Thursday, September 8, 2011
The conference now devolves into breakout sessions with several different speakers at the same time. Personally, I've had enough and I'm going to sign off here.
The biggest difference for me between this year's conference and the first one last year is that it was much more blatant that virtually all of the presenters represent commercial ventures and they have something to sell us. Given who the organizers are and the economic system we live in, this was never going to be pure science, but it is a little disconcerting to feel like the presenters are as or more interested in hawking products as disseminating information.
Steve Roman begins the afternoon session.
Roman will cover his ideas on aptitudinal type. First begins by comparing different definitions of speed....i.e. final time, average speed, fractions. Stamina....speed over a distance or winning over a distance? Somebody has to win the race, regardless of speed. Any horse can run any distance if you give it enough time.
American time records fall in an almost straight correlation line, projected from the shorter distances. Roman calls that line the genetic frontier of speed. Although the times have changed, the shape and linearity of the line has not changed since 1976. That measures an increase in speed over the last 35 years.
Dosage not a breeding theory, not a handicapping scheme, or a betting scheme for Ky. Derby.
Defines dosage as a methodology applied to large populations for classifying pedigrees by aptitudinal type, as a research tool correlating type with real world performance.
Roman produces good slides that show that dosage index and center of distribution decline with distance both in the U.S. and every other country he's tested. The key point is that the line is highest for American dirt horses, which means, as Roman says that American dirt horses are the most speed bred horses in the world.
Roman spends a lot of time defending the dual qualifier concept, despite his earlier claim that dosage is not a handicapping tool. Unfortunately he has to expand the concept to include horses like Smarty Jones who were not rated on the Experimental Free Handicap.
Jeff Seder of EQB up next on heart ultrasounds.
Begins by showing average for the breed statistics as a baseline level. Believes a lot of performance has to do with who is really trying and which ones will put up with pain.
Talking about a published study on heart ultrasound.
Study based on over 7k horses, divide those into categories, colts fillies, US, foreign, dirt-turf, etc.
How do you use heart data
Size of left ventricle at relaxation....fillies and colt sizes very different. Growth curves are different. Train diligently to insure reproducibility of heart measurements. Size and weight of the horse matter. Age is also critical to get accurate measurements. Thickness of the septal wall is also very important.
Horses ranking above the 75th percentile in left ventricle size earn more. No surprise.
These measures do tend to differ by sire and sire line. No surprise that Northern Dancer and sons produced very high percentages of big hearts and thick septal walls.
Trying to figure out which sires are going to produce big hearts is very hard to predict. Dynaformer for example tends to produce smaller hearts but with thick septal walls.
Bob Fierro and Jay Kilgore up next of DataTrack international on stride length
As usual, raconteur Bob starts off with a funny story about a trip to Argentina, where the mythical national hero shares his last name. Then he describes how DataTrack invented their Breeze Figs, which rate horses according to stride length and other measures at juvenile sales. DRF now publishes daily Breeze Figs for 2yos for their first four starts.
Graded SW have an average stride length of 24 feet or greater....drop down a level to listed winners and it's under 24 feet.....and so on.
Jay Kilgore gives some details on how their video analysis of stride efficiency works with stills of digital video. Fascinating video showing how horses feet move as they run. The computer attaches points as it were to the horse's feet, nose, etc. to measure efficiency of movement. Video showing lines that the points make through space are visually very effective.
After several frustrating hours of being unable to connect to the wireless internet here at the Griffin Gate Hotel in Lexington, I am finally connected and ready to resume live-blogging.
John Seaman of Cecil Seaman and Co. just finished his presentation on breeding type to type.
Most of John's discussion was about their measurement of body length as an indicator of overall body size. He presented numerous slides showing how similar body types tend to predominate in the pedigrees of successful racehorses. This tends to be the basic message of biomechanics gurus. Mating horses with similar body types and measurements tends to work better than matings of dissimilar types. This will not be news to anyone who has been doing matings for 40 years. ....or, indeed, considerably less than that.
More to follow
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Professor Jamie McCleod of UK began the symposium by going over basic genetics.
Bill Oppenheim is here! Lol.
Speaking on The Myths we live by: Data we use and its limitations strategies for a chaotic universe.
Racing is a business without borders, a free market economy, and there is is a finish line. The best horse wins.
Both scientists and pedigree students want to replicate the successful patterns of good horses. That which has happened before is more likely to happen again. The question is exactly what is it thatl we're looking for.
