Could a long drought of horses who can’t win three grueling races in five weeks actually be the best thing that ever happened to horse racing?
Let me start by saying this: I love thoroughbred horse racing. I was raised on it, I am repeatedly wooed back to it every year, and I respect the individuals who make a living in it, even if I also believe there are things that need fixing. This is not a rant against the industry. In fact, it’s in praise of it.
Above all, I love the horses who make racing so spectacular, and their best interest is my interest. So when California Chrome suffered his heartbreaking defeat on Saturday, I couldn’t help but ask myself if there is a chrome lining to all this. Could the 36 (now 37) year drought actually be a good thing?
I pulled up the Daily Racing Form and started running some numbers. I compared Derby winners, Triple Crown winners, Belmont spoilers, decade to decade – All in the name of trying to determine what made for streaks of winners, and streaks of near misses. Of all of them, one statistic really stood out to me: Race Frequency.
Let’s start with the race record of every Triple Crown winner and count the number of starts leading up to the Kentucky Derby, then calculate what percentage of those starts were 2 weeks or less apart from another race start. The answer varies widely, the low end starting at 25% (Assault) and the highest at 82% (Omaha). But without exception, every single Triple Crown winner had experience running in races 2 weeks apart or less before running the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont.
I then ran the numbers for the past 15 years’ “near misses”: Horses who won the Derby and Preakness, but lost the Belmont (including California Chrome). I was shocked to see that only 2 of the 7 near misses had ever raced twice in two weeks or less before the Derby. One was Smarty Jones, who only had one such start out of six races (putting his percentage at a lowly 17%). But the second horse really knocked me for a loop:
Of his 14 starts leading up to the Kentucky Derby, Charismatic raced in 5 races that were less than two weeks apart. As racing fans might remember, the stunning chestnut colt faded in the final furlong of the Belmont and was ultimately pulled up at the finish by jockey Chris Antley, who said he felt the colt’s leg break and likely saved Charistmatic’s life by dismounting and holding the hoof off the track until vets arrived.
Was Charismatic’s tightly timed racing record a contributor to his injury? There is absolutely no way to verify or dispel the idea one way or the other, and it likely wasn’t just one thing, but many factors that lead to that kind of injury. But his percentage of tight starts before the Derby (40%) certainly stands out among the near-miss peers of his generation.
In the days following this year’s Derby run, I recalled Chrome’s trainer Art Sherman speaking to the rest period and the short stints between races. “It always bothers me coming back in two weeks, like I think it does most trainers,” Sherman said to Pimlico.com. “It takes a horse a good 10 days to bounce out of a race good.” Even with three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont, there’s no question that rest is a critical factor when preparing for the longest of the three races.
The statistics appear to back Sherman up that trainers have changed their tune about race frequency, and this trend has permeated to the whole industry, not just the top horses. According to a study at Albany Law School, on a given day in Saratoga New York in 2003, the median rest period between races for all horses with 1 or more previous starts was 29 days. In contrast, the median rest period in 1973 at the same track and same meet was only 11 days.
Ultimately, the facts show where the industry has pushed itself. Trainers and owners aren’t racing horses every weekend or every other weekend as much as they did 30, 50, or 100 years ago. Without further study, it’s hard to say if that’s impacting injury statistics, but instinctively, it feels like it’s in the best interest of the horse to limit how frequently he/she has to go all out. What this shift DOES mean is that it probably leaves a Triple Crown contender in this day and age a little unprepared for the task of racing three epic races against the best horses in the world in just over a month.
Will the Triple Crown change its format to match industry trends? Probably not. But if limiting race frequency proves to be in the best interest of the horse, and that ultimately means never seeing another Triple Crown winner in our lifetimes, that might be a sacrifice worth making.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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