There was a time when seven furlongs in 1:23 to 1:24 was considered pretty decent for allowance and stakes horses, and anything under 1:23 was what the fastest stakes sprinters would run. Today, 1:24 normally would be considered pedestrian, as we consistently see seven-furlong times of 1:20 and change and 1:21 and change in graded stakes.
We now see top stakes horses running six furlongs in 1:07 and change and 1:08 and change on a regular basis, with 2-year-olds running 1:09 and change. Mile times have consistently gotten faster, as have many of the longer races.
One would naturally assume that horses have gotten faster over the years. But is it possible it is the tracks and not the horses that have gotten faster? It is said by some speed gurus that the cushion on today’s racetracks has been scraped off as much as an inch or more, making for faster times on a consistent basis, even by lesser caliber horses.
Statistical trends tell us that speed and stamina no longer are as compatible as they once were, as we continue to infuse speed into our pedigrees, and speed diminishes the farther a horse runs. The true stamina-oriented stallions that are still visible in a horse’s extended pedigree have faded back to the fourth and fifth generation.
Perhaps that is the reason that horses no longer set American dirt records carrying their speed beyond six furlongs and especially around two turns. If anyone believes that today’s faster times indicate it is the horses that have gotten faster, then ask yourself why there are no more American dirt records being set at distances over six furlongs, even with the consistently fast times being run. We have seen many great horses over the last several decades, but none of them have been able to match the fastest of the fast from earlier decades.
Could it be the truly great horses of the past simply were faster and were bred to carry their speed longer distances, or could it be that today’s horses are not given the opportunity to set new American dirt records? We have so many horses now going through the 2-year-old sales, and when you ask babies to run an eighth of a mile in :09 and change and a quarter of a mile in :21 and faster, chances are those horses are not going to be setting American records once the distances stretch out. In the past, the majority of well-bred horses were homebreds, many with stamina pedigrees, who were given the chance to develop naturally. Just because a horse has stamina in his pedigree doesn’t mean he’s not capable of running fast times. It was talent and class that enabled horses to run fast times, not just speed.
Another factor could be longevity. Once a 3-year-old establishes himself as something special, especially in the Triple Crown races, there is a good chance he is going to be retired that year and never given the opportunity to compete when he is at his physical peak.
The current American dirt record holders from six furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, with the exception of Secretariat’s still mind-boggling Belmont Stakes in 2:24 and Time to Explode’s record-equaling time at seven furlongs, have one thing in common. They were all set by horses 4-years-old and up. In fact, the American records for seven furlongs (held by two horses), one mile, 1 1/8 miles, 1 3/16 miles, and 1 1/4 miles are all held by 4-year-olds. That is when a horse is fully developed and at his physical peak and most likely to run record times, especially at a mile or longer. Some horses reach their peak at 5.
Would it be too simplistic to compare California Chrome’s 1 1/4 mile time of 2:03 3/5 in the Kentucky Derby to his 2:00 flat in the Pacific Classic? You can be the judge of that.
When you consider how many of our major stars from the Triple Crown are now retired at 3, whether due to capitalizing on their stud value or because of injury, it should not be surprising that we haven’t seen any American dirt records being set anymore.
If you believe the consistently faster times now indicate it is the horses and not the tracks that are faster, then with all those fast times being run why hasn’t anyone broken Dr. Fager’s record mile in 1:32 1/5 set 48 years ago? Yes it was equaled in 2003 by Najran, but he was carrying 21 pounds less than Dr. Fager (134 to 113), so pound for pound, Dr. Fager still has run the fastest mile ever, and still may have considering his record is recorded in fifths of a second while Najran’s is in one-hundredths of a second.
The same goes for Rich Cream’s record seven furlongs in 1:19 2/5 set 36 years ago and Hoedown’s Day’s 1 1/16 miles in 1:38 2/5 set 35 years ago and Simply Majestic’s 1 1/8 miles in 1:45 set 28 years ago and Riva Ridge and Farma’s Way’s 1 3/16 miles in 1:52 2/5 set 43 years ago and 25 years ago, respectively, and Spectacular Bid’s 1 1/4 miles in 1:57 4/5 set 36 years ago and Secretariat’s 1 1/2 miles in 2:24 set 43 years ago. Because the distances are rarely or never run anymore, I won’t even bother adding Swaps’ 1 5/8 miles in 2:38 1/5 set 60 years ago or Kelso’s two miles in 3:19 1/5 set 52 years ago. But I guess I just did.
Let’s face it; that is a long time for not one of those American dirt records to be broken. Why is that considering the horses are consistently running faster, especially on the Ragozin and Thoro-Graph speed sheets? As mentioned earlier, it could be that it is the racetracks not the horses that have gotten faster, along with the proliferation of 2-year-old sales and breeze shows and the speed that has been infused into our bloodlines. Many of our best horses are not being given the opportunity to peak as 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds—the age at which the majority of American records are set.
Another point to consider is that today’s Thoroughbred is not asked to carry heavy weights anymore, and they still cannot break American dirt records in all these years and very few break track records. Great horses used to equal or break track or American records burdened with heavy weights. For example, Dr. Fager equaled or broke records carrying 132, 134, and 139 pounds; Swaps broke five records carrying 130 pounds; Forego broke a record carrying 132 pounds and missed by a fifth of a second under 137 pounds; Damascus and Bold Ruler broke records carrying 130 pounds; and Round Table broke a record carrying 132 pounds. An the vast majority of these were in distance races.
There is no point that I’m trying to get at other than to bring up the question of why no American dirt records have been broken in so many decades. It is merely something to ponder on an August afternoon before one of the most competitive Travers Stakes in many years.
Oh, by the way, the track record for 1 1/4 miles at Saratoga is 2:00 flat set by General Assembly 37 years ago.