Small sample size: early success leads to breeders following the hot cross, which later falls prey to the law of averages. Storm Bird/Secretariat mares. First 8 crops 36% SW, last 10 crops 2% SW. Overall actually just an average cross for the sire.
As soon as we know something works, it's outdated, because there's a 4 or 5 year lag between mating and result. Lines wax and wane in strength. It is a myth that once we discover a great cross all we have to do is continue to do it. The greater the numbers the less the success.
Bill doesn't much care for the nicking companies, he makes it pretty clear. As usual, the problem is with numbers and quality. There are too often not enough cases to reliably predict anything. Bill is much more interested in accurately identifying success.
Skipped over Bill Oppenheim to go next with Sid Fernando on adding stamina to the Thoroughbred.
Stamina in this country is analogous to low "good cholesterol"....Got to pay attention or we'll have a heart attack.
Early 1970s--2 G1 equivalents at 1 3/4 miles or more. No G1 races at 6 furlongs. We gave more weight to distance and less to speed. Today 20 G1 6-7 furlong races for 3yos and up. None over 1 1/2 miles. Europe and Japan have continued on a path in racing and bloodlines where stamina has remained importance.
Steve Tamariello of Performance Genetics is next.
Discarded the test he promoted last year and now focusing on performance tests through linkage disequilibirum....which is non-random association of alleles at two or morel loci, not necessarily on the same chromosome. Wants to identify genetic variants associated with speed, using linkage disequilibrium (?).
American horses have a distinct phenotype for dirt track races. Chose peak Beyer speed as their measure of racing ability. Separated population into 2 stringent categories.
Grade 1 winning 108 or higher, but no G3 or Listed SW, or allowance horses. non-Elites =78 or lower Beyer speed, generally similar quality sires and dams.
Sample size=60.....Again sample size. But then later says 365 horses without reconciling the two numbers. Who knows.
Found associations to elite performance on ten different chromosomes....more than other researchers have found.
Most interesting thing Tamariello shows is that according to their performance test, Mineshaft and Pretty Discreet both test as route runners, Mineshaft elite, Pretty Discreet not so much, but their son Discreetly Mine tests as a G1 sprinter, which is exactly what he was.
That was fun. Emmeline basically stonewalled Lambert's question (see below for her answer). The controversy between Lambert/Binns and Hill comes basically from the fact that Hill makes bigger claims for the power of her tests than other geneticists do, and they do not take that lightly. And since in the modern world whoever yells loudest gets the most attention, it turns out to be quite important commercially.
Stephen Harrison up next.
Contrary to popular belief, the Thoroughbred is quite outbred compared to many other breeds. It's a probability model, and the more tests you have the better predictor you have.
Harrison's specialty has been Mitochondria, so he dives right in on that.
Original 2006 study found 13 different functional MtDNA genes. Looked at variations in stamina levels, quality, interaction with stallion mtDNA, etc. 33 different mtDNA types in Thoroughbred.
Some evidence of positive interactions between stallions and particular mtDNA types in mares. Invincible Spirit and Fusaichi Pegasus, for example did better than expected with certain types. No mention of sample size however. Small study showed that best ratios of mtDNA to nuclear DNA was for mtDNA type to same mtDNA type between sire and dam.
Someone from Emmeline's school attacks Harrison's data about mtDNA from males mixing. Says it's very well established that mtDNA is very well established coming only from the female in mammals. Harrison tries to defend. This is basically over everybody else's head except for the scientists. Harrison doesn't really answer.
Brief set of questions from audience. Emmeline Hill up next. This could get interesting.
Emmeline begins by saying only four genes have been definitely identified as associated with performance in Thoroughbreds. Naturally, all of those are from her studies as far as I can tell from the slide.
Begins with rehashing Myostatin and her so-called "speed gene". Not a test for class, but only for preferred distance. Still insists that her marker for Myostatin is more accurate than other markers, in contradiction to what Matthew Binns showed in his talk.
Largest change in the expression of the myostatin gene due to training is in the CC sprint type. In other words, CC horses respond more quickly and more precociously to training than CT or TT horses. That is an interesting finding, confirmation that CC is related to precocity. It makes sense that the sprint genotype would have a big influence on 2yo racing.
