Thursday, March 25, 2010

NYRA plays role in 'Honey, We Shrunk the Breed'

Did Rick Moranis land a job at the New York Racing Association and I just missed it?

In a horse racing nation where many of the greatest events in our game have had distance carved mercilessly from their conditions in recent years -- even a sprint like the Vosburgh Stakes being slashed from 7 down to 6 furlongs -- NYRA has been among the greatest offenders at shrinking the conditions of historic races. And perhaps never have the rueful reductions been more noticeable than on this year's New York stakes schedule.

Ann Ferland, a racing fan and historian and a writer on the subject of thoroughbred pedigree, certainly has taken note. Her conniptions over the diminished distances exceed even my own, and help inform and inspire my rant.

This year in New York, the Suburban Handicap, which long stood as the only mile and a quarter graded race for older horses on the East Coast until September, has been dropped to 9 furlongs. Perhaps worse, so has the Coaching Club American Oaks -- the closest thing 3-year-old fillies have to a Belmont Stakes for their Triple Tiara -- and NYRA even added injury to insult by moving the race from Belmont to Saratoga, where it will serve as more or less a Grade 1 prep for the Alabama S.-G1, which is still to be carded at 10 furlongs. (But for how long?)

Writes Ann: "Better they had moved the Mother Goose, a mid-century race created just so that there would be an intermediate distance race between the Acorn ... and the Oaks. But to trash the Oaks!"

I'm certainly with Ann on this one. The CCA Oaks -- which was still at a mile and a half as recently as 1989, and is truly "America's Oaks" in more than name only -- belongs at 10 furlongs, and it belongs at Belmont. But the Mother Goose is going under the carving knife, as well, with a sixteenth being hacked out for 2010; it will be run at 8.5 furlongs instead of 9.

Ferland says she probably "shouldn't be surprised" at what NYRA's doing this year. Not after the organization moved the Ladies Handicap, the oldest stakes race in America for experienced females and a former Grade 1 race at 10 or even 12 furlongs, onto the inner dirt at Aqueduct, where it is now run at 9 furlongs (for no grade) by the depleted winter cadre of New York-circuit horses, while many top runners and their trainers are wintering in Florida.

"What does the NYRA have against the classic distance of 10f?" Ferland asks.

It's a fair question. Beyond the Suburban, the Ladies Handicap and the CCA Oaks, NYRA has cropped the conditions of the Woodward S.-G1 (once 12f, settled at 9f in 1990) and the Dwyer S.-G2 (from 10f to 9f in 1975), has fluctuated on distance for the Stymie Stakes and the Excelsior H.-G3 before settling on 9 furlongs, and has completely discarded the Saratoga H.-G2, once run at up to 14 furlongs and last run and won by Suave in 2005 at a mile and a quarter.

Absolutely NYRA is not alone in this trend. The MassCap began as a 9-furlong race (won at that distance by Seabiscuit) but was stretched as far as 12 furlongs before spending the last nearly 40 (oft-interrupted) years at a mile and an eighth. The Gulfstream Park H.-G2 was a 10-furlong race in 2004, but has been shortened twice since, its last two renewals run at only a mile. Gulfstream Park's Grade 1 Turf Handicap had been run at 10 furlongs (once) or 11f/11.5f for 18 years, and was won at 11 furlongs by Einstein in 2008, but was whacked by two furlongs a year later and thus won by a miler on the stretchout, Kip Deville.

"But the NYRA is the greatest sinner," Ferland insists.

Among other NYRA hatchet jobs: The Jaipur S.-G3 on turf (from 7f to 6f); the Bed o' Roses H.-G3 (from a mile to 7f); the Hill Prince S.-G3 on turf (from 9f to a mile); the Cicada S-G3 (from 7f to 6f); and the Top Flight H.-G2 (from 9f to a mile). Several others have been trimmed by just a sixteenth, while only a couple of important races have been lengthened.

Truth be told, while NYRA's 2010 schedule should inflame anyone who believes that too much speed is hurting the breed (and thus shouldn't be catered-to by carding shorter races), there's blame to go around.

More data from Ms. Ferland:

In 1973, the first year for graded racing in the United States, there were a baker's dozen Grade 1 races in the country for males 3 and up. The shortest? The Metropolitan Handicap, aka, "The Met Mile." Others included: the Californian S. (8.5f now G2 at 9f); San Antonio S. and Governor S. (both 9f); the Brooklyn H. (9.5f, now at a Grade 2 at a glorious 12f, a rare NYRA extension); six at a mile and a quarter, the Monmouth H., Charles H. Strub S. (now G2 at 9f), Hollywood Gold Cup, Santa Anita H., Suburban H., and the Widener H. (shortened, downgraded to G3 and gone with Hialeah Park); the mile-and-a-half Woodward S.; and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at a marathon two miles.

