>Triple Crown Times Have Not Improved in 70 Years, Why?


Last week, the Thoroughbred Daily News published a 20 page article entitled “Do We Need A Sturdier Racehorse? You can access the entire work of Mr. Bill Finley at this link (free registration required):


Basically, the question asked was: What makes today’s racehorses start less and get injured more often compared to the horses of the ‘old days’? Reasons commonly given range from breeding, to drugs, to economics, to racing surfaces.

Admittedly this is a very complex subject. But one thing we do know, at least in the Triple Crown races, is that horses ARE NO FASTER today than they were 70 years ago. Not one bit faster, despite our best efforts to breed ‘the best to the best’ over several generations. Please reference above chart. (Raw data available upon request.)

Speed is a misnomer. No horse carries his top end speed for more than a few seconds in any race. I chart these efforts via onboard GPS system, much like Trakus does at Keeneland and other facilities. Stamina is what is missing from our horses these days, the ability to hold 95% of top speed for several furlongs.

Is it in the breeding?

Arthur Hancock: “We are breeding a weaker horse, we are breeding a chemical horse.”
Mr. Hancock shares the opinion of many horsemen today. However, a leading equine geneticist disagrees:

Dr. Ernest Bailey of the Gluck Center at the University of Kentucky: “Many breeders believe that horses have become less durable. I do have some reservations. 40-50 years is a very short time to manifest such an extensive change in the population. The onset of the problem is fairly abrupt, and is more consistent with a change in management. Gene frequencies change at a glacial place.”

Is it the drugs?

Trainer Gary Bizantz: “The veterinary community misled the American racing industry into thinking that increasing the amounts of medication we gave these horses would do numerous good things. It would make them run faster, their careers would be longer, field sizes would be higher, and they would get hurt less often. One hundred percent of what they said has gone the other way. Everything.”

Nick Zito: “How can you be over-medicated when a horse is just starting? If I end up with a horse that only races once or twice I can’t blame that on drugs.”

Is it the economics?

Trainers of big money horses, with big money owners, have to keep their winning percentages up over 20% in order to remain marketable, so they run their horses infrequently, and only when they have a good chance to win. Their main concern is residual value after a racing career ends. But what about claiming trainers at lower levels? Why do they follow the same pattern?
Breeders are in the business to sell horses and make money. I can’t blame them for breeding horses that people want to buy – and people want to buy a Super Saver, who wins the big black type race and is off to the breeding shed. Super Saver never had a published work over 5 furlongs in his brief career.

Is it the surfaces?

Bob Baffert and others think so. In all fairness, just a few years into the synthetic experiment, it’s probably too early to tell. The article goes on to mention how the bases of dirt tracks have changed over the years. Other countries racing over turf as opposed to dirt, generally report lower breakdown figures.

What is missing from the equation?

Back to Dr. Bailey, “Perhaps someone can identify a management change or a dietary supplement that has been universal and potentially devastating to the current generation of horses?”

Many old timers, and myself, believe that ‘management change’ is the current trend of trainers to train and race their horses much less frequently than in the past.

Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens: “The biggest change in racing is that people are of the opinion that you shouldn’t run horses very often. I can’t understand it. What’s going on, it’s a fallacy.”
Mr. Jerkens beat Secretariat twice within 8 weeks, once with Onion and once with Prove Out, both were running back in a week or less.

Trainer Ben Jones and Whirlaway: 1941 Triple Crown campaign included 20 starts including a Derby Trial win the Tuesday before the Kentucky Derby. Also, an allowance win BETWEEN the Preakness and the Belmont.

On the flip side, Todd Pletcher and others disagree, often referring to the Ragozin figures which are given credit for identifying the ‘bounce theory’, which states that horses coming off a top effort need time to recover, else they will run back poorly.

Adds trainer Chris Englehart: “When I see what trainers did years ago it makes me scratch my head, if I tried to do that with my horses, they would all be on the farm.”

I agree 100% Mr. Englehart. The key lies in the 2 year old season. If you miss that window of development, you will have to wrap your horses in duct tape to keep them sound. Here is the data to back that up:

A Jockey Club study showed that despite conventional wisdom, modern trainers are not pushing their 2 year olds hard enough. In 1964 a whopping 52% of the foal crop raced and averaged 6.9 starts, but from 2004-2009 only 30 percent started and averaged but 3 starts per horse.
Prominent vet Larry Bramlage: “Horses that make their first career start at age 2 earn twice as much as those who begin racing careers at age 3. In addition, these horses show less predisposition for injury. These data strongly support the physiologic premise that it is easier for a horse to adapt to training when begun at the end of skeletal growth which takes advantage of the established blood supply and cell populations. If you wait longer, until age 3, the musculoskeletal system is allowed to atrophy at the end of growth because of the lack of training stimulus.”