Moves on to PDK4 gene's association with performance. First found an association but could not replicate. Then looked for novel variants that might have some effect, but again couldn't replicate original findings. Hypothesized that different genes may be interacting with the myostatin gene. Found a strong association with the stamina type horses, so implies that PDK4 gene is important for longer distance exercise, but not shorter distances.
Elite performance test. You get stronger results from the CCs and TTs, but different genes associated with performance in the different types. This is related to why what used to be called fish and fowl matings generally don't work....Different genes are required for success at shorter and longer distances, and therefore and they don't work together that well.
Technology is not a silver bullet, but it will increase your chances of improving your strike rate.
Hill's Class 1 and Class II horses earned more money than they cost at sales. Class III and IV did not.
That's a good result, but the problem for Hill is that she only uses blood samples not hairs. Therefore her tests are useless as a way of cutting down your short list at a sale, because it takes two weeks to get a result. Cannot be done overnight like hair sample tests. That's the source of the contention between Hill and Binns over which test is more accurate.
Uh Oh. David Lambert of Genetic Edge challenge's Hill on the numbers in her sample size.
Hill responds that they are capturing genetic potential, management and environment are hugely important. Equinome has applied for an international patent on myostatin that includes other people's markers....that's going to be trouble. In response to numbers, she claims even in small sample size, the proof is strong. "of course the more samples you have the more power that you have, but what we're able to do is capture the genes having the greatest influence on performance."
9:00 a.m .
Matt Binns up next.
Matt will cover:
Genetic perspective on traditional pedigree methods; Characteristics of genetically complex traits;
Genetic Edge products---
Pedigree is a surrogate for genetics. The thoroughbred is a perfect playground for geneticists because of the 300 years of records.
Good illustration using Zenyatta's pedigree of how her 5x5 inbreeding to Nashua actually works genetically. The statistical chances of getting the same genes from both of her crosses of Nashua are actually very small.
Binns thinks nicking exists....Complementary positive genes being inherited, but it operates at a relatively low probability because of the basic facts of genetic inheritance.
There has been a slight increase in %inbreeding since the 1960s, according to comparative DNA genomes, but it's only slight. Reinforces Bailey's point about diversity.
Correlation between 8-generation coefficient of inbreeding from pedigree and what you get if you do it by DNA testing is very low. Surprising result. The problem is that there are a limited number of variants at sites in horses but they can come from different sources than what genetic theory says.
Presents new research that produced loci for white coat color markings in Thoroughbreds.
Now we're smoothly into the Genetic Edge pitch. The familiar ABCD scoring system. Data predicts that the performance panel can eliminate about 50% of individuals from short list and retain about 75% of the short list. Only 5% of Grade Ds are Graded SW.
10% of pop are As, Bs and Cs are 40% each. A's increase your chances of getting GSW 3 to 1.
Distance marker: If you want to win a G1 sprint, you'd better be homozygous for the distance marker (myostatin). About half the Kentucky Derby winners, though are also homozygous for the sprint distance marker.
Goes after Emmeline's claim that her test is more accurate, and effectively debunks it. The gloves are off this year folks.
Concludes that this is still fairly young science. This speaks to one of the big problems with acceptance and use of genetic tests. Everybody wants to wait five years until they can see the results of predictive studies.
Now Dr. Ernie Bailey is applying what Jamie said to horses.
Gus emphasizes that contrary to popular belief, there is still a lot of genetic diversity to exploit in Thoroughbreds. Thoroughbreds are genetically less diverse than other horses because of 300 years of selection for speed, soundness and stamina, but they are far more diverse than other species that might look more diverse like dogs.
I'll be live-blogging periodically from the second annual Pedigree and Genetics symposium at the Griffin Gate Hotel in Lexington today.
The first two speakers are covering basic genetics, so there's not that much of interest there, but then the fun should start with Matthew Binns of the Genetic Edge, so check back later.
Friday, July 8, 2011
The following article was first published in Thoroughbred Times Today on July 1, 2011.
According to the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), the best racehorse on the planet right now is either the brilliant, unbeaten Australian sprinter Black Caviar or the brilliant, unbeaten English miler Frankel. And who might be the IFHA and why should we care what their rankings are, you ask?
As its name implies, the IFHA is an international organization comprised of racing organizations from more than 60 countries, including the American Jockey Club and the NTRA, that seeks to coordinate and harmonize racing rules and practices around the racing world. And we should pay attention to their rankings because the rest of the world does.
