(By Avalyn Hunter)
Forty years ago, Secretariat blazed his way to one of the milestone performances of American Thoroughbred racing. Those who watched his breathtaking run in the 1973 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), whether live or on TV, could only marvel as the big red horse thundered home all alone. Even on a day on which the track had been playing faster than usual, this was a performance for the ages.
But records are made to be broken, as the old saw goes, and indeed, Secretariat's might well not have stood so long had it not been for two factors. First, there are simply very few challenges to his record in any given year. Even in Secretariat's own time, there were not all that many races written at 12 furlongs on dirt. With the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Woodward Stakes, and the Coaching Club American Oaks (all gr. I) all having been shortened to nine or 10 furlongs, there is now just one race carded on dirt at 12 furlongs likely to attract top-quality horses: the Belmont. Without opportunities for good horses to race at the distance, it is hardly a surprise that the record has not been broken or even seriously challenged; it would be more surprising if it had.
The other factor keeping Secretariat's time unchallenged is a seeming dearth of horses with any real taste for distance, at least on the dirt. While there are still a fair number of long-winded sorts on the grass--where the record for 12 furlongs is now down to 2:22.63, set March 23 by Twilight Eclipse at Gulfstream Park--none of the past four Belmont winners have managed to crack 2:30 for the distance, and we have not seen a horse run the last half-mile in less than 50 seconds since Summer Bird in 2009.
Obviously, when a race is staged, something has to win it. But we might do well to question why recent performances have been no better than they have been. Lack of opportunities for staying stock on dirt certainly creates a disincentive to breed or condition horses to go a distance, but the lack of proven stayers to breed from in turn limits the potential of the available stock. Perhaps the past few years have been merely a statistical fluke, but it would be a relief to once again see a horse that seems to truly relish a distance that not so long ago was truly the "Test of the Champion."