Belmont Stakes Slowing Down, Epsom Derby Speeding Up

By Byron Rogers, @Perf_Genetics

This weekend saw the running of two classics—one on each side of the Atlantic—run over roughly the same distance. The Belmont Stakes (gr. I), run in New York at Belmont Park over 12 furlongs, was won in a stirring finish by Tonalist, and the Epsom Derby (Eng-I), run at Epsom Racecource in England over an undulating 12 furlongs and 10 yards, was won in a dominant fashion by the well bred Australia.

American racegoers were given a respite from the 2:30+ times of the past four runnings of the Belmont; Tonalist completed the distance in 2:28.52, which is right on the average time of the past 50 Belmonts (2:28.65). At Epsom, Australia completed the testing circuit in 2:33.63, which was a full 2.5 seconds faster than the 50-year average for the Derby and the fifth fastest time in the past 50 years behind the insanely fast effort of Workforce in 2010.

Workforce actually ran faster (2:31.30) than the Belmont Stakes winner Drosselmeyer (2:31.60) that year, which is the only time in the last 50 years that this has occurred. In fact, the average time difference between the races puts the Derby 7.5 seconds slower than the Belmont. Plotting the raw winning times of the Belmont Stakes and Epsom Derby for the past 50 years (1965-2014) makes interesting viewing and shows that the gap in time between these races is starting to narrow.


Click for larger graph
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Based on the data and the linear trend line generated, the Derby winner is getting considerably faster. Even if we drop out the inordinately slow times of Teenoso and Shergar, the trend for the Derby over the past 50 years still heads towards a one-second improvement in raw times over the period.

Visually the Belmont finishing time data looks as though it is just getting marginally slower over the same period, but the reality is that it appears that way due to two outliers in Secretariat (2:24) and High Echelon (2:34), and removing these outliers paints a different picture.


Click for larger graph
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From the chart above you can see that the linear trend of the data suggests that over the past 50 years the Belmont winner is trending slower by about a second, or six lengths in handicapping terms.

Explaining the decline or improvement in raw time isn't easy to do. Like a lot of things, there is probably a lot of correlation between some theories (introduction of Lasix; increase in inbreeding; alteration of training techniques; track management; value of race; etc.) with the change in raw times. But correlation doesn't mean causation, and much to the dissatisfaction of many, given the long time it takes to measure change in the Thoroughbred, establishing the true cause(s) may not ever be achieved.

14 Comments

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sceptre

While identifying true cause in most matters concerning thoroughbred racing is daunting, the cause(s) here seem fairly apparent. In you listing of some potential theories (for this) I was surprised that you neglected to include the most obvious-wonder if it was deliberate on your part. I'm also not too smitten with your subtle inclusion of Lasix as a potential cause as, more likely than not, Lasix' introduction LOWERED what were The Belmont's final times (yes, I grasp the counter-cause argument re-Lasix, but I doubt you'd find many trainers or vets to support it--re- the trainers, it's called proof in the pudding). No, the reason for the increase in avg. final time is quite simple-our mating practices have ever more evolved toward speed/ we are producing far less horses whose optimum, or near optimum distance is 1 1/2 M. I should also add that racing surfaces have generally evolved toward the faster, so even had the times remained essentially unchanged, the performances themselves would be inferior to before...I'm not familiar with course improvement over time at Epsom, but I'd guess that it has played a role in their better times. Still, a 50 yr. plotting is rather small, so it would be interesting to compare weather/track conditions (at Epsom) for that period vs the earlier. Yes, they today also (to a lesser extent) breed more toward speed, but the general quality of their bloodstock (unlike ours) has increased during this 50 yr. time period.    