The IFHA has evolved from the organization founded by Jean Romanet and Marcel Boussac, who hosted the first international meeting among the racing authorities of France, Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States at the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe meeting in 1961. By 1967 the first International Conference of Horseracing Authorities, also hosted in Paris by the Societe d'Encouragement (then the French racing authority headed by Romanet), attended by representatives from nine countries, including the original four. Representation expanded to 110 delegates from 50 countries by 1993, and the name of the organization was changed to the current title in 1994. The International Stud Book Committee, the International Cataloging Standards Committee, and the Society of International Thoroughbred Auctioneers all operate in association with the IFHA.
The World Thoroughbred Rankings list originated as the International Classification of the best horses in Great Britain, France, and Ireland in 1977. North American trained horses were first included in the rankings in '95, and Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand were added in '97 and '98. The annual rankings now include more than 650 horses worldwide, all ranked on a scale derived from the original European handicapping system, a scale of weights similar to historic American “free handicap” weights, but with a higher range of weights. Horses are given separate ratings for dirt, synthetic, and turf performances, and they are weighted according to their best performance in a single race, not overall form.
Very few American-trained horses were included in the early years, but the inauguration of the Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1) and the expansion of international races around the world, including the Breeders' Cup meeting, has given international handicappers a better handle on American form. In most recent years, their opinion has not been flattering to American racing.
World Thoroughbred Rankings cover a rotating six-month period and are issued about every two months. The most current rating list on the IFHA website (http://www.horseracingintfed.com/resources/2011Rankings/2011_0526_WTR.asp) covers the period from December 1, 2010 through May 23, 2011. The first 12 horses listed, at weights ranging from 130 to 122 pounds are trained in Australia, England, Ireland, Italy, Singapore, South Africa, and France. Animal Kingdom and Shackleford are the joint highest rated American-trained horses at 121 pounds, and only six other American-trained horses—Big Drama, Gio Ponti, Astrology, Jeranimo, Sidney's Candy, and Twirling Candy—appear among the 53 horses currently rated.
As in the larger world of international affairs American racing aficionados have become accustomed to believing that American horses are the best in the world. For the 30 years from about 1968 to 1997 or thereabouts, that was, on average almost certainly true. For at least the last decade, though, as demonstrated by international race meets like the Dubai Carnival and the Breeders' Cup, it is glaringly obvious that American-trained horses are superior to the rest of the world only on dirt.
Among the 60-plus member countries of the IFHA, however, only a few South American countries like Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay race predominantly on dirt. In North America in 2010, 76% of the races were on dirt, accounting for 63% of available purse money. Great Britain, Ireland Italy, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Hong Kong, and Singapore, all with horses rated higher than any American horse on the current ratings, all race exclusively or predominantly on turf.
American exceptionalism, the idea that America is qualitatively different—in so many words, better—than other countries, may or may not still be a viable concept in political circles. In the context of Thoroughbred racing, however, the rest of the world has clearly decided that it is an outdated belief.
The sooner we recognize that and act to change negative perceptions of American racing created by race-day medication and other factors, the sooner we can begin to reimpose American exceptionalism. And the sooner we can sell more horses to them at better prices.
Monday, June 27, 2011
I did not attend the International Summit on Race Day Medication, EIPH, and the Racehorse held on June 13-14 at Belmont Park. Therefore I cannot speak from first-hand knowledge of everything that transpired over those two days among the reported 72 conferees, but I am sad to say that press reports so far leave me somewhat less than inspired and hopeful.
The principal achievement of the summit was....wait for it....to agree to have another meeting. As Peggy Lee sang too long ago for younger readers to remember, “is that all there is?”
Eric Wing, the NTRA's media director said, “No specific recommendations were announced but areas of broad interest were identified.” Perhaps I am being too cynical, but to me that means exactly the same thing it means when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she had “frank discussions” with her foreign counterparts—nobody could agree on anything. That is what happens when you get parties in a room with diametrically opposed agendas and self interests.
The principal problem American racing faces is finding a way to phase out race-day furosemide (Lasix or Salix). Trainers and veterinarians tend strongly to be on one side of the issue—in favor of race-day Lasix—and racing's administrators, owners, breeders, and international observers tend to be on the other.