With just 13 Grade 1 races in 12 months for older horses, generally speaking a horse needed to defeat a few extra opponents in bigger fields to actually get a G1 win. And only one of those races, the Met Mile, was around one turn.


For 2010, the American Graded Stakes Committee has bestowed G1 status on 24 dirt or all-weather races, half of them at a mile or under. The list: (6 furlongs) Bing Crosby H., Vosburgh H., Ancient Title S., Breeders' Cup Sprint, Alfred G. Vanderbilt H.; (7 furlongs) Carter H., Triple Bend H., Pat O'Brien H., Forego S.; (8 furlongs) Metropolitan H., Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, Cigar Mile H.; (9 furlongs) Donn H., Stephen Foster H., Whitney H., Woodward S., Goodwood S., Clark H.; (10 furlongs) Santa Anita H., Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Breeders' Cup Classic.

Oh, and the 9.5-furlong Pimlico Special, already announced as canceled in 2010 for the second consecutive year.

Ferland quotes the original American Graded Stakes Committee on how its gradings were determined: "Distance was counted as an important factor, sprint handicaps being regarded as less significant."

Not anymore. Obviously.

Now, times do change, and sports change with them. Basketball has adopted shot clocks and 3-point arcs to liven-up its game. ... Though I'm still waiting for George Carlin's proposed changes (starting at 44:20 here): a two-second shot clock, a center court gas fire, and 25 points for any basket that goes through the hoop off another man's head.

But other sports don't have an entire industry built around breeding and selling the athletes. Nor such great contradictions in priorities: The Breeders' Cup Juvenile -- biggest race of the year for 2-year-olds -- is at a mile and a sixteenth, the Triple Crown for young 3-year-olds is composed of races run at 10f, 9.5f and 12f, and critics of Rachel Alexandra argue that a champion needs to prove herself at 10 furlongs, yet half the Grade 1 races for older male horses are at a mile or shorter.

But speed sells; as in low- or sub-10-second drills at 2-year-old sales. And how many everyday maiden, allowance and claiming races do you see carded anywhere in the country beyond a mile or a mile-70 or a mile and a sixteenth?

So is it any wonder that we continue to see so many "unfashionably bred" horses winning the Kentucky Derby? And continue to see our Derby winners and their sires stand for paltry sums or be banished to stud duty outside Kentucky or in other countries?

The last 20 victors include the likes of: Mine That Bird (by Birdstone, then $7,500); Giacomo (Holy Bull, a former champion himself who still stands for only $10K); War Emblem (Our Emblem, Derby winner now in Japan); Monarchos (Maria's Mon, Derby winner stands for $6K); Real Quiet (Quiet American, Derby winner in Pennsylvania for $6K); Silver Charm (Silver Buck, Derby winner sent to Japan); Grindstone (by high-dollar Unbridled, but the son now stands in Oregon); Go For Gin (Cormorant, Derby winner in Maryland for $4K); Sea Hero (Polish Navy, Derby winner now in Turkey); and Lil E. Tee (At the Threshold ... At the Threshold?).

Step back a couple more years to find Sunday Silence -- Derby winner, Preakness winner, Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Horse of the Year -- directed to Japan where all he did was become the most successful sire in global history by progeny earnings.

Check the last 20 Derby winners. Do you see a Storm Cat on that list? A grandson of Storm Cat? (Though eventually someone like Giant's Causeway might get a Kentucky Derby winner.) ... Yet the now-pensioned Storm Cat once stood for $500,000. And his line is proliferating everywhere.

That's because the races we claim to revere actually have little to do anymore with the route to where the most money is made in horse racing.

And that route's getting shorter every year.


  1. Excellent post, Glenn. It is very sad, if not disgraceful behavior on NYRA's part, and the lack of creative approaches to problem solving in New York and throughout the industry is painfully evident.

  2. Absolutely right about the unfortunate decline in true classic distance racing, and its self-reinforcing effect on what's being bred now.

    A small point to help explain why NYRA's doing this: as stamina in the breed declines, those 10-furlong and up races draw ever-smaller fields. No matter how important the race, a four-horse contest at 12 furlongs win't get the betting handle generated by a $35,000 claimer on the grass (at a mile, naturally) with a full field of 12. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: shorter races equals shorter horses equals even shorter races.

  3. Certainly Steve is right that as the breed's stamina (apparently) declines, trainers are less likely to enter horses in longer races.

    It needs to be somebody's job to fix that. Otherwise, let's just run 'em all at a mile like standardbreds. (Or 6f and 8f. Who says the breed is becoming homogenized?)

