Last year, the storied Suburban Handicap went from Grade 1 to Grade 2, and this year–sigh!–the race that distance horses such as Kelso and Forego and some of the other greats of racing’s past won has been shortened to 9 furlongs from 10, which at one point defined the classic racing distance in the US. It’s a cryin’ shame, because yet another distinguished and unique event on the national racing calendar has lost its character to fit into the homogenously mundane program that US racing has become, defined more and more these days by 9-furlong “routes.” I say this facetiously, becaue in truth there’s nothing “routing” going 9 furlongs; a good miler can stay the trip, and a superior sprinter may be ridden to get it.
What happened to the Suburban is very much a part of our suburban cultural makeup, and there are parallels elsewhere—let’s take suburban strip malls?—to illustrate it. Every city suburb in the US has the ubiquitous strip mall with the fast food chains, car dealerships, etc., cocooned in plastic and formulaic architecture and urban planning, mass produced to make the mall sprawl in the Atlanta suburbs indiscernible from the one in any Long Island town. That cookie-cutter approach to sameness is the 9-furlong “route,” ubiquitous at every major racetrack near you that cards a featured graded stakes race!
The 9-furlong approach to racing is killing the diversity of our breeding programs as well, and it’s making our racing and breeding industries increasingly separate from the rest of the world’s. This contrast couldn’t have been put in starker relief from the recent meet at Royal Ascot, where the striking diversity of Britain’s racing program spanned the range of distances from the 5-furlong King’s Stand to the 20-furlong Ascot Gold Cup—both Group 1 events, by the way.
In Europe, a “middle-distance” horse is one who gets 10 to 12 furlongs; a “router” gets the trip from 14 furlongs to 20; a “miler” is just that, a miler at 8 furlongs; and the sprinters sprint 5 and 6 furlongs. The distinct aptitudes and specialization at each level allow a variety of stallions to go to stud, and breeders can mix and match pedigrees by using sprint sires with stamina mares or vice versa.
Our breeding industry, unfortunately, has morphed into one type of horse—yes, that’s right, the 9-furlong horse. That horse is used for sprinting, miles, 9 furlongs—of course!—and everything else, for that matter.
There was once a time, not that long ago, young ‘uns, when the Europeans came here to buy their 12-furlong Derby horses, but those days now seem a fading memory. They don’t need our stock with the Galileos and Montjeus of the world in their backyard for the classics, and for good measure they have sprinters there, such as Cape Cross, Green Desert, and Oasis Dream, and milers, such as the Danehills, that they can use, too, to breed classic horses or sprinters or milers. They have diversity, even if it’s from various descendents of Northern Dancer.
We, on the other hand, settled for the cookie-cutter approach, which was pragmatic, industrial, and easily facilitated. But the suburban strip malls of our breeding and racing programs are killing the aesthetics of our racing culture—and ultimately its strength. We need to reclaim the diversity that allowed a race like the Suburban to be at one time a shiny jewel of the handicap triple, along with the Metropolitan Mile and the Brooklyn Handicap, and a part of our unique character.