One issue that was at least brought out into the open for the first time was the definition of “bleeding”. Prior to the 1970s and '80s, before the big push from trainers and veterinarians to legalize furosemide, a bleeder was a horse who visibly bled from the nostrils after a race or workout. That in fact was pretty much the universal definition of the malady in use at least since the days of the line-founding stallion Herod, born in 1758.
Advocates of race-day furosemide use, though, managed to conflate the term bleeder with exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH), a condition that is common in human athletes, greyhounds, and racing camels as well as equines. EIPH, essentially means the presence of blood, even tiny flecks, in the airway as a result of exercise. In horses, EIPH occurs in a significant percentage of horses after mild canters. That means, by the way, that some horses cantering and playing in their paddocks would likely incur EIPH. And, no, I am not trying to minimize the humane significance of EIPH, just stating facts.
Racing jurisdictions abroad, however, have never changed their definition of bleeding. Visible blood from the nostrils (epistaxis) is required for a horse to be defined as a bleeder. In some jurisdictions, such as Australia, observed epistaxis requires a lengthy ban from racing, and repeated episodes can lead to a permanent ban.
American trainers tend to assume that their situation—training at racetracks in large cities—is uniquely stressful on their horses. Have they ever been to Hong Kong? That city of seven million people is a match in terms of crowding, pollution, and other stressful factors for any American city. Race-day Lasix is not allowed in Hong Kong, and their horses have started to win races all over the world.
American horses do not win nearly as many races all over the world as they once did. That is no doubt partly because we have sold many of our best potential stallions and broodmares abroad for 30 years and the rest of the world has caught up, but that is not the only reason. If you understand genetics at all, it is not hard to understand that race-day medication is bound to increase dependence on such drugs over time.
American trainers and veterinarians need to understand that if they wish to have a business to run, horses to train and doctor ten or 20 years from now, they are going to have to adjust their viewpoint. American racehorse owners are not going to continue in a business the public increasingly sees as tainted by drugs. American breeders cannot continue indefinitely breeding horses that no one but vanishing American owners will buy.
Even if we agree that American conditions are different from foreign conditions—and they are—in the long run it does not matter. Globalization is here in Thoroughbred racing, and it has been here for about 15 years.
Our choice is either to retreat from the global village and die a long, painful death, or to embrace it and compete on even terms.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
The following was first published in Thoroughbred Times Today on June 3, 2011.
Like many other classic races around the world, the Belmont Stakes was modeled on the Epsom Derby, which will be run for the 232nd time tomorrow—if you count wartime Derbys that were run at Newmarket in 1915-18 and 1940-45.
More accurately known simply as the Derby Stakes, the true father of all classic races is the third oldest classic in the world. Both the St. Leger Stakes (G1), founded in 1776, and the Derby's companion race for fillies, the Epsom Oaks, inaugurated a year earlier than the Derby, are older. But the Derby has always been the most prestigious horse race in England, and that is why virtually every country around the world copied it as closely as local conditions allowed.
France came first, kicking off the Prix du Jockey-Club as the French equivalent of the Derby in 1836, and other countries followed almost as soon as their racing programs stabilized. In many cases it was the invention of local Derbys, as well as echoes of the other English classics, the Oaks, Two Thousand Guineas, One Thousand Guineas, and St. Leger, that formed the foundation for stabilizing those racing and breeding programs.
That was certainly the case in the United States. When racing resumed in New York at Jerome Park late in 1865 after the conclusion of the long and bloody Civil War, foundation of a race modeled after the Derby was one of the first orders of business for the wealthy bankers and industrialists intent on putting the horrors of the war well behind them. Leonard Jerome, though, went against tradition by naming his Derby equivalent the Belmont Stakes, after his primary financial backer, August Belmont I.
As American racing consolidated its shift from four-mile heat racing that had dominated prior to the War Between the States, other states soon followed suit, most notably Kentucky, which inaugurated its equivalent Derby in 1875. Over the years, the prestige of all these races waxed and waned with the times, and it was not until after World War I that the Kentucky race began to gain preeminence in America, and, in some senses, the world.
By that time the Kentucky Derby had been reduced from its original distance of 1 ½ miles to 1 ¼ miles, in deference to its position on the calendar a month before the Epsom classic. Meanwhile, the Belmont was raced at several distances over its first 60 years and did not settle at its current distance until 1926.
