The breed is indeed faster, but can it carry its speed here?

Emma Berry

Emma Berry, the bloodstock editor at Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder in the UK, tweeted a link yesterday to a very interesting online piece dated August 31, 2011, by James Willoughby, titled, “The breed stays further, faster.” (Her husband, John Berry, published an equally interesting piece yesterday on Thoroughbred Internet on the specialist sprint sire Paris House that relates to James’ piece.)

James addresses the time-honored lament in the UK–and it’s uttered here, too–that the breed is losing stamina to the detriment of speed, but he’ll have nothing of it, as the title to his piece suggests. Indeed, he examines the times for the 12-furlong Derby from 1950 to the present and finds that the breed is faster now than before in the UK.

His argument may hold water on his side of the pond, but here things are a little different. 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: 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 around the same time—and can you believe this?!—there were no Grade 1 races at six furlongs, and only one at seven furlongs—the Vosburgh, later in early 1980s. Now, however, there are no Grade 1 races at those extreme distances, but there are several at six furlongs, with most on dirt in the eight-to-nine furlong range. That’s a cultural shift in the sport from before and quite different to the UK racing scheme that features Group 1 races for older horses from five furlongs to the two and a half miles of the Ascot Gold Cup—fixtures that haven’t changed in distances in decades or more.

Below are comments by me to Emma about James’ piece on Twitter yesterday. Mine are addressed to @OwnerBreeder, the Twitter handle for the magazine (I have combined some tweets together as Twitter only allows 140-character blasts at a time; also,I left them with the original punctuation and spelling errors.). Likewise, comments to me are addressed at @sidfernando:

@OwnerBreeder excellent piece by James. My only quibble: what happens when all the races are at 8.5F, as they are trending toward in USA?
@OwnerBreeder imagine that your King George VI is now 8.5f or your Gold Cup is now 9f? Very hard to tell if stamina at 12f+ exists w/o proving ground. In US when graded racing instituted, there were two G1 races at 2m and 1 3/4m and none at 6f. Now vastly different landscape, w several 6f G1s, none at 12f and up on dirt for older horses, one, Belmont, for 3yos. Contrast Europe. speed has most definitely increased. But specialist sires are vanishing, at both ends of spectrum. Plus gulf between US and European racing widening. No reason for Euros to look for Derby types here; we don’t make many here for your needs nowadays.
And Emma’s reply:
@sidfernando The trend is perhaps a product of the misperceived notion of loss of stamina in the thoroughbred.
So, did the egg come before the chicken, or vice versa? That’s the question, but the result of it is that our horses are not given the opportunity to be tested thoroughly at 10 furlongs, much less at 12 furlongs and up.
The breed is indeed faster, but can it carry its speed here?

10 thoughts on “The breed is indeed faster, but can it carry its speed here?

  1. jim culpepper says:

    Can’t help wondering whether the perceived differences are from people beleiving their own propaganda, or if Bill Pressey is right about poorly conditioned horses running on dope and dirt here in the USA.
    Is Paris House carrying so much condition that his front legs look spindly or is this a bad photo?

  2. Tinky says:

    Willoughby is generally a thoughtful observer, but he tends to be figure-centric, and in my view is on shaky ground here. There are many factors that have probably contributed to faster Derby times in recent years, and he even touches on a few. Yet because the bare times tend to support his hypothesis, he essentially dismisses those variables as being trivial. Furthermore, the times recorded by individual Derby winners are not at all necessarily reflective of broader trends in bloodlines. Would anyone argue that because Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Big Brown were successful at 10f. and beyond, their sires were/are actually hidden sources of stamina? Of course not.

    There is certainly a far greater degradation of stamina in U.S.-bred horses, and how anyone can argue to the contrary is a mystery to me.

    When Emma says:

    “… but the result of it is that our horses are not given the opportunity to be tested thoroughly at 10 furlongs, much less at 12 furlongs and up.”

    she implies that perhaps we would find that stamina is as robust as ever in American Thoroughbreds if only they were given a chance to race at 10f. and beyond.

    Give me a break.

    Anyone who has followed the bloodlines that have been supported in the U.S. over the past 40 years can readily identify the elimination of virtually every, truly stout line, and their replacement by sprinter/miler lines. Furthermore, every year we are treated to viewing 90+% of the horses that compete in the Triple Crown failing to truly stay the trip.

  3. Tinky, your comments are on the mark, but I actually said “… but the result of it is that our horses are not given the opportunity to be tested thoroughly at 10 furlongs, much less at 12 furlongs and up.”

    That’s the case now, quite frankly. Without stamina-testing races, we’ll never know which bloodlines we have here—A.P. Indy, Pleasant Colony line, Roberto?? whatever–will once again rise to the challenges presented.

    In other words, the races need to be lengthend before we can breed for them, because who in his right mind NOW will breed 12F horses for 8.5F races?!

  4. Tinky says:

    I agree, Sid. But while there may be some unexpressed, relatively stout genes floating around in the American pool, most of the obvious lines are being selected out as a result of our increasingly compressed ‘variety’ of races.

    Even the A P Indy line, to use an obvious example of relative stamina, is moving in the opposite direction, as his most successful sons (i.e. Pulpit and Malibu Moon), and useful sons (e.g. Mineshaft, Aptitude, Golden Missile) are primarily miler influences (the book is still out on Bernardini).

    Perhaps, if there were available races, a Summer Bird (to use one example) line would develop. But we agree that without those races, we’ll never know.

  5. Willoughby is correct; times are faster in Euro Triple Crown races, but that is not the case in the US.

    Variables are definitely present on both sides of the pond as Tinky points out, but while Euro triple crown cumulative times are 8.4sec faster, ours (US) are only 2.9sec faster since 1950. I’m not a statistician, but those numbers are significant.

    I see how horses in the US finish at 10F, I don’t need to see another 2F of suffering to judge the absence of stamina.

    Snow Fairy is a perfect example of conditioning overcoming sub-par pedigree. For maintenance, she gallops up the hills of Newmarket twice on a fast working day – keeping HR maxed out for nearly 1 mile while speed is in 14s uphill. That is more work than an American horse gets in 1 month, and it’s safer. She spends 75min outside that day, compared to the 12min a US horse gets trackside.

    Don’t forget; American turf horses breakdown 1.7 times per 1,000 starts, while AU turf runners only suffer fatal injuries 0.6 times. Again, you don’t need a statistician to interpret those numbers.

  6. And AU turfers are faster too – as evidenced by Black Caviar and Hay List. Here is an Australian turf superstar breezing a 10.1 second eighth during a campaign that saw him win at the Group 1 level:

    Until US trainers get away from the quarter horse method of training, we’ll not see speed or stamina like other countries. But, specificity trumps all – and we will continue to be the world leaders on dirt/lasix.

  7. jim culpepper says:

    A cursory look in mid summer appeared to indicate a number of quarter horse records broken recently; however, since they are quarter horses, quarter horse training might just work for them.

  8. Mark Walker says:

    The US system is not set up to allow distance horses to thrive. An average top class stallion will sire 8-12 percent stakes winners from foals. That leaves him with 88-92 percent allowance and claiming horses. Where are these horses going to race? There are very few (if any) distance races for allowance or claiming horses, so these horses end up struggling at shorter distances.

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