April 18, 2010

Distance - The Dirty Little Word in American Racing

Distance. The word itself doesn’t sound so bad. So why has it become a nasty little four letter word when used in the context of American Racing? Distance in other countries is a concept revered. A high percentage of the best races in Europe are run over 12 furlongs. The race that stops a nation down under, The Melbourne Cup, is a two mile jaunt. Meanwhile in America we breed for speed. Microwave ovens and drive-thru fast food, we want things fast. Is that why we do not want to wait to develop our horses and have them run a distance of ground? Do we need to see our investments return money sooner than other cultures? Or perhaps watching a race for 2 ½ minutes or more is simply too long for our instant gratification needs. Whatever the reason, in America we breed for speed. The result has steadily produced a more fragile animal than what we see in places like Europe and Australia.

It wasn’t always this way. The prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup, now a comparative 10 furlong sprint, used to be run at two miles. It was contested at this distance for more than fifty years, and it was far from the only long distance race in our nation. Now the closing leg of our coveted Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, at 1 ½ miles, has become a bit of a dinosaur. It is a race in which the main story is the distance rather than the horses that run. It is not too late to change this disturbing trend. Certainly a change in breeding philosophy is vital. The Breeder’s Cup Marathon is a step in the right direction. We also need to value the distance races we still have.

Today’s closing feature at Santa Anita Park is the San Juan Capistrano Handicap, and I will be watching. I remember the days when the San Juan Capistrano was won by stalwarts such as Exceller, Tiller, John Henry, Lemhi Gold, and Erin’s Isle, and that was only in a six year stretch. Nearly thirty years have passed since the glory days of the longest graded stakes race in America. In step with the speed trend our nation’s breeders have created, the San Juan Capistrano has slowly and steadily become a less important race in our racing schedule. It has lost its grade 1 status, and the now grade 2 race does not attract the kind of horses it used to. In the late 80’s we had Great Communicator and in the 90’s, we saw top horses like Kotashan, and Bien Bien win the 1 ¾ turf race, but it has been a steady decline of talent since then.

I am somewhat hopeful that the favorite of this year’s edition, Bourbon Bay, may be the real deal, and actually be a threat when the Breeders’ Cup Turf rolls around. Or who knows, maybe a trip to Australia for the Melbourne Cup may be in his future. Only time will tell. Even more than today’s entrants though, I root for the race itself. Let’s stop the speed trend, and strengthen the breed. At 14 furlongs, the San Juan Capistrano is clearly a throwback. If we want to get back to breeding a stronger American Thoroughbred, I certainly hope races like the San Juan Capistrano never become a throw-away.


ja.raymond said...

Thank you, Brian! I'm SO glad you brought this up!
To answer your question of "Do we need to see our investments return money sooner than that other cultures?"
Yes! That's why, for yrs, farmers have been feeding their cattle growth hormones..so they'll grow faster..so they'll get them to market faster. That's why there have been so many futurities crop up in the last 30-40 yrs in stockhorse shows and racing. Good ol fashioned greed; cant get to that money fast enough.
It always used to drive me nuts that they send horses out to start training in the spring and summer of their 2yo year! All the while, the trainer is fretting the vet on whether or not the horse's knees are closed. Why risk your investment when you know he's not physically ready??
At any rate, it still does not quite explain the lack of distance races these days. The only thing I can think of is that most Americans only have an attention span of 1:59 and change? Anything over that creates a lull and they loose interest?
Maybe it's the thrill of it all; the shorter the races, the more concentrated the excitement (which doesnt make sense to me either, because, the longer the race, the longer the excitement lasts). Breeding could play a part too. Because our horses have become more fragile, they cant handle anything over 1 1/4mi?
But if thats the case, why are Japan and other countries so interested in our stallions?
I know..I just added more questions. But it's definately an issue that needs to be addressed!
I, for one, would love to see more distance. When I was @ Oaklawn in '86 with Fires, he had a horse named Steel Explosion in the last race of the meet called The Trail's End. It was 1mi & 6 fur. Steel not only won, he set a race record of 2:58:4! I thought it was just the most fantastic test I'd ever seen!

ja.raymond said...

Sorry! LOL Didnt realize this comment was going to be so long..but I had a lot to say on the matter!

tencentcielo said...

Bravo Brian!

Reason why Brian will always be a better blogger than i am: (at least one of them)

I took the low hanging fruit about the San Juan Capistrano on my blog post about it, just giving it the classic historical spin, while Brian spun it into a much more interesting post about how the U.S. racing has shorten its lifespan by breeding for speed as our wastebands have expanded and ruined our knees.

(standing ovation for Brian)

Racing Titbits said...

In response to ja.raymonds last remark. The speed which is not denied in the US stallion and the undoubted semi speed and stamina of the Japanese, Euro & Australian mares make for a raider at US races.


Nick said...

I for one hate it when I go to the track and 8 of 9 races are six furlongs or shorter. It happens far too often.

Anonymous said...