    I do believe that even today's horses are capable of going further than we might give them credit for, and that modern training methods are what leave so many of them "short."

    Case in point: One of my mares is by a horse who was stakes-placed at a mile and out of a mare who was a stakes winner at a mile. Her paternal grandsire won the Travers. ... Why was she on or near the front end, but almost always seemingly out of gas at 6 or even 5 furlongs?

    Yeah, maybe she was plain bad. But from her work patterns (loads of 3-furlong drills, on rare occasion 4, but I'm not sure she ever went 5) I think she just wasn't fully fit to race. ... To blow the doors off for 3 furlongs, sure. But not to maintain that speed far enough to win even the shortest prints.

    I'm a firm believer that if a horse is going to be expected to win at a given distance, then at least sometimes, she must be worked that distance.

    But back to Steve, it really is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it needs to be somebody's job to change it.

  4. Glenn,

    As someone who had the good fortune to watch the Jockey Club Gold Cup at 2 miles, and to see a horse like Forego win it AFTER taking the Vosburgh at 7 furlongs, I am in agreement with you and Ann and terribly sad to see what's happening to the races at Belmont. It's life these days in New York, where problems with NYRA, NYC OTB, VLTs, etc., etc., point to the decline of a once-great tradition here.

  5. Forego certainly was a freak. Not just any horse could do that. ... Although, there was Waquoit, who won four stakes at 6 furlongs, but also won the 12-furlong Brooklyn Handicap twice, and took the mile-and-a-half, 1988 JC Gold Cup over Personal Flag by 15 lengths.

    Nowadays we have the likes of Fabulous Strike, who can get 6 furlongs but whose connections fear 7.

  6. Great post!

    NYRA is an especially bad sinner against the sport's signature races in other regards too.

    Nowhere else are potentially interesting stakes races so mercilessly mowed down by condition book stakes as they are in NY (I mean those races that aren't technically overnight stakes, but definitely aren't real stakes either because they're announced through the condition book rather than the stakes schedule). I have seen countless times when NYRA scheduled such daily 70K affairs within days of one of their own graded stakes catering to the same group of horses.

    As for the CCA Oaks: this once-proud race passed the sceptre on to (well no one really, but the closest candidate would be...) the Ky Oaks when it reduced the distance to 10f. Ever since, it has been only one of numerous overprized and overrated 3yo filly races of sub-continental importance (when was the last time the best of the West and Midwest were prepped and shipped to Belmont in order to win the Classic?)

  7. Affirmed and Alydar were both early 2yos, with a couple of races under their belt before they won their first stakes races, on June 15 and July 6 respectively. Round Table won the Lafayette at Keeneland, their traditional closing day feature, a stakes for 2yo males, in April. Classic horses could and did win sprints early at 2, and went on to long careers afterward. Even John Henry was a SW at 2, in the 6f Lafayette Futurity (the same year that A & A were two!). We used to honor the all-round racehorse - SW at 2, classic horse at 3, staying SW at 4 and up. The Breeders' Cup day program gives those that fall short an 'out'; if you can't be a classic horse, you can still win a G1 race. (Do you realize there wasn't a single G1 race at 8f on turf in the US before the BC created in the BC Mile. Turf horses had to be stayers to win G1 glory.) I could go on but have to make supper.

    Ann Ferland

  8. If the tracks put more money into their 10f races, like they used to (and still do in California) and weighted the contestants properly, more trainers would take a shot with their lightweights, the way they do in Australian and in GB handicaps. Then you would have large fields, good betting races; occasionally the best horse would lose, but that has always happened to our champions - Buckpasser even lost to his own stablemate. Didn't do his 'legacy' any harm.

    Ann Ferland

  9. Even more recently, you have the Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled winning a 7f stake against champion sprinter Housebuster; pre-Forego, Dr. Fager, another Vosburgh winner, could stay. Yes, no doubt Forego was a freak, but without varying distances the game gets bleaker, and the breed more homogenous.

  10. I thought about tossing in Dr. Fager, Sid. Though I was a child, he is one of my all-time favorites. Dirt, turf, short, fairly long, no matter. Just a racehorse.

  11. Great post, reducing the distance horses are running all the time is only going to encourage more sprint-based breeding and help kill our true distance/classic thoroughbred lines. It's no coincidence that we are currently in the longest Triple Crown drought in our history!

  12. So what do we do from here? We've vented, but the power is with the bean-counters and speed panderers. How do we get our message to the masses? Surely there is somebody out there, maybe named Phipps or Arthur Hancock who can make a bigger stink over this. (I notice AH took out full page ads in the trades to counter an ad that took his father's words in vain.)

    Ann F.

  13. *Ahem...*

    (Wish I had seen this post back in March - my response would have been more timely)



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