Saturday, July 31, 2010

Still waiting for a super horse?

A discussion on a Yahoo forum I frequent -- dubbed tb_breeding_theory -- prompted some thinking on my part.

It was suggested by one person that the breeding and racing industry goes through a roughly 30-year cycle in which we keep producing equally well-bred horses, but none of them reaches "super horse" status.

I asked myself (and others), do we really go through a 30-year cycle between "super horses?"

And I decided that I don't think so, but it might depend on how we define "super horse."

It seems to me the drought is really in Triple Crown winners. But certainly that can't be the only measure of a "super horse." I'd say Spectacular Bid was one (26-for-30 lifetime), and he lost the Triple Crown.

I'm sure nobody needs this history lesson, but the American Triple Crown was won three times in the 1970s -- Secretariat in '73, Seattle Slew in '77, and Affirmed in '78). All are undeniably "super horses" who rarely lost, and certainly took down America's most notable title; "Triple Crown winner."

The Bid had his shot in 1979.

So by that measure, we'd be looking at -- about nowadays, really -- for the next "super horse" to arrive. If we're on a 30-year cycle.

But what has racing seen since? Were there no "super horses" in the interim?

Just looking at Kentucky Derby winners, we see these examples (dated by their Derby wins):

1985 -- Spend a Buck: Surely almost nobody would consider this colt by a relatively unheralded son of Buckpasser (Buckaroo) to be a "super horse." But then again, why not? He was 10-for-15 lifetime and never finished worse than third, earning more than $4.2 million. He was a Grade 1 winner at 2 and 3, and very well might have backed up his Derby win with victory in the Preakness had his connections not skipped Pimlico for Garden State Park and the Jersey Derby, where a $2 million bonus had been established for any horse who could win two earlier stakes races there (the Cherry Hill Mile April 6 and the Garden State Stakes April 20), plus the Kentucky and Jersey derbies. ... Spend a Buck followed the money. ... Champion 3-year-old colt and Horse of the Year, Spend a Buck's connections possibly kept him from going down in history as a "super horse" by choosing the $2 million bonus over winning the Preakness (a Churchill-Pimlico double many horses have made) and then at least trying the Belmont, where I'm not sure he would have beaten Creme Fraiche (the only gelding ever to win the race), but finishing second or third would've preserved his 100 percent OTB record lifetime.

1987 -- Alysheba: Maybe going 11-8-2 for 26 starts isn't a high enough win percentage to qualify for "super horse." But he was a G1 winner 10 times, took the Derby and Preakness at 3, the Breeders' Cup Classic at 4, earned $6.6 million, and was a champion three times; 3-year-old colt, older horse and Horse of the Year.

1989 -- Sunday Silence: A lock for "super horse" status had he not lost to Easy Goer in the Belmont Stakes, this near-black son of Halo won nine of 14 (six G1s), never finished worse than second, and went on to sire the richest lifetime foal crop in world history.

That would seem to get us through the 1980s with at least several near-misses for "super horse" status.

The Derby winners were a relative dearth of super-horse candidates for several years after Sunday Silence -- Unbridled, Strike the Gold, Lil E. Tee, Sea Hero, Go For Gin, Thunder Gulch, Grindstone. But even among those (who were still undeniably pretty good racehorses) emerged two major U.S. sires in Unbridled and Thunder Gulch.

Then in 1997 we saw the beginning of a run on near-Triple Crowns, that began with Silver Charm (12-for-24 lifetime, beaten three-quarters by Touch Gold in the Belmont to lose the Triple Crown). It would be hard to argue a 6-for-20 horse is a "super horse," but had Real Quiet been a nose quicker than Victory Gallop at Belmont, he'd have been a Triple Crown winner the next year and the drought would have been broken 12 years ago. Charismatic nearly did it just one year later, finishing third despite a broken leg. War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones gave us another three-year stretch from 2002-2004 where the first two legs were won and the Triple lost at Belmont; War Emblem stumbled at the start of his legend-defining race, Funny Cide was a credible third and Smarty Jones crushed everybody in his Belmont Stakes -- except Birdstone, who ran him down and won by about a length.

So that's six near-triples from 1997-2004. Had any of them broken through we'd be talking about half or less the Triple Crown drought we're presently suffering. And at least a couple of those horses (Silver Charm, definitely Smarty Jones) would be serious arguments for "super horse" status had they won a Belmont Stakes (and thus Triple Crown) they narrowly lost.

(Big Brown was our latest TC shot, but threw a stinker in the Belmont.)

I think Barbaro was a super horse, but regrettably we can't fully label him such. We'll never know how and why he went wrong in the Preakness, but had he run it the way he did the Derby, maybe not even a razor-sharp Bernardini would have been beating him that day. And how many rivals even would have shown up at Belmont three weeks later?

None of this takes into account horses like John Henry (39-for-86, 16 G1s, seven times champion, raced 1977-84), Cigar (19-for-33, 16 straight at one point), Zenyatta (17-for-17), Curlin (11-for-16, five G1s, $10.5 million), and Rachel Alexandra (13-for-18, three historic G1 wins vs. males), nor anyone overseas, most recently and notably Sea The Stars, who might have been the first English Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky (1970) had his connections not considered the accomplishment so unimportant as to not even try the St. Leger at 14 furlongs.

So I'd argue we've not suffered a dearth of "super horses" since the last U.S. Triple Crown was won in 1978. We've just had a lack of that one horse who could be a length (or sometimes less) faster on one day of his life (or be handled differently by his connections) to break the Triple Crown drought -- and thus to take our minds off the question, "How long has it been since we saw the last 'super horse?'"

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