In the 50s 2yo's started racing New Years Day if FG was running and a lot of them would be going into the race with race experience from QH tracks. I don't recall anymore breakdowns than what happens now. It wasn't uncommon to see horses with over 25 2yo starts in the Derby. What changed?
Bobby Brocato was considered a sprinter when he went West and had no trouble stretching out. A lot of it is in the trainer and the strategy.
Many of the greats, Seabiscuit, Noor, Citation, Promised Land, John Henry, etc, etc ran in the San Juan C but todays lineup looks like a high class opt claimer.
When they run the Derby at CD Beulah will be running the Bluegrass Warrior Final at 2 miles and a quarter. How great will that be.

Brian Zipse said...

Thanks for all the thought in your response, Jane. I agree with a lot of what you say. Tencent...way too kind, but I will take it!
I'm with you 100% Nick.
RG, Sorry, I could not find video of the 1956 SJCH.

LDP said...

I love this post so much, because it touches on all the things I believe would get American racing back on it's feet. A stronger, more durable horse, that can sprint and run a distance would return on an investment better than the fragile TBs we have today. Do we remember the likes of Man o War, Native Dancer and Secretariat? Horses that were precosious enough and quick enough to run in the rich two year old sprints, yet turn around as three year olds and win the even more lucritive Classic races. Another thing is that, especially with the former two, is that they raced SO OFTEN! Imagine if horses could do that today, even as two year olds! A owner would not need to worry about the breeding shed to make a profit, because they would have a horse that could do it all and do it often, which with today's purses, would have them beating the earning record by the end of their three year old year!

We can now all see the benefit of a stronger more durable horse for owners, now lets look at what it can do for the industry. Well for one it could clean up our image in the drug department. What need is there for steroids, Lasix and Bute, when you have horses that are bred to last, plus the cost to buy those drugs would be eliminated, which is a plus for both owners and trainers. The public would look upon us better, since we would be just about the only major sport that is drug free in America. Also the fact that our horses would be around longer would give fans horses to get attached to and follow, instead of seeing them for a fleeting instant in the TC and BC then wisked away to stud. Also, this would give tracks more incentive to bump purses up for older horses, since the quality of fields would be better for the races.

If more people would just quit trying to take the easy way out for once and realize that this and only this is the way to get our sport back to the glory days, then with that amount of ppl cooperating we could have the task done in as little as five years. We just need some charasmatic leaders to pull us back together and force the industry back onto it's feet.

LDP said...


I might have just beat you on longest post, sorry brian.

LDP said...

One last comment, and I am so sorry to bring in Curlin and Zenyatta, but the latter, though she has been racing for a number of years, seems to prove the fragility of the breed, with her lack of starts. Curlin over a period of 22 months, started sixteen times, and over a period of 11 months went from maiden, to Classic winner, to BCC winner, to HOTY. Then in another 11 months he traveled to Dubai, back to the USA, then all the way to Cali, and still was only 2 3/4 of a length off the winner.

On the the other front, Zenyatta has taken around 30 months and has just made her 15th start. Yes she is perfection, which a tough feat for any horse to accomplish, but other than that and her Classic win, she has not come close to duplicating what the greats of the past used to do. Compared to Curlin, she has been allowed to sit in one state, for the majority of her career, running against the same fillies and mares, and is just now as a SIX year old, being allowed to demonstrated how great she actually is.

Lynne Veitch said...

So glad you wrote this, Brian. Owners such as Marion du Pont Scott, Alfred Vanderbilt, Paul Mellon et.al (and their trainers) were of a "different breed" who did not need to breed/race primarily for $$$. They were classic sportsmen & women who collected great art, were classically educated, etc. I believe only the Phipps family is a generational sporting family today. (& Mary Lou Whitney) Note the longetivity of Shug McGaughey as their trainer. That is a characteristic of the US that is unsettling - the great generation gap. We all love Twitter, Facebook, IPhones, etc. but not at the expense of everything else. Speed kills, they say.

Brian Zipse said...

A little harsh on Queen Zenyatta, LDP...Thanks Lynne, there definitely is a different perspective in today's racing...some of it good, some not so much.

LDP said...


The intention was not meant to be harsh, it was strictly a comparison. If Zenyatta were racing 30yrs ago, her accomplishments would be considered great, but take away her Classic win and most would probably say she has all the potential in the world, but wouldn't be held in as high esteem as other greats because of the timidness of her connections.

The connections of Curlin and now RA, proved anything but timid. Curlin was run litterally everywhere. If there was a big race he was in it. They tried turf with him and even went on synthetics for the sake of the sport. The things they allowed him to do as a three year old where what made him who he was, both his victories and defeats. You wrote a peice on Seatle Slew, who is know for beating Affirmed, winning the TC while unbeaten, and a loss.

Great horses used to be allowed to go out on a limb all the time. Now, with Zenyatta and QR to a lesser degree, we see horses held back, to keep from losing. Sometimes a loss can bloster a record instead of tarnish it. Look at what the Belmont did with Curlin. I only wish owners would get that.

railrunner said...

Very good post! We have definitely lost some of our crowning jewels in racing because the distances have been continuously cut at multiple times to cater to the "speed breeding".