10 Jun 2014 4:22 PM
Lammtarra's Arc

This article should be thrown out. The fact you are even trying to look and compare times is borderline laughable. 12f of undulations, vs 12f flat fast oval.. time gaps whether they're growing or shrinking means absolutely NOTHING. Epsom derby winners would run laps around these US horses simply because they are better bred, and MUCH better trained. You are comparing Tonalist to Australia?. terrible.  What do you have to say about California Chrome not winning the Triple crown after 3 races in 5-6 week period?...Cirrus Des Aigles at age EIGHT won three HUGE G1's in two countries in the same time period. Why don't you reflect more on your diminishing breed in the USA, and how your breeders breed milers who can LAST 10f, forget 12.

10 Jun 2014 5:44 PM
Giddyup

That last paragraph is right on the money. Even those with only a vague concept of statistical analysis understand that nothing meaningful can be extracted from a data pool as small as 50 events.

10 Jun 2014 6:38 PM
Joltman

If US bred horses were so inferior, then why do Euro buyers keep showing up here and paying big bucks for our best stock?  Take them to Europe and race.  A few come back here (Giants Causeway, Sadlers Wells) as studs. The American blood is just fine.  I think its more a matter of training and opportunity.

10 Jun 2014 7:56 PM
TK Lawless

Year round racing should be #1 on the "cause" list....as well as a 'cause' for MANY of the other 'causes'....as it could very well be to blame for the change in training styles, the preponderance of 'drugs' (legal & illegal) & the fact that 75% of America's races are carded at 6F or less....Does it REALLY take  a'rocket surgeon' to figure out why breeder's are not interested in 12F pedigrees?

11 Jun 2014 11:01 AM
Lammtarra's Arc

The fact that ONE horse ran a sub 2:30 on a fast course in 4-5 years should worry you. Not to mention the removal of the Breeders Cup Marathon, and the shortening of all the historical Handicap races. Most cards on a daly basis are 6-7f sprints.  Look at the Prestigious Saratoga meet, where the daily racing cards were loaded with sprints.  It is getting worse and worse and worse. New owners want fast 2 year olds for quick returns, and then when those fast 2 year olds can't run past 9f, they go to the shed to be bred.

11 Jun 2014 12:45 PM
sceptre

Lammtarra's Arc:

Byron's piece, nor his method of presentation (The Belmont and the Epsom Derby) isn't at all "laughable". What's laughable to me is your tagging it as laughable. You obviously are missing his message-and, trust me, what he has conveyed will be (accurately) instructive for many.

Joltman:

You're also off mark. The Europeans are now buying less of our yearlings-and paying bigger bucks for those selling over there. We breed and sell in far greater numbers, so it's still worthwhile to come over here and cherry -pick. And, Sadler's Wells never stood at stud in the U.S., so who are you to criticize?

TK Lawless:

Year around racing has nothing to do with 3 yr. olds on the Triple Crown trail-and their trainers know how to train accordingly.

11 Jun 2014 2:55 PM
UncleStosh

sceptre- your wrong about training methods. The way horses are trained to run 10-12f is counter to everything known to sports science which is a pretty sophisticated science at this point in time with billions sent on it by governments for a 100 years to out do each other in the cold war that as the olympics. Horse trainers could learn a lot by going out and seeking this information and applying it to their sport.

Lamattara is silly because he thinks 50 events and the last 4 in particular are enough to draw confusions. If the next three Belmonts are won in 2:27 to 2:29, his theory dies.

The idea of co paring  times across the last 50 years also make no sense with run-ups, hand timing, track changes(souped up in the 1960's, thru approx 2008-ish) It seems obvious dirt tracks have slowed since the threat of Artificial surfaces has emerged. Safety has stopped the hard pan highways from making their appearances.

11 Jun 2014 6:57 PM
English Pete

I think you'll find that comparing times between Epsom Derbys from different years is interesting without being useful. Others have mentioned ground conditions - Teenoso won in a bog and Workforce's Derby was like a road - and pace differing, but in addition I'm pretty sure the rail is not necessarily always in the same place. Certainly on Derby day this year the rail was moved from Friday's meeting in order to provide fresh ground, and the race was won by a very good colt off a true pace on firming ground in a mini-heatwave. That won't happen every year!

