There was a column written recently about the “decline” of the American superstar and the “ascendancy” of the English superstar. According to the column, America’s “liberal use of drugs” is the culprit for the U.S. decline, while the exportation to England of young horses with Northern Dancer blood was said to be the contributing factor to the rise of the British superstar.
This is based on what, two recent superstars, Frankel and Sea the Stars? Yes, there have been several superstar fillies worldwide, such as Goldikova and Zarkova in France and Black Caviar in Australia. But they are no more superstars than Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, and perhaps even Rags to Riches, whose career unfortunately was cut short.
How many people have heard of the following horses – Pour Moi, New Approach, Authorized, Sir Percy, Motivator, North Light, and Kris Kin? Well, other than Sea the Stars, Workforce, and Camelot, these are the past seven winners of the English Derby. So, where is this supposed inundation of English superstars? Among the last 11 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winners are Solemia, Dylan Thomas, Rail Link, Hurricane Run, Bago, Dalakhani, and Marienbard. Not exactly household names, and this is the race that is supposed the determine the European champion.
The question that needs to be asked is whether it is possible, just possible, that the reason there have been several superstars in England recently is that the overall quality of their horses has actually declined, thus enabling certain horses with extraordinary talent to stand out more than they normally would. We’re not saying that is the case, and we’re taking nothing away from the amazing talents of Frankel or Sea the Stars, but in Europe there are fewer barometers to help define a horse’s greatness. Final times mean little or nothing, nor do closing fractions and speed figures. There is no gauge in Europe other than a horse’s record, number of prestigious races won, and the competition he or she faced, which is relative, considering the fewer number of group I stakes in England compared to the U.S., thus making it more difficult to assess one’s competition. Frankel did receive an all-time high Timeform Rating of 147 in the Queen Anne Stakes, but that is just what it says, a rating, and is purely subjective. And subjectivity shouldn’t determine superstars.
We have thrilled to Frankel’s victories as much as anyone, and we wrote an extensive column about him last fall. It is safe to say we will never see his like again. But does a rare freak like Frankel or Sea the Stars define the superstar status of an entire nation and denigrate the status of the American superstar?
It is well established that our recent superstar females easily stack up with the great fillies of Europe, Australia, and Japan. Unfortunately, many of our budding superstar males have fallen victim to injury. Who knows how special Smarty Jones could have been, or Afleet Alex, or even Animal Kingdom and I’ll Have Another. Who will doubt that Big Brown’s performances in the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness were other worldly? He was one Breeders’ Cup Classic victory over Raven’s Pass away from true superstardom, but also fell victim to injury. Ghostzapper performed some of the most amazing feats in the history of the sport, despite his unsoundness. Perhaps it has been the effect of drugs long-term that has contributed to the unsoundness of our recent stars, but drugs certainly didn’t diminish their talent and what they did accomplish.
As far as the so-called decline of superstars after the glory days of the 1970s, America had the “misfortune” of having two superstars from the same crop in 1989. How often has that happened in England since Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard in 1971? Just imagine if Easy Goer and Sunday Silence did not come along in the same year. Either one would have won the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Easy Goer would have added the Whitney, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup.
We recall Giant’s Causeway and Sakhee being hailed as superstars in Europe, but both were out-gutted by Tiznow in the 2000 and 2001 BC Classic, respectively, when they tried to threaten America’s dominance on dirt. Finishing up the track in the 2001 Classic was superstar Galileo, sire of Frankel.
What if Alysheba hadn’t come along in one of the deepest and most talented 3-year-old crops in memory? As it is he still put together a Hall of Fame career worthy of superstar status. It is safe to say Personal Ensign and Lady’s Secret can be considered superstars. And we haven’t even mentioned John Henry, one of the greatest geldings of all time. Following the Kentucky Derby, Fusaichi Pegasus, one of the most magnificent-looking horses we have ever seen, was considered a potential superstar, but he, too, was plagued by unsoundness. The talent has been there, but the soundness hasn’t.
Let’s face it, the majority of our 3-year-old superstars, mainly our Triple Crown winners, came along in years where there were few if any major stars. Other than Alydar, how many major stars were there who competed against Triple Crown winners? Secretariat had one horse, Sham (Forego was an unfinished product in the Derby and nowhere near what he was to become); Seattle Slew had no one; Citation had one, his own stablemate Coaltown. Can anyone name any of the horses who finished behind Count Fleet, Whirlaway or Assault?
That has been the nature of the sport throughout history. A Triple Crown sweep and the birth of a 3-year-old superstar occur pretty much when there is one exceptional horse and little competition. All the “great” Triple Crown winners, with the exception of Count Fleet, proved their greatness after the Triple Crown. But horses were sounder back then and given the opportunity to continue their careers. Back in the Triple Crown-winning days, it was rare to have as many as 20 horses in the Derby. The fields were smaller and the number of proven stakes winners was far fewer. You had cheap claimers and inferior allowance horses competing in the Derby. Now, there are 19 or 20 horses in the Derby every year and each one of them has to qualify in graded stakes races in order to get in the race. You rarely had 12-14 horses in the Belmont, but that is the norm now, as is the increase in fresh horses, some of whom skipped the Preakness after the Derby, and some of whom simply were late-developers. All those factors make the Triple Crown much harder to sweep now than it was in the past.
We admit, we haven’t had a male counterpart to Frankel in many years, but let’s also remember that Frankel’s accomplishments can be equated to an American superstar who never competed at a mile and a quarter (the country’s classic distance), and we have had very few of those, if any.
It is important to remember that superstardom in England is often based on a single year of racing, as English Derby winners rarely race at 4. Only the Ballydoyle horses of Aidan O’Brien and the Juddmonte horses can be counted on year after year to race as older horses. So, in many cases, greatness in England is determined by perhaps a half-dozen races. Frankel is the rare exception with 14 races over a three-year-period. That’s still less than five races a year.
The bottom line is that we don’t feel it is fair to make such a broad statement regarding the ascent and decent of superstars, based on the heroics of two horses. And it is not fair to denigrate the talent of the American Thoroughbred when it is not given the opportunity to demonstrate that talent over the course of an entire career.
American blood has indeed been diluted with the inundation of speed, and perhaps we have been “breeding the bone” out of the Thoroughbred, all for the sake of the sales market and the instant gratification that is primary in so many owners. But we still have the ability to produce a superstar colt. One of these years we’ll get one that stays sound, and we, too, will be able to rejoice in the heroics of a horse like Frankel over a period of time.