If mile races create the best sires, why are there fewer of them?
The adage, or cliché, that "milers make the best sires" has been around quite a while. If that is indeed the case, it makes you wonder why some of our most historic mile races have fallen out of favor with horsemen and breeders.
The Withers is the feature at Aqueduct on Saturday. It is for three-year-olds and run at 1 1/16 miles around two turns, but is only a few years removed from being a springtime highlight at Aqueduct (or Belmont) around a one-turn mile.
When it was inaugurated in 1874, the Withers was American racing's equivalent to England's Two Thousand Guineas. Aristides, Hanover, Domino, Colin, Sir Barton, Man o' War, and Zev were among the notable winners during the race's first 50 years.
The next half-century and more was pretty good, too. Count Fleet, Polynesian, Olympia, Hill Prince, Native Dancer, Intentionally, Dr. Fager, Ack Ack, and Bold Reasoning all won the Withers, and many of them wound up as significant stallions.
However, the last two decades the Withers was run at a mile were relatively lean years. The most prominent winner during the span was Bernardini, who used the race as a stepping stone to success in the Preakness.
Admittedly, the springtime date of the Withers was never truly ideal, coming shortly before or after the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps succumbing to "Derby Fever" was more important, and more fun, than proving you had a pretty nice miler with stallion potential in your barn.
The Withers is now run a month after the Jerome, another three-year-old race formerly run at a mile. When I started following the sport, the Jerome was still recognized as top-level event and run every September at Belmont. Strangely, it too fell out of favor.
Over the years both the Withers and Jerome were downgraded, thus NYRA had no qualms about moving both races to the dead of winter at Aqueduct several years ago, transforming them into modest Triple Crown preps.
The decline of the Withers and Jerome wouldn't be so bizarre if not for the fact that other races, presumably now considered "stallion-making" events, have risen in stature. Among these are the King's Bishop at Saratoga and the Malibu at Santa Anita.
The horse King's Bishop didn't even hit the ground until the Withers and Jerome were nearly a century old, but the memorial to him, inaugurated in 1984, is now widely viewed as some sort of must-see attraction at the Saratoga meet.
The Malibu is several decades older than the King's Bishop, but for the longest time was considered nothing more than a leg-stretching tune up for the San Fernando and Strub. Both of those races are now gone, and the Malibu has evolved into a race so vitally important you're considered a bad Eclipse Award voter if you don't wait until after it is run on December 26 before casting your ballot.
The strange thing about all this is that, due to track configurations, the King's Bishop and Malibu are run at seven furlongs. That's only a furlong less than a mile, but the distances are still two totally different ballgames.
Despite the love affair for milers as potential stallions, the numbers of top-level, one-mile races has declined over the years. Today, only the Cigar Mile has joined the Met Mile on the list, as has the relatively new Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. However, the latter has been run around two turns for most of its history, and seems to play much differently than one-turn races at the same distance.
Seven-furlong races, on the other hand, never seem to go out of style. After running in the increasingly popular Woody Stephens, King's Bishop and Malibu, your specialist can point for top-level races like the Carter Handicap, Triple Bend, and Forego as a four-year-old.
I'm no expert on what it takes to make and market a great stallion. All I do know is that at least two tradition-rich races that once frequently aided horsemen in doing just that are sad shells of their former selves.
(Bernardini, 2006 Withers photo: Adam Coglianese Photography)