[Part of the following was extrapolated from my talk at the pedigree symposium in Lexington from earlier this month. They are notes that I used.]
In the 1970s, five North American-breds won the Derby:
’70 Nijinsky (Northern Dancer)
’71 Mill Reef (Never Bend)
’72 Roberto (Hail to Reason)
’76 Empery (Vaguely Noble)
’77 The Minstrel (Northern Dancer)
in the 1980s:
’80 Henbit (Hawaii)
’82 Golden Fleece (Nijinsky)
’83 Teenoso (Youth)
’84 Secreto (Northern Dancer)
’86 Shahrastani (Nijinsky)
’89 Nashwan (Blushing Groom)
in the 1990s:
’94 Erhaab (Chief’s Crown)
’95 Lammtarra (Nijinsky)
’97 Benny the Dip (Silver Hawk)
in the 2000s:
’03 Kris Kin (Kris S)
So, after being responsible for 11 of 20 Epsom Derby winners throughout the 1970s and 1980s, we have only had 4 of the next 22.
Here’s a stark example of what has happened here to our races during the approximate time span from the 1970s—our last Golden Age—to the present. When Graded races first started in the US in the early 1970s, two races were given Grade 1 status at 1 3/4 miles or beyond for older horses: the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at two miles on dirt and the Grade 1 San Juan Capistrano at one and three-quarter miles on turf. At the same time—and can you believe this?!—there were no Grade 1 races at six furlongs for older horses, and the premier sprint in the country–the Vosburgh, at 7F–was originally a Grade 2 before being elevated to G1 status at the beginning of the 1980s. And mind you, the Vosburgh was a race that had been won at that time by such greats as Dr Fager and Ta Wee at the close of the 1960s and by Forego, My Juliet, and Dr. Patches in the 1970s, yet our “culture” back then was still steeped in the American classic distance of 10 furlongs as the elite marker of the breed, so the Vosburgh started as a Grade 2 while the Jockey Club Gold Cup at two miles was a Grade 1.
Now, however, there are no Grade 1 races at those extreme distances—the San Juan Capistrano is no longer a Grade 1 and the Jockey Club Gold Cup is at 10F– but there are 15 Grade 1 races at six and seven furlongs for three and up!, 11 for males and 4 for older fillies.
Additionally, there are 5 Grade 1 races for 3yos alone at sprint distances.
That’s a significant change in culture, and it’s no coincidence that it’s mirrored our production at Epsom and our inability to get true 10-furlong types for our own Derby.
This year, the Kentucky Derby went to a horse by a Brazilian-bred sire from a German-bred dam. And both parents were turf horses!
That’s not as surprising as it should sound, however, because historically we’ve made improvements to our breed importing stamina turf horses, or those by stamina turf lines.
Getting back to our racing programs, most of our G1 races are clustered in the 8-9F range on dirt.
There are ONLY three Grade 1 races on dirt at 10F or up for older horses of all ages in the US: The BC Classic, the Santa Anita Handicap, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic are 10F races on AW.
The ONLY G1 race in the country at 12F on dirt is the Belmont Stakes for 3yos.
Even 10 years ago, in 2001, a hallowed race such as the Coaching Club American Oaks for 3yo fillies—at one time in the 1970s and 1980s considered the “only” classic race for fillies in the US, was held at 12F, instead of the 9F its run at today, while the 14F San Juan Capistrano—a bellwether—was still a G1 race. For older horses, we still had the Gulfstream Park Handicap at 10F, the Pimlico Special at 9.5F, and for 3yo colts there was the Super Derby at 10F. None of those three now exists, either as a race or as a G1 event.
So, even within the last 10 years, there’s been noticeable change, a drop off in opportunity at a distance at the top level.