After leading midway through the $125,000 Maurello Championship for Illinois-bred pacers at Balmoral Park on Sept. 19, Martha Maxine lost a little ground in the stretch and finished a neck behind longshot Mucho Sleazy. The result was something of a surprise because Martha Maxine had paced a mile in 1:49.2, one of the best times in Chicago this year, to win an elimination race by five lengths.
"So what?" you might ask. Favorites lose races all the time. True enough.
What made the race noteworthy was not the result, but the fact that the Maurello Championship was restricted to males. Last year, racing as a female, Martha Maxine was a clear winner in the filly and mare equivalent to the Maurello, the $100,000 Ann Vonian Final at Balmoral. Martha Maxine continued racing through summer of this year as a female, and a pretty good one. She won 13 races and earned more than $193,000 as one of 2008’s leading pacing fillies, and she chalked up five victories in 2009 before an administrative sex change engineered by the United States Trotting Association (USTA) barred her from competing in filly and mare races. Martha Maxine’s win in the Maurello elimination event was the horse’s first victory since she (he?) was declared a male.
Martha Maxine’s sex became an issue earlier this year after the horse finished second in a race at Harrah’s Chester in Pennsylvania. A mandatory post-race drug test showed an elevated level of the male hormone testosterone, a puzzling result because trainer and co-owner Erv Miller was adamant that he had not dosed the horse with steroids. Subsequent testing at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center revealed that the "female" Martha Maxine actually is a male pseudo hermaphrodite, with both X and Y sex chromosomes.
Apparently feeling that the test results trumped Martha Maxine’s obvious outward physical appearance as a female, the USTA reclassified the horse and amended the registration records to state that Martha Maxine "is a genetic male and is unsuitable for breeding purposes." Martha Maxine still can compete against males or in open competition, but no longer in races restricted to fillies and mares. The USTA earlier reached a similar conclusion regarding a horse named Arizona Helen, a registered filly that was reclassified as a male following a positive drug test that led to more comprehensive laboratory work. Making a strange situation even stranger, Martha Maxine and Arizona Helen are related. Arizona Helen was produced from the Bret Hanover mare Bret’s excellence; Martha Maxine’s dam is a daughter of Bret’s Excellence.
Recent stellar performances by South African sprinter Caster Semenya have raised similar sex-related questions in human sports: is Semenya a male or a female, and if the former, is it equitable for the athlete to compete against females? A more fundamental question is whether it is even fair to ask about an athlete’s sex. The International Olympic Committee gave up genetic screening of human athletes in the late 1990s for a variety of reasons. It is interesting to note, however, that in the 1996 Olympic Games—before testing was abandoned—eight female athletes were identified as genetic males, but were allowed to compete in female-only events.
The reclassification of Martha Maxine and Arizona Helen by the USTA brings to mind some interesting legal issues, with no clear answers. Although the USTA prohibition barring competition against fillies and mares is prospective, affecting only races after the reclassification, should purse money from earlier races be redistributed? If not, why not? Is "failing" a sex determination test the same thing as failing a drug test? Dr. Sue McDonnell, a veterinarian at the New Bolton Center, was quoted in the New York Times recently that Martha Maxine’s condition "would give a horse an advantage over other females." Isn’t this the same uneven playing field that disqualification for a medication positive is supposed to alleviate? And what about owners who invested in Martha Maxine as a breeding prospect? Are they entitled to their purchase money back?
Science, for the time being, at least, has outraced the law.