A Realistic Look at American Pharoah and Secretariat

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Derek Simon

June 13th, 2015

When American Pharoah became just the 12th horse to sweep the Triple Crown — one year after Steve Coburn, co-owner of California Chrome, proclaimed the feat impossible — much of the talk centered not on the colt’s amazing accomplishment, but rather on his place in history.

The Wall Street Journal even released a video that proved Secretariat’s time of 2:24 in the 1973 Belmont Stakes was faster than American Pharoah’s time of 2:26.65 in this year’s edition of the Test of Champions. (I’m anxiously awaiting a follow-up video confirming that Ted Williams’ MLB-leading .406 batting average in 1941 was higher than the .341 mark of last year’s batting champ Jose Altuve.)

Look, I get it: We love to compare athletes of different eras — it’s one of the great joys of being a sports fan. Heck, in the last few weeks alone, I’ve heard more arguments for and against LeBron James and Michael Jordan as the best NBA player ever than I’ve seen Caitlyn Jenner stories. That’s a lot of arguments.

But why do the horse racing debates have to be so, well, dumb?

For example, I've never heard an NBA fan contend that Wes Unseld was a better rebounder than Dennis Rodman solely on the basis that the former averaged 14.0 caroms per game during his pro basketball career, while the latter averaged 13.1.  Knowledgeable hoops fans are aware that other factors — tempo and a greater emphasis on defense, to name a couple — have altered the game over the years.

In fact, when one digs deeper, one finds that while Unseld grabbed 18.0 percent of the rebounds available when he was on the floor over the course of his career, Rodman hauled in an incredible 23.4 percent — and led the NBA in that category an astounding eight times (Unseld never led the League that many times in anything but menacing scowls).

Likewise, there was a reason that Andy Beyer and others came up with speed figures to measure how fast a horse ran on a particular day. It’s because they were well aware of the fact — as were countless racegoers before them — that track surfaces and conditions have a huge impact on the final clocking. It’s why so many old-timers discounted time altogether.

So why are we looking at final times to assess the merits of Triple Crown champions?

I got a chuckle out of a recent article by Roger Pielke at FiveThityEightSports, which made the point (probably true) that thoroughbreds are at, or nearing, their genetic potential for increased speed.

“Since 1949, the time it takes thoroughbreds to run around the 1.25-mile track has averaged 2:02.25, and no winning race time has deviated by more than 3 seconds from this long-term average,” wrote Pielke in regard to the Kentucky Derby.

Why since 1949, you might ask (as opposed to 1948, 1947 or some other year)? Well, possibly it’s due to the fact that, in each of the previous four years, Pielke’s contention did not hold. What’s more, all of those races were contested on “off” tracks (tracks not listed as “fast”).

Of course, off tracks are of no concern in track and field, where the conditions are closely monitored and even a slight breeze can render a time ineligible for world record consideration.

Hence, is it really that surprising to learn that Pielke and others believe that racehorses have plateaued while human beings and other breeds of horses, e.g. Standardbreds, continue to show marked athletic improvement?

Those insisting on comparing American Pharoah to Secretariat should at least try to equalize the playing field. As I’ve stated before, the 1973 Belmont spring meeting featured some ridiculously fast times.

How “ridiculously fast,” you ask?

How about eight new track records during the 30-day meet, including two that still stand today (both set by Big Red, incidentally). In fact, on the day that Secretariat moved like a tremendous machine, the average dirt route time (minus the Belmont Stakes) was about two seconds off the existing track record — about the same for dirt routes on the Belmont undercard this year. The difference is, in 1973, all of those other races were allowance affairs, whereas, in 2015, five of six were stakes events (three Grade I and one Grade II).

Thus, if we adjust — based on an extensive database study I did using Brisnet speed figures — the variants for the class of the races comprising them, we get a totally different kind of match-up between American Pharoah and Secretariat.