In Search of the True Milers

On September 23, the grade 2 Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park will be the main event of the day, standing alone for the first time, rather than lost in the morass of grade 1 stakes that used to be known as Breeders’ Cup Preview Day.

That may seem to have little or no significance to anyone, but it actually gives a great deal more exposure and importance to a race that likely will serve as a major prep for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, but in actuality is a truer mile race than the Breeders’ Cup and is better suited as a prep for the Cigar Mile, run at Aqueduct in late November.

The reason is simple. The Kelso is run at a flat mile around one turn, while the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile yet again will be run around two turns. If you consider the basis for a mile race in this country and what it represents, the Kelso and Cigar Mile are far more indicative of what a mile race was intended to be.

So, one must ask: When is a mile not a mile? In a pure horse racing sense it is a mile run around two turns instead of the more traditional flat mile around one turn.

In the 10 runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, only two (both at Churchill Downs) were run at a true mile around one turn. In fact, of the first three runnings, none of them were even run at a mile on the dirt, and the 2015 running at Keeneland was so convoluted, no one really knows what distance it was. Because of the configuration of Keeneland, we’ll just say it greatly resembled a two-turn mile race. This year at Del Mar, the race again will be run around two turns.

So, why is it so important that a mile race be run around one turn? Because the entire concept of the mile is a race that is an elongated sprint, which tests a horse’s major qualities like no other distance. And that is why the breeders covet milers so much as stallions. Once you run the race around two turns it might as well be a mile and 70 yards or a mile and a sixteenth, neither of which is a grade 1-caliber distance in America. Also, around two turns, the luck of the draw becomes a major factor, as a far outside post with such a short run to the turn often proves disastrous.

What makes a mile around one turn so appealing is that it brings together horses who have been sprinting and running longer distances and pits them against each other at the most demanding distance of all.

Looking at the mile distance from a human track star’s perspective, the three factors in running, whether it be horses or humans, are speed, anaerobic capacity, and aerobic capacity. Speed is simply velocity, together with length and rapidity of stride. Anaerobic capacity is the ability to expend more energy than you can accommodate with oxygen intake, or simply the ability to run while out of breath. Considering that in all sprint races, horses run slower the last quarter than the first, they all use speed and anaerobic capacity. The third factor, aerobic capacity, is the ability to expand circulation capacity by carrying oxygen from the lungs to the muscle tissue and to expand lung capacity. This is basically stamina.

To excel over a flat mile around one turn, a horse must utilize all three factors, which enable him to run fast early and late without having a breather. Anaerobic capacity alone will not carry a horse a mile at the grueling pace he is running. He must complement it with aerobic capacity (stamina). The ability to utilize all three of these factors is what separates the miler from the sprinter, the middle-distance horse, and the stayer.

Two of the biggest influences on the breed today are Dr. Fager and his grandson Fappiano, both bred by the great John Nerud. Dr. Fager, of course, ran the greatest mile in history, setting a new world record of 1:32 1/5 at Arlington Park; a time that has not been bettered in almost 50 years, and he did it carrying a staggering 134 pounds, winning under wraps the length of the stretch. Fappiano, whose sire line is becoming one of the most prolific of all time, captured the most prestigious mile race in America, the Metropolitan Handicap. Both races were run around one turn.

Nerud said a miler simply is “a sprinter with stamina,” adding, “They make the best sires because they have everything – versatility, lung capacity, muscle tone, tenacity, guts, and they’re fast. At a mile around one turn, the pressure is on from the gate. It is very demanding because it makes you pick your head up and run every step of the way. Watching a good miler is like watching an Olympic swimmer. The great ones always reach down for that something extra.”

The entire concept of the mile is defeated when you run the race around two turns and are allowed to slow the pace down early. And when the early pace was fast, it resulted in slow closing fractions and often a relatively slow final time.

In the four years the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, which is intended to attract the fastest milers in the country, was run at Santa Anita on dirt around two turns, all of the winners ran the mile in 1:35 or slower. When Liam’s Map ran his mile in 1:34.53 at Keeneland over a bizarre configuration to accommodate the distance, the opening half was run in a pedestrian :46 2/5, so he was not under great duress early and therefore was able to close faster to break 1:35.

Granted, the Breeders’ Cup has no choice in conducting most of its Dirt Miles around two turns, especially considering most of the events are held at tracks that cannot accommodate one turn, and considering Belmont Park, home of the Met Mile, has become nothing more than a faint blip on the Breeders’ Cup radar. It has been 12 years since the Breeders’ Cup was run in New York.

In 1988, the only tracks in America that could accommodate a flat mile were Belmont Park, Aqueduct, Arlington Park, Churchill Downs, Laurel, Ellis Park, and Hollywood Park. Hollywood is now gone and Arlington Park, which used to run the Washington Park Handicap, Arlington Classic, Equipoise Mile, and Citation Handicap at a flat mile, runs on Polytrack. Arlington used to be the home of the world-record mile, attracting the nation's best horses, such as Buckpasser, who briefly held the world record before it was broken by Dr. Fager. With Belmont Park and Aqueduct all but out of the Breeders’ Cup picture, there is no choice but to rethink our concept of a mile race when it comes to the Dirt Mile and just make the best of the situation.

So rather than turn to the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile for the top-quality true milers, we have to focus on New York, with the Met Mile at Belmont and the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct the last of a dying breed. And perhaps now we can add the Kelso Handicap, won in brilliant style in 2011 by the brilliant champion and popular stallion Uncle Mo.

What has made the Met Mile so difficult to win over the years is the fact that it used to be the first leg of the Handicap Triple Crown and has always attracted a wide variety of horses who were not necessarily milers, but had tons of class and many of the attributes of a great miler – horses like Forego, Buckpasser, Kelso, Native Dancer, Tom Fool, Carry Back, Devil Diver, Arts and Letters, Gallant Man, In Reality, Sword Dancer, Stymie, Gallorette, and Equipoise, and more recently Ghostzapper, Holy Bull, Frosted, Honor Code, Palace Malice, and Quality Road. That is the key word when describing the Met Mile and any major one-turn mile – class.

When NYRA instituted the NYRA Mile, now the Cigar Mile, in 1988, it was hoped it could be a fixture on the Breeders’ Cup card when the event returned to New York and be run as the eighth Breeders’ Cup race.

NYRA racing secretary Bruce Lombardi said at the time, “There are no comparable races in the fall, and we feel that it would make a nice addition to the Breeders’ Cup races.”

Well, it didn’t quite work out as Lombardi had hoped, but the race eventually would find its own niche and become a focal point for breeders looking for exciting new stallions.

NYRA adapted to the times in 2010, making the Kelso Handicap, run at a mile on the grass, a one-mile dirt race. The race, originally the Brighton Beach Handicap, had been shortened from 1 1/4 miles in 1988. Two decades later, it was switched to the dirt, but got lost on the big Breeders’ Cup Preview Day.

So, New York may have become passé when it comes to the Breeders’ Cup, but with the Met Mile, Cigar Mile, and Kelso Handicap, and the Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds, it has become basically the only store remaining where breeders and buyers of yearlings and 2-year-olds can shop for true milers. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of those stores left.

So when they run the Kelso Handicap 10 days from now, don’t look at it as just the feature stakes on the card or as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. If it follows the pattern we’ve seen in racing for the past century, the race could wind up standing on its own merit and prove to be a launch pad for the next exciting stallion.

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