None of these global imitators, though, truly could match Epsom's unique conditions. The greatness of the Epsom Derby as the truest test of the Thoroughbred lies in the complex terrain of the racecourse itself. Myth has it that there is not one level square foot of ground on the wide, sweeping, horseshoe-shaped course. That is not quite true, but, as with most myths, there is truth in the thought.
The Derby course begins far across the chalky Surrey Downs from the grandstand, and climbs rather steeply uphill around a gentle right-handed curve for most of the first half-mile. As the course straightens out briefly at the top of the hill, the horses cross to the left hand rail and begin the steep descent around a left-handed curve to Tattenham Corner, 3 ½ furlongs from the finish. The course slopes downhill for another furlong or so before rising sharply again over the last furlong and a half.
It is a roller-coaster ride that tests a young three-year-old in more different ways than any other racecourse in the world. The horse must have the stamina to cope with a breakneck pace up that killing first half mile, the agility to turn right, turn left, and run uphill and down at racing pace. Then he must be able to accelerate in the last two furlongs on a course that doesn't just look to him by then as if it is tilting toward the inside rail. The natural camber of the land actually does slope from the outside toward the inner rail in addition to being uphill at that point. Thus countless tired horses have staggered toward the inside rail in Epsom's final furlong.
That is why the Derby remains the Derby. Non-stayers cannot win. Plodders without speed and acceleration cannot win. Horses who easily become unbalanced and lose their action cannot win.
Federico Tesio was right. The Thoroughbred is what it is because of a piece of wood—the finishing post at Epsom.
Thursday, June 2, 2011
Every year when Triple Crown season rolls around, complaints about the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes (G1) resurface. Certain trainers in particular annually call for the distance to be shortened to 1 1/4 miles, and even go so far as to suggest shortening the Kentucky Derby (G1) to 1 1/8 miles so that the three Triple Crown races provide a steady progression of distances.
Fortunately that sentiment does not seem to have gained much traction, because, as software engineers are wont to say about perceived flaws in their products, the distance of the Belmont is a feature not a bug. Furthermore, in an all too insular industry that finally seems to be waking up to the negative way the rest of the world views our racing program, it is a feature that may well become a much stronger selling point in the future.
The Belmont is the oldest of the American classic races, inaugurated by Leonard Jerome in 1867, the year after the Wall Street speculator opened his eponymous racetrack in the north Bronx. Founder of the American Academy of Music and grandfather of Winston Churchill, Jerome designed the race as an American equivalent of the 1 1/2-mile Epsom Derby, and named it after banker August Belmont Sr., who financed construction of the track. Jerome Park's amenities were described as lavish, complete with an elegant ballroom and a clubhouse that rivaled the city's most luxurious hotels.
Jerome Park returned first-class horse racing to New York, following a hiatus during the Civil War. The Belmont was originally run at 1 5/8 miles, but fluctuated between 1 1/8 and 1 3/8 miles after it was moved to Morris Park in 1890 when Jerome Park was condemned by the city to facilitate the construction of the New Croton Aqueduct and Jerome Park Reservoir to provide water for the city.
The Belmont transferred to the new Belmont Park, built by August Belmont Sr.'s son August Belmont II, in 1904 and was run at 1 3/8 miles until 1926, when Samuel D. Riddle's Crusader, son of Belmont-bred Man o' War, became the first Belmont winner at the 1 1/2-mile distance that has since become sacrosanct.
In Crusader's era, there were scores of other prestigious American races at 1 1/2 miles and beyond, but as the emphasis in American racing shifted inexorably toward precocious speed after World War II, those races disappeared, were reduced in distance, or transformed into turf races one by one. Since the American Jockey Club, founded by August Belmont II and Leonard Jerome, among others, abandoned its historic principals in pursuit of perceived relevance for its namesake race, the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), and reduced its distance to 1 1/4 miles in 1990, the Belmont has stood alone as America's only 1 1/2-mile Grade 1 stakes on dirt.
That uniqueness makes the Belmont more valuable than ever to the American racing industry in the current global racing environment. As various supporters of the move to ban race-day medications have correctly pointed out, the rest of the world, particularly Europeans, see American racing as increasingly irrelevant, primarily because medications allow horses who otherwise might not be able to compete to win top-level races.
Distance is also a factor in those perceptions, however. The rest of the world still reveres horses that can beat the best at distances from the 1 1/2 miles of the Epsom Derby and most other Derby equivalents around the world to the two miles of Australia's greatest race, the Emirates Melbourne Cup (Aus-G1).
