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Speed No Secret, Aptitude an Enigma

Continuing on the Secret Circle theme from today's Blood-Horse Pedigree Weekly Newsletter, there is certainly no question about the speed and courage possessed by this 2012 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) hopeful. Secret Circle's potential distance capacity – a weekend win in the 8½ furlong Rebel Stakes (gr. II) not withstanding – remains something of a mystery.

If our first consideration was his pedigree page, we would tend to form the conclusion that the son of Eddington (TrueNicks,SRO) is bred for the classics. But if his pedigree tells one story, his race record to date suggests another.

Guessing – and without physiological and genetic testing, guessing is the appropriate word – at the stamina potential of the U.S. dirt performer is a hazardous business. Just as pure class will allow a young horse to race farther than he or she is genetically predisposed to do early in its career against its own age, it is possible that a horse who ultimately has class at a longer distance can be trained as a younger horse to be competitive at distances much shorter than their optimal distance. In comparison with human runners, Thoroughbreds compete over a very narrow range of distances, rather than in races that extend to the extreme end of the distance spectrum. There is a tremendous variety of different combinations of biomechanics, cardiovascular and splenic capacity, muscle fiber types, neurological factors, and processes impacting the energy systems, that can have a similar performance outcome. This particularly so at the 8½-9 furlong distances, where such a tremendous proportion of top-class U.S. dirt racing takes place.

Using a human analogy from the world of track and field, in the 800m event (metric equivalent of a half mile) – which in time duration is about as long as an 8½ furlong horse race – we can look at the examples of successive Olympic champions, Alberto Juantorena and Steve Ovett. Juantorena was an extremely speedy type who won the 400m (metric equivalent of a quarter mile) and 800m (metric equivalent of a half mile), both in record times, at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. Fifth in Montreal was Steve Ovett, then an international novice. He was destined to win the 800m at Moscow Olympics in 1980, but was a very different physiological type to his predecessor. Almost three seconds slower than Juantorena at 400m – a huge margin at the international level – Ovett was also a superlative miler, won a Commonwealth Games title at 5000m (3.1 miles), and defeated an Olympic marathon runner in a half marathon. So despite their virtually equivalent performances at 800m, Juantorena and Ovett physiologically and genetically represented something totally different, and would have likely had a very different genetic impact on their offspring (in Thoroughbred terms they would have generally sired different racing types over their career).

So it is with Thoroughbreds. In our work at Performance Genetics we have come across Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup Classic winners that have the genetic make-up that would indicate they are best as sprinters, but through a combination of superior maturity to their contemporaries (an edge that the speedier types still often hold by the first Saturday in May); pace factors; training style (and quite probably veterinary help!); have carried their speed beyond their physiologically optimal distances. This tension between Mendelian inheritance and environmental factors, and what they subsequently demonstrate on the racetrack is one of the reasons that we can have what appears to be a "route pedigree" throw up horses as fast as Secret Circle, Discreetly Mine (TrueNicks,SRO), or Midnight Lute (TrueNicks,SRO), or that a Belmont winner like Touch Gold (TrueNicks,SRO), who is genetically more like a sprinter and thus very often mismatched with mares he is sent, get runners as speedy as Midas Eyes, Mass Media (TrueNicks,SRO), or Medallist (TrueNicks,SRO).

As far as Secret Circle is concerned, as runner we’d put more faith in what we’ve seen on the track to date, than what we see on the pedigree page. Our 'guess' is that like Baffert-trained The Factor last year, he’ll ultimately mature into a sprinter/miler type, but for now he will be one of many sprinter/milers lining up on the first Saturday in May taking his shot at the Run for the Roses.

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