Monday, August 16, 2010

What a difference 100 years makes

A lot changes in 100 years. (I know, "duh.")

Still, it's worth noting that since 1910, science and technology have brought us spectacular modes of travel (luxury automobiles, jet airplanes), engrossing forms of entertainment (HDTV, gaming consoles, computers with high-speed Internet) and amazing advancements in medicine (life expectancy for the average American male has rocketed from just 46.3 years in 1900, to 73.8 by 1998).

So what the hell is wrong with our horse racing?

That question is prompted by a pair of stories I read today that starkly contrast the differences between racing 100 years ago, and racing in the 21st century.

Teresa Genaro (of the Brooklyn Backstretch blog), writing for The Saratogian, tells the story of the colt Novelty, who a century ago this year staked his claim to the title of best 2-year-old in the country by winning five of his six starts during (what was then) a three-week Saratoga meeting. Meanwhile, at, we're told that trainer John Sadler says blazing 3-year-old Sidney's Candy, who just set a course record in the La Jolla H.-G2, in his first-ever try on turf at Del Mar, will likely not compete in the Del Mar Derby-G2 three weeks from now; that's just too soon after such a big effort.

Something's wrong with this picture.

Granted, many factors could play into this dramatic change in the expectations for our horses.

Some critics of recent breeding practices -- especially the American desire for precocity and speed that has caused a dramatic shortening in the distances of our races -- has also led to more fragile horses. It's possible that our handling of young horses, bulking-up and pushing them for the sales while hot-housing them to safeguard them from every scratch rather than letting them "just be horses," short-circuits a more natural maturation process.

Others would suggest that our horses today are too dependent upon medications. And financial considerations play a role; some horses can earn so much more money as breeding stock after their careers than they can on the track that racing them to earn income isn't worth the risk of losing that windfall in the shed to a catastrophic incident.

I happen to think it's very likely that horses 100 years ago were asked to "run through" medical maladies that no trainer would push a (valuable) horse to withstand today. And many minor illnesses and ailments might have gone completely unnoticed, whereas current veterinary medicine more readily uncovers niggling health problems -- and there's probably an injection prescribed, complete with necessary withdrawal times before the horse can run again.

Whatever the combination of culprits, I don't think it's a good thing that our expectations are now so far removed from an era when a sharp horse runs a big race -- such as Novelty's Saratoga Special win over Iron Mask and Naushon, who had beaten him in the trio's last race -- and the trainer (in Novelty's case, owner Samuel Clay Hildreth) would wheel him right back and run him again. After his upset of his two rivals in the Saratoga Special, Novelty won a match race vs. Textile (Novelty's third race in eight days), came back to win the Hopeful on Aug. 21 against all three aforementioned rivals while carrying 130 pounds, then on Aug. 27 was assigned a whopping 135 pounds for the Rensselaer and won it anyway.

Today, we have a fit 3-year-old colt setting a course record on grass -- coming out of the race "in great shape" and looking "wonderful," according to Sadler -- and a three-week break between races is just too short.

Admittedly, Secretariat was a freak. But he set course records in the Derby and Belmont and, if not for faulty timing, would have done so in the Preakness, as well, all races a total of five weeks apart. So, it's possible that much has happened just since 1973. And actually, the top three finishers behind Sidney's Candy expect to run three weeks later in the Del Mar Derby. Said Jim Cassidy of his runner-up, Kid Edward, "He ran a big race. He closed a lot of ground. ... Definitely, we're going to the Derby."

So apparently, it's OK to run a big race and then wheel back in three weeks. Just not "too big" of a race.

If Sidney's Candy had come out of the La Jolla showing signs that the effort had been more taxing than it appears, I'd more likely understand dismissing him from Del Mar Derby contention so soon. But he crushed in the La Jolla and seems to have come out none the worse for wear.

Back in the day, that was the sign your horse was razor-sharp. Thus you didn't rest him, you ran him.