It is an exquisite bit of irony that an American-bred horse named Americain won the 2010 Melbourne Cup. His sire, Dynaformer, trained by one of the principal critics of the Belmont's distance, D. Wayne Lukas, won at 1 1/2 miles, and is one of only a very few American sires foreign buyers might expect to sire a major winner over that distance. Dynaformer's daughter, Blue Bunting, winner of the 2011 Qipco One Thousand Guineas (Eng-G1), is one of the favorites for the 1 1/2-mile Epsom Oaks (Eng-G1).
Dynaformer, though, is 26 years old. Who will succeed him as a potential sire of European Derby winners when he is gone? Why should Europeans come to America to buy potential Derby winners if we have no stallions capable of producing them?
So, the next time someone mocks the distance of the Belmont stakes or calls it a “marathon” (please!), tell them, no, it is a feature, not a bug.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
(First published in Thoroughbred Times Today on May 20, 2011)
I first visited Pimlico Race Course in the spring of 1969, while attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. Two weeks previously, Braulio Baeza on Arts and Letters had allowed Bill Hartack on Majestic Prince to get first run on him in the Kentucky Derby and beaten him a neck.
Arts and Letters was drawn outside Majestic Prince in the Preakness, so Baeza's and trainer Elliott Burch's plan for the Preakness was to stay lapped on him and not let Majestic Prince get away. That plan fell apart in the first strides when Al Hattab swerved into the *Ribot colt, knocking him further behind than in the Derby.
Arts and Letters again rallied determinedly in the stretch, but still fell a head short at the wire. The Rokeby Stable colt got his revenge three weeks later in the Belmont Stakes, and raced on undefeated through the rest of the year to earn Horse of the Year, but my first experience of the Preakness was not a happy one.
Pimlico in 1969 was a rather ramshackle old place. The historic Member's Clubhouse had burned three years previously and the Maryland Jockey Club was still two years away from remodeling the grandstand.
My third trip to the Preakness (I saw Personality win in 1970 as well) in 1995 was no better, if not worse. Minutes after pulling into the parking lot of the motel that Thoroughbred Times's Los Angeles-based travel agent had chosen, I was mugged at gunpoint before I could get my room door unlocked. Not a good way to begin Preakness week.
Three years later, things got even tougher when an overloaded electrical transformer at the track exploded, blacking out most of the grandstand, including the press box. I am all for exercise and physical fitness, but sprinting up and down four flights of stairs between races is not my idea of fun. Even before that potentially disastrous incident 13 years ago, many critics had pointed out that the ancient, dilapidated grandstand needed to be bulldozed and replaced. Cosmetics aside, not much has been done since.
I must admit, though, that my most recent (and quite possibly last) visit in 2005 to the rather disheveled old lady on Park Heights Avenue made up for some of the indignities Pimlico has visited upon me. Seeing Afleet Alex pick himself up off his knees at the top of the stretch and win the Preakness by seven lengths remains one of the most remarkable displays of agility, ability, and determination I have ever seen.
It is a short drive along Northern Parkway from the Hopkins campus in the Homewood area of Baltimore to Pimlico, but even in 1969 the two neighborhoods were worlds apart. Then as now, Homewood is stately, tree-sheltered homes for the upper-middle class; Pimlico is bordered by working-class apartment buildings and businesses. Kegasus is not really that out of place in the Pimlico neighborhood.
Like the rest of the world, Baltimore itself is a far different place in 2011 than it was in 1969. The Inner Harbor area, now home to museums, upscale shops, and the ESPN Zone was then known as “the Block”, an ominous euphemism for an area dominated by mob-owned strip joints and bars.
If the Block was not a place that a naïve farm boy from Tennessee was likely to visit, perhaps Pimlico was only slightly more probable for a kid who had not yet decided what to do with his life. Only a couple of hours away in Upperville, Virginia, though, was Rokeby Stud, Paul Mellon's idyllic estate where Arts and Letters and a host of other top racehorses had been born and raised.
If Pimlico was not quite charming and classy enough to lure a young, romantic idealist away from the halls of academe, Rokeby was. The dreams born of visits to Rokeby and Pimlico live on in the heart of this 64-year-old curmudgeon.
In the spring an old man's fancy still turns to Black-Eyed Susans. The old lady in Baltimore is in need of something much more than a face lift, but she is worth saving. If only we can find the will and the way to do it.