Are Racehorses Getting Slower?

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Derek Simon

June 20th, 2015

When American Pharoah became just the 12th Triple Crown winner in history on June 6, 2015, he did so in style, recording the sixth-fastest time in Belmont Stakes history. Yet, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out in graphic fashion, the 2:26.65 that it took Pharoah to traverse the 1-1/2 miles that day pales in comparison to the 2:24 it took the great Secretariat to complete the same journey 42 years earlier.

Now, when you consider that horse racing has always been a means of showcasing and improving the breed — geldings were prohibited from competing in the Belmont from 1919 to 1956 for precisely that reason — this begs the question: After years of selective breeding and pedigree analysis, are thoroughbred racehorses actually getting slower?

I say “thoroughbreds” because we know that other breeds are doing just fine. Nearly all the major North American records for Arabians have been set since 2000. And the same is true for Standardbreds — both pacers and trotters.

The thoroughbred record book reads quite differently, however, as just three major North American records have been recorded since the dawn of the new millennium — and all three were in sprints (races less than a mile).

Hollywood Harbor, a horse that stepped outside the state of Washington exactly once in his 13-race career, blazed 5 ½ furlongs in 1:00.87 at Emerald Downs on April 22, 2012; Twin Sparks, a horse who never left the cozy confines of Arizona, set the six-furlong mark of 1:06.49 at Turf Paradise on Nov. 21, 2009; and I Keep Saying, another product of the great Pacific Northwest, zipped 6 ½ panels in 1:12.94 at Emerald Downs last July.

Considering that, for many years, Arizona and Washington tracks — despite carding just one graded race between them (the Grade III Longacres Mile) — have dominated the sprint record books, I’m not sure whether this speaks to the speed of the horses or the speed of the racetracks. My guess is the latter.

But, speaking of the tracks: Some say that they are at the heart of the speed stagnation.

 “When the horses of the seventies were running, the cushion at Belmont was three inches,” Jerry Brown of Thoro-Graph, a speed rating service, told Bill Finley of ESPN in 2004. “The cushion there is now four inches. To give you an idea of what that means, there was only one day in 2003 at Belmont when the cushion was 3 ½ inches and that was the day when (the moderately talented) Najran ran the 1:32 1/5 mile (when winning the Westchester Handicap) mile. The other difference is that in order to get tracks to dry out faster they've gone to a higher sand content. When sand is dry, it creates a slower track."

In fact, Brown is so adamant on this point of slower racetracks that he takes the name of Secretariat in vain.

“Secretariat is to today's horses as Jesse Owens is to today's track and field athletes,” Brown said, fighting off a plague of locusts (that last bit might not be true — I’m projecting my own thoughts). “There are a lot of high school athletes running faster today than Jesse Owens. If you think about all the things that happened with human beings over that time — they're bigger, stronger, eat better, train much better. The same holds true for horses, but horses, unlike human beings, have something to say about what gets put in their bodies and human beings are not selectively bred to try to improve the breed. These things have dramatically increased the ability and athleticism of horses.”

According to Brown, the thoroughbreds of 2004 were a good 10 lengths faster than their predecessors at 1 ¼ miles… so imagine how much faster they’d be today.

“I know no one believes that. The only way you can do that is by looking at how fast horses run day to day on each given racetrack and using figures to measure that. I understand that's counterintuitive to believe these horses can be 10 lengths faster. But if you look at what harness horses have done, where it is easier to compare since they all run the same distance on comparable racetracks and where they have dramatically lowered all their world records, in terms of improvement, thoroughbreds are doing the same thing. If you look at what human athletes have done in terms of percentage of improvement, again, what thoroughbreds are doing is comparable.”

Uh, OK, but if all that is true, shouldn’t we at least see better overall speed figures (after all, they purportedly account for the glibness of the track)?

Sure, Brown’s own numbers reflect his belief in a faster breed — he notes that Ghostzapper’s -6 ½ figs in the 2004 Iselin and Woodward were “unthinkable” as recently as 1990 — but other speed rating services see it differently.

In fact, both Brisnet and Equibase awarded higher (better) speed figures to Formal Gold when he won the Iselin and Woodward seven years earlier. Only Andrew Beyer and associates gave Ghostzapper a bigger number in either race.

What’s more, if we look at the Brisnet and Equibase speed figures of other major races, we find this same general trend of lower and lower numbers.

And the Beyer figures don’t exactly paint a rosy picture either, as the majority of the best dirt numbers were recorded prior to the discovery of a 2,100-year-old melon in Japan. (You think that little nugget was highlighted on Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve in 2007?)

(via Dick Jerardi of the Daily Racing Form)

In a future column, I’ll examine a factor that I think may be helping to put the brake on speed. In the meantime, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for another tremendous machine.Are