12 Jun 2014 10:02 AM
sceptre

UncleStosh:

Some of your comments caused me to reflect, but, first off, when I said "...know how to train accordingly" referred only to his referenced implication that trainers train all horses as if they'll be racing year around-unlike what had been in years past. Noting your remarks about human athletic high-tech training methods, I doubt that you'd agree that old-time trainers trained more in accord with such techniques. This aside, you're not the first to argue that racehorse trainers are missing the boat by ignoring modern human training practices. It's my sense, though, that this (re- the horses) has been explored at the academic level for quite a while without resulting in much change. What exactly were their conclusions, and whether or not they have been ignored is beyond my knowledge. Well, for one, it would seem that high velocity training would increase fast twitch fiber proportion (and thus cause a net decrease in slow-twitch) causing a lessened ability to excel at longer distances. I don't know if this has application for racehorses over the limited range of distances they compete, but it's my impression that trainers somewhat apply this principle (being aware of the "science" or not) in their training practices. Alan Porter may be one to comment about this, as he has on occasion referenced the human high profile runners in relation to racehorses.

It's also my impression that dirt track surfaces have become quicker-most specifically on very high profile race days (as compared to the past). I could be mistaken due to the fact that other variables have been in play, i.e.: 1) high-profile days have, more recently, been over loaded with stakes races, 2) we may be now breeding a faster horse at the common 6f-1M distances. But, long-time track supers. should know the answer...Your mention of "run-ups" doesn't ring true. I believe the mechanical starting gate was employed at Epsom during the past 50 years.  

12 Jun 2014 11:35 AM
Brontexx

The theory that Darwin created which for laymen can be described as survival of the fittest has not proven true for the American Thoroughbred of the last generation.There is no need to elaborate with pretty words its the truth.A breed such as the thoroughbred should improve and not decline after all they are bred for this to be true.

I am not going to try to explain except to say that human intervention is behind the secline in the breed.

13 Jun 2014 1:36 PM
sceptre

Brontexx:

The thoroughbred is a BREED among the species which we label as horse (not the scientific term). It is a breed because it was created by human selection. It did not evolve through "natural" selection/survival of the fittest mechanisms. So, yes, it exists due to "human intervention" (your term) and, perhaps, more to your remarks, it is in constant state of change due to ongoing human intervention. We are its "designers" but, almost needless to say, we are neither in complete control of the design's outcome, nor are we perfect forecasters of those efforts' consequences-for much the same reason. On top of all this, there is no collective "we", in that each breeder is, to some extent, his own designer, affecting to greater and lesser degrees the direction of the breed. But, this all said, the breed today is largely a result of the tastes and desires of the vast majority of breeders that came before, tweaked (according to desire) by them through time until present. If today's result isn't to our collective liking (and that's not a given), some of the cause is outlined above.      

13 Jun 2014 11:47 PM
chucky

Racing media sales headlines ---

Four tie for fastest furlong at Saturday’s OBS June breeze show

Eight turn in fastest furlong during Thursday’s OBS June breeze show

Benny the Bull Colt Tops Furlong Works at OBS

Five Tie for Fastest Furlong at OBS Show

.

.

Saratoga is nothing more than endless parade of sprint races.

There is NO mystery but we still pretend. It's going to be very difficult to change this practice since the demand is for quick ROI at the breeding shed.  

15 Jun 2014 12:15 AM
Pedigree Ann

High Echelon ran in deep mud, the kind we don't get anymore with tracks being sealed at the first raindrop. Secretariat's record was helped by the fact that Belmont was quite fast that year - several track records were set over that spring/summer meet.

The 2:30+ Belmonts in general can have one of several causes - no real stayers in the field; no horses trained properly to go 12f; no jocks sufficiently familiar with riding the distance so they are tentative with their horses' speed (This by the way was the cause of truly glacial early paces at Keeneland the first meeting with Polytrack); track conditions (see High Echelon); and you can probably come up with some more.

15 Jun 2014 7:30 AM

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