Monday, November 29, 2010

Triple Crown Times Have Not Improved in 70 Years, Why?

Last week, the Thoroughbred Daily News published a 20 page article entitled “Do We Need A Sturdier Racehorse? You can access the entire work of Mr. Bill Finley at this link (free registration required):

Basically, the question asked was: What makes today’s racehorses start less and get injured more often compared to the horses of the ‘old days’? Reasons commonly given range from breeding, to drugs, to economics, to racing surfaces.

Admittedly this is a very complex subject. But one thing we do know, at least in the Triple Crown races, is that horses ARE NO FASTER today than they were 70 years ago. Not one bit faster, despite our best efforts to breed ‘the best to the best’ over several generations. Please reference above chart. (Raw data available upon request.)

Speed is a misnomer. No horse carries his top end speed for more than a few seconds in any race. I chart these efforts via onboard GPS system, much like Trakus does at Keeneland and other facilities. Stamina is what is missing from our horses these days, the ability to hold 95% of top speed for several furlongs.

Is it in the breeding?

Arthur Hancock: “We are breeding a weaker horse, we are breeding a chemical horse.”
Mr. Hancock shares the opinion of many horsemen today. However, a leading equine geneticist disagrees:

Dr. Ernest Bailey of the Gluck Center at the University of Kentucky: “Many breeders believe that horses have become less durable. I do have some reservations. 40-50 years is a very short time to manifest such an extensive change in the population. The onset of the problem is fairly abrupt, and is more consistent with a change in management. Gene frequencies change at a glacial place.”

Is it the drugs?

Trainer Gary Bizantz: “The veterinary community misled the American racing industry into thinking that increasing the amounts of medication we gave these horses would do numerous good things. It would make them run faster, their careers would be longer, field sizes would be higher, and they would get hurt less often. One hundred percent of what they said has gone the other way. Everything.”

Nick Zito: “How can you be over-medicated when a horse is just starting? If I end up with a horse that only races once or twice I can’t blame that on drugs.”

Is it the economics?

Trainers of big money horses, with big money owners, have to keep their winning percentages up over 20% in order to remain marketable, so they run their horses infrequently, and only when they have a good chance to win. Their main concern is residual value after a racing career ends. But what about claiming trainers at lower levels? Why do they follow the same pattern?
Breeders are in the business to sell horses and make money. I can’t blame them for breeding horses that people want to buy – and people want to buy a Super Saver, who wins the big black type race and is off to the breeding shed. Super Saver never had a published work over 5 furlongs in his brief career.

Is it the surfaces?

Bob Baffert and others think so. In all fairness, just a few years into the synthetic experiment, it’s probably too early to tell. The article goes on to mention how the bases of dirt tracks have changed over the years. Other countries racing over turf as opposed to dirt, generally report lower breakdown figures.

What is missing from the equation?

Back to Dr. Bailey, “Perhaps someone can identify a management change or a dietary supplement that has been universal and potentially devastating to the current generation of horses?”

Many old timers, and myself, believe that ‘management change’ is the current trend of trainers to train and race their horses much less frequently than in the past.

Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens: “The biggest change in racing is that people are of the opinion that you shouldn’t run horses very often. I can’t understand it. What’s going on, it’s a fallacy.”
Mr. Jerkens beat Secretariat twice within 8 weeks, once with Onion and once with Prove Out, both were running back in a week or less.

Trainer Ben Jones and Whirlaway: 1941 Triple Crown campaign included 20 starts including a Derby Trial win the Tuesday before the Kentucky Derby. Also, an allowance win BETWEEN the Preakness and the Belmont.

On the flip side, Todd Pletcher and others disagree, often referring to the Ragozin figures which are given credit for identifying the ‘bounce theory’, which states that horses coming off a top effort need time to recover, else they will run back poorly.

Adds trainer Chris Englehart: “When I see what trainers did years ago it makes me scratch my head, if I tried to do that with my horses, they would all be on the farm.”

I agree 100% Mr. Englehart. The key lies in the 2 year old season. If you miss that window of development, you will have to wrap your horses in duct tape to keep them sound. Here is the data to back that up:

A Jockey Club study showed that despite conventional wisdom, modern trainers are not pushing their 2 year olds hard enough. In 1964 a whopping 52% of the foal crop raced and averaged 6.9 starts, but from 2004-2009 only 30 percent started and averaged but 3 starts per horse.
Prominent vet Larry Bramlage: “Horses that make their first career start at age 2 earn twice as much as those who begin racing careers at age 3. In addition, these horses show less predisposition for injury. These data strongly support the physiologic premise that it is easier for a horse to adapt to training when begun at the end of skeletal growth which takes advantage of the established blood supply and cell populations. If you wait longer, until age 3, the musculoskeletal system is allowed to atrophy at the end of growth because of the lack of training stimulus.”