A very detailed exercise regimen was found by Dr. Nunamaker at the New Bolton Center along
with Dr. John Fisher, DVM, a trainer based out of Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland:


I have talked to dozens of trainers over the years, and found just one who follows such a program.

We all are regaled with the many successes of today’s super trainers. Multiple graded stakes winners and winning percentages up near 25% are common, yet we rarely see what happens to the hundreds of horses given to these trainers that never make the headlines.

Blogger Frank at RatherRapid took the time to document some findings that seem to show injury rates well over 50% from these stables:


The great irony is: Early race specific exercise and racing is obviously beneficial, but nowadays 2 year olds rarely breeze further than 5F, make 2-3 starts beginning in late Fall, and are then spelled. This ‘management’ dooms them to making fewer starts than the old timers, and running race times equal to those of the 1930’s, despite all the veterinary and technological advances of the past century.

If I had a horse in training, and I wasn’t a billionaire, I’d send him to this guy:

Gary Contessa: “I believe in watching a horse train, and if the horse is doing well, why not run them? Mighty Irish ran 4 times last month and that owner made money with a sub-par horse because of it. But she was good to go, so I ran her, otherwise I could have ran her once a month and lost money.”


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on November 29, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. >It's the drugs. And the fact that the veterinarians are training the horses. Good old-fashioned work has gone out the window.

  2. >"Good old-fashioned work"-is that slang for the cocaine they gave Sir Barton to soothe his sore soft hooves? Horses had even more drugs in their veins in the good-old days. Don't kid yourself in romanticizing them. Why haven't Triple Crown times improved? It's not breeding, it's not drugs, it's that we have Quarter Horse trainers training Thoroughbreds like Quarter Horses, and then the generations who apprentice under them learn continue their methods. The Lukas Effect.No way I'd let Contessa train my horse. He's a supertrainer like the rest of them. Jonathan Sheppard, Jack Fisher, Tom Voss, Sanna Hendriks, those are true horsemen.

  3. >Just wanted to share something I heard from a track superintendent at one of the DRF Degenerate symposiums a few years back (Porcello). He claimed that the surfaces have gotten slower and slower (deeperperhaps?) over the last several decades suggesting that today's horses are expending much, much greater effort just to run the same times as the greats of yesteryear. I have no idea if this info is accurate or not but it might be worth polling a few old timer track super types to get some real data on the subject.

  4. >Miss Woodford – I'm not romanticizing anything and I certainly am NOT using "old-fashioned work" as slang for cocaine. The proliferation of legal race-day medication is the ruination of the sport in America, and if you don't believe that, get yourself a passport, put yourself on a plane and see how it is done in other countries, where times ARE improving and the breakdown rate is a third of what it is in the United States. You need to look beyond borders if you want to see how it is supposed to be done.

  5. >Very good article. I think the "management change" you discussed is the biggest culprit but I also think drugs and breeding are contributing factors. By breeding I mean there has been an ever increasing trend over the last few decades to stand at stud horses that couldn't stay sound through a handful of races. I just cannot believe that such a nonsensical practice hasn't already had a negative impact on the breed. Although as the geneticist points out the onset of the durability problems has been fairly abrupt, the practice of breeding unsound horses as a matter of course had a fairly abrupt onset as well.

  6. >Doesn't the argument that triple crown times have not improved assume that there have been no changes to the track composition or management at Churchill, Pimlico and Belmont in the last 80 years? If you look at Thorograph or Ragozin who minutely adjust for non-horse related factors TC horses are indeed getting faster.

  7. >Dcajero, I am familiar, but I side with the guys actually maintaining those strips:At least one well informed source begs to differ. Butch Lehr, the track superintendent at Churchill Downs, who has been employed there for 38 years, says that the Churchill strip is no different than it was when he started."As far as making tracks deeper now as compared to 20 years ago, I don't necessarily believe that," Lehr said. "If anything, it's the opposite. I've been here a long time and, at Churchill, we haven't done anything to change the track."

  8. >That being said, I 100% agree with ThoroGraph that you cannot accurately compare winning times over different tracks, over different days to each other. But, I find it hard to believe that several track supers over the past 70 years have made changes that have resulted in almost identical winning times when averaged by decade, in 3 different places. Plus, elsewhere on this blog we found that harness horses ARE steadily improving winning times and another post coming up shows that horses in the Arc De Triomphe are doing the same – and they are conditioned radically different.

  9. >This is the one of the best articles I've ever read on this subject. Very well researched and documented. Great job Bill!

  10. I can understand the change in the training and management of these horses has compromised their stamina. But to say that breeding is not part of the problem is unbelievable. Every horse has their wheelhouse. Why wouldn’t Fredie Head train Goldikova to run in the Arc? The reason is obvious. Goldi’s best distance is the mile and no amount of stamina training is going to get her to surpass her genetics and make her a contender for the 12 furlongs Arc de Trioumphe. I have been reading a