So when it comes to the perpetual decline in number of starts by thoroughbreds, in a season or in a career, I'm more and more thinking it isn't the horse's fault. Whether training methods, reliance on medications or simply expectations, it's ours.


  1. Very good topic of discussion. Now I'm not a horse doctor or anything close but logic tells me that maybe the reverse is true from the thinking of trainers. If pro football or basketball players, for example, played a game every 6 to 10 weeks and went out for a jog once every 4 to 7 days, I would have to believe we would see a whole lot more injuries. In most sports the players that are active on the playing field as well as off are less apt to be injured. Just a thought, Glenn.... I know if I stop exercising on the eliptical for about 7 days, I feel weak and out of shape but I'm not a young thoroughbred... more like an eighteen year old horse. My point is that maybe it would be good for a young colt to get out and race every other week. And just how long does it take for a horse to heal 3 to 6 days? NFL players have to get ready in 6 days or less, why not a horse? Anyway good point for discussion... where's a horse whisperer when you need one?

  2. It's no wonder that Novelty was so sound. He was sired by the mighty Kingston. 138 starts from ages 2-10, 89 wins (the most of any American racehorse), 33 places, 12 shows. Kingston was a good 2yo, the best 3yo of his crop, and stayed in top handicap company for the rest of his long career. He won at just about every distance offered, from 5 furlong sprints to heat races, and retired as the all-time leading money earner. He led the sire list twice.

    If a horse like Kingston were racing today, I imagine he'd be retired after 2 or 3 stellar seasons, and get less than half of those starts per year. I believe that today's Thoroughbreds have the potential to be legends, even better than the horses of the past, but modern training is holding them back.

  3. Drugs, particularly Lasix, may indeed be partial responsible in terms of associated water weight loss, as are the attitudes of American trainers and their training methods.

    In Australia, where Lasix is forbidden and horses run drug free, it is not at all unusual to see top horses run back quickly. For example, top middle-distance runner Rangirangdoo ran 5 races from February 6 to April 17 this year, with about 2 weeks between each race. He won the G2 Expressway S. (1200m, or 6 furlongs) on February 6, followed by a second-place in the G2 Presentation S. (1400m/7f) on February 20. On March 6, he finished second in the G1 Chipping Norton S. (1600m/8f), followed by another second in the G1 Ranvet S. (2000m/10f) on March 20, and then a victory in the G1 Doncaster Mile (1600m/8f) on April 17. Except for the Expressway, each race had fields of 11 or more, including 20 in the Doncaster (my point there being it's also not like these American graded stakes with small, even overmatched fields which quality horses should easily be able to win). If you examine Australian trainers, they have no problem, if a horse is healthy, running them back again and again, even true stayers (over 12 furlongs). I also blame the advent of the Breeders' Cup for seriously limiting racing of top horses; the point, like in the case of Sidney's Candy, is to do just enough to get them to the "big" race. How silly when any little thing could set them back, or prevent that run. If they are healthy, RUN!

    Another difference: in Australia, horses run in barrier trials against one another, not timed workouts and they are fewer and far between. Why must trainers have their horses crank out bullet works? Aren't they leaving it on the track a tad soon? Steve Asmussen is one who likes modest workouts and it works well for his horses. If you see a bullet from one of his horses, beware!

    Also, in Australia, many times horses aren't stabled at a track where they are basically confinded to a stall most of the day, but at trainers' facilities/farms where they can get far more diverse exercise, such as running up and downs hills, as well as on sandy beaches and even in surf. One of the only trainers in America that I can think of with a similar approach is Jonathan Sheppard with his PA farm, and we know what a miracle worker he is. Cloudy's Knight?

  4. Thanks for the mention, Glenn. One note: the 1910 meet was scheduled for 21 days; three days were added to the end of the meet to make it 24. Saratoga wasn't six weeks way back then, making Novelty's accomplishments all the more noteworthy.

  5. Thanks for the correction, Teresa. I should have just said "during the Saratoga meeting," because it did cross my mind to wonder. ... Accuracy without specificity.


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