," he said yesterday. "She stood 17.1 hands, was big and strong, with plenty of bone. A brute of a mare. The only thing was that when you were in the saddle, looking down at her neck, it looked narrow from in front of her withers to her ears. But there was no weakness in it, she was hard.

"But she was a one-off. You ask most trainers what they'd buy at the sales and it's a big, rangy, well-bred gelding. It's perhaps fair enough to buy a mare to go hurdling but chasing is a different matter. It's a hard game and the winter is a tough time."

Mares-only races were introduced as a measure to offset the relative unpopularity of females as prospective racehorses at the sales and to encourage their retention in training and it is a ploy that can be said to have worked.

Last season's graded race programme was an excellent one for distaffers, with 19 victories from 13 individuals. An unprecedented six fillies or mares scored at the top level: Asian Maze, Like-A-Butterfly, Mariah Rollins, Refinement, Solerina and United.

Asian Maze, a seven-year-old daughter of Anshan bred by her owner Sheila Moore, recorded her first win in a mares-only contest in October 2004 and finished her novice season with Grade 1 victories at the Aintree and Punchestown festivals, emulating Dawn Run 22 years earlier.

Both mares emerged from the same Doninga yard in Co Kilkenny, where Mullins took over the licence from his father a year ago on Monday.

Like Dawn Run, Asian Maze is tough, running 16 times between her debut in a bumper in March 2004 and her Punchestown success last April, but there the comparison ends. The white-faced chestnut is strictly a female female. "She's a good 16 hands," said Mullins, "but she's slight and narrow, definitely a girl. And she's the kindest mare in the world, a lamb."

After her gutsy effort on Saturday, her first outing for 295 days, Asian Maze is right on course to take on the boys, headed by Baracouda, Mighty Man, Rhinestone Cowboy and Golden Cross, at Cheltenham. "She has been brilliant since the race," added Mullins.

Two mares have won the stayers' crown, Shuil Ar Aghaidh in 1993 and Rose Ravine in 1985, both getting their allowance. As did Dawn Run when she scraped home in her Champion Hurdle in 1984, but she put up top-class performances in winning the Christmas, Irish Champion, Aintree and French Champion Hurdles, and can be fêted as the best hurdling mare of all time.

The only other to be judged top of her year, Lady Madcap, achieved her status with her performances in handicaps in 1912 and 1913.

Though Dawn Run earned immortality as the only horse to add the Gold Cup to a Champion Hurdle, she was nothing like as good over fences as Glencaraig Lady, the Gold Cup winner of 1972 (at levels), Anaglogs Daughter, the best two-mile chaser of 1981, or the likes of Flying Wild, Olympia or Kerstin.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Woody Valentine

(Southwell 4.20)

NB: Finely Tuned

(Ludlow 5.00)