A very detailed exercise regimen was found by Dr. Nunamaker at the New Bolton Center along
with Dr. John Fisher, DVM, a trainer based out of Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland:

I have talked to dozens of trainers over the years, and found just one who follows such a program.

We all are regaled with the many successes of today’s super trainers. Multiple graded stakes winners and winning percentages up near 25% are common, yet we rarely see what happens to the hundreds of horses given to these trainers that never make the headlines.

Blogger Frank at RatherRapid took the time to document some findings that seem to show injury rates well over 50% from these stables:

The great irony is: Early race specific exercise and racing is obviously beneficial, but nowadays 2 year olds rarely breeze further than 5F, make 2-3 starts beginning in late Fall, and are then spelled. This ‘management’ dooms them to making fewer starts than the old timers, and running race times equal to those of the 1930’s, despite all the veterinary and technological advances of the past century.

If I had a horse in training, and I wasn’t a billionaire, I’d send him to this guy:

Gary Contessa: “I believe in watching a horse train, and if the horse is doing well, why not run them? Mighty Irish ran 4 times last month and that owner made money with a sub-par horse because of it. But she was good to go, so I ran her, otherwise I could have ran her once a month and lost money.”


  1. It's the drugs. And the fact that the veterinarians are training the horses. Good old-fashioned work has gone out the window.

  2. "Good old-fashioned work"-is that slang for the cocaine they gave Sir Barton to soothe his sore soft hooves? Horses had even more drugs in their veins in the good-old days. Don't kid yourself in romanticizing them. Why haven't Triple Crown times improved? It's not breeding, it's not drugs, it's that we have Quarter Horse trainers training Thoroughbreds like Quarter Horses, and then the generations who apprentice under them learn continue their methods. The Lukas Effect.

    No way I'd let Contessa train my horse. He's a supertrainer like the rest of them. Jonathan Sheppard, Jack Fisher, Tom Voss, Sanna Hendriks, those are true horsemen.

  3. Just wanted to share something I heard from a track superintendent at one of the DRF Degenerate symposiums a few years back (Porcello).

    He claimed that the surfaces have gotten slower and slower (deeper
    perhaps?) over the last several decades suggesting that today's horses are expending much, much greater effort just to run the same times as the greats of yesteryear.

    I have no idea if this info is accurate or not but it might be worth polling a few old timer track super types to get some real data on the subject.

  4. Miss Woodford - I'm not romanticizing anything and I certainly am NOT using "old-fashioned work" as slang for cocaine. The proliferation of legal race-day medication is the ruination of the sport in America, and if you don't believe that, get yourself a passport, put yourself on a plane and see how it is done in other countries, where times ARE improving and the breakdown rate is a third of what it is in the United States. You need to look beyond borders if you want to see how it is supposed to be done.

  5. Very good article. I think the "management change" you discussed is the biggest culprit but I also think drugs and breeding are contributing factors.

    By breeding I mean there has been an ever increasing trend over the last few decades to stand at stud horses that couldn't stay sound through a handful of races. I just cannot believe that such a nonsensical practice hasn't already had a negative impact on the breed.

    Although as the geneticist points out the onset of the durability problems has been fairly abrupt, the practice of breeding unsound horses as a matter of course had a fairly abrupt onset as well.

  6. Doesn't the argument that triple crown times have not improved assume that there have been no changes to the track composition or management at Churchill, Pimlico and Belmont in the last 80 years? If you look at Thorograph or Ragozin who minutely adjust for non-horse related factors TC horses are indeed getting faster.

  7. Dcajero, I am familiar, but I side with the guys actually maintaining those strips:

    At least one well informed source begs to differ. Butch Lehr, the track superintendent at Churchill Downs, who has been employed there for 38 years, says that the Churchill strip is no different than it was when he started.

    "As far as making tracks deeper now as compared to 20 years ago, I don't necessarily believe that," Lehr said. "If anything, it's the opposite. I've been here a long time and, at Churchill, we haven't done anything to change the track."

  8. That being said, I 100% agree with ThoroGraph that you cannot accurately compare winning times over different tracks, over different days to each other.

    But, I find it hard to believe that several track supers over the past 70 years have made changes that have resulted in almost identical winning times when averaged by decade, in 3 different places.

    Plus, elsewhere on this blog we found that harness horses ARE steadily improving winning times and another post coming up shows that horses in the Arc De Triomphe are doing the same - and they are conditioned radically different.

  9. This is the one of the best articles I've ever read on this subject. Very well researched and documented. Great job Bill!