In racing circles September has traditionally been known as the mares' month, appropriately enough given that the St Leger is generally where the Classic battle of the sexes is joined. The epithet, though, actually had its origins in an ancient end-of-harvest ritual involving a corn sheaf fashioned into the shape of a female horse, before it was adopted as a nod to the progress on the track often made by the real things as their hormonal cycles settle towards the end of the year.
There is a word for women who strive to be the equal of men – unambitious – but even the most ardent feminists must concede that in one field, that of unassisted athletic endeavour, the male of the species is more deadly than the female. Among world record holders, for instance, Usain Bolt is 0.91sec ahead of Florence Griffiths-Joyner over 100 metres, Javier Sotomayor could outjump Steffa Kostandinova by 0.36 of a metre and Yuri Sedykh throw a hammer 8.44 metres further than Anita Wlodarczyk.
Men are indeed the faster, higher and stronger. And so, comparing the very best with the very best, are colts. It is possible to reel off the names of more than nearly 100 males rated better than that paragon among mares and fillies, Pretty Polly, and only half-a-dozen other females could be considered for a place in an all-time top 150.
Of course, that is not to say that on a given day under given conditions a filly cannot beat colts, and Saturday at Doncaster may be a case in point, when the Oaks heroine Snow Fairy is scheduled to take on the boys in the St Leger. In 233 runnings of the oldest Classic, 41 fillies have triumphed, most recently User Friendly 18 years ago. The list includes the first winner, Allabaculia, Pretty Polly herself (in 1904) and two other distaff greats, Sceptre and Sun Chariot.
Fillies are eligible to run in the 2,000 Guineas and Derby but they rarely take on males as three-year-olds until the autumn, when they are that bit more mature physically and mentally. Snow Fairy's improvement has been one of the revelations of the season – she held no big-race entries at the start of the year and yet is now a dual Oaks winner – and her progress may not yet be over.
The bay daughter of the high-class miler Intikhab looked very much the part as she strode out powerfully on the Newmarket gallops yesterday morning under Ryan Moore, her final serious spin before the big day. "Very happy with that," said her trainer, Ed Dunlop. "She's been a complete surprise package for us. But she just keeps getting better, it seems, as she gets stronger."
Snow Fairy, owned and bred by the reclusive, Paris-born minor Spanish aristocrat Cristina Patino, is a tough, straightforward competitor, but at home is strictly a female female. "She has her own view of things," said Dunlop, "and you can't bully her, you ask her rather than tell her."
The St Leger is not only the oldest Classic, but also the longest and toughest, an extended mile and three-quarters with a run-in over an uncompromising half-mile straight. Snow Fairy's first test against colts at the top level will be a demanding one but she looked a stayer when she put the Irish Oaks field to the sword on heavy ground. Her latest effort, second to Midday in a slowly run Yorkshire Oaks, did not play to that strength.
"She's already repeatedly belied her pedigree in terms of stamina," added Dunlop, "and if she does stay, she'll be there at the finish. But she won't be hammered if her petrol gauge is running on empty at the two-pole."
Snow Fairy, who would be Dunlop's first St Leger runner, is currently the second market choice behind the warm favourite Rewilding, the Derby third, but though she has won on soft ground, she will not be asked to venture into Saturday's uncharted distance territory under testing conditions. Rain on Monday night means the St Leger meeting starts today on good to soft ground; it is to be hoped that the weather improves to allow our heroine to take part on Saturday.
As the only Group One winner in the field she would bring a touch of class to a contest that, because of the condemnation by the commercial breeding industry of the once-prized virtue of extreme stamina in a prospective stallion, is now shunned by the very best colts.
And Oaks winners have an excellent record in the venerable race. Of the last eight to take part four – User Friendly, Oh So Sharp, Sun Princess and Dunfermline – have won and the others have been second or third. "She's been an amazing fairy tale for all of us," added Dunlop, "and we hope it can continue at Doncaster."
Sue Montgomery's Nap
Al Zir (4.20 Doncaster) Has not run since the Derby, when he finished sixth. Shorter trip and easier going will be much more to his liking.
Quarrel (4.50 Doncaster)
One to watch
Though Azaday (C F Wall) Has finished second three times in a row, there is nothing wrong with her attitude and she is still progressing.
Where the money's going
Profound Beauty is 4-1 from 5-1 with Paddy Power for the Irish St Leger on Saturday.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Rose Blossom (3.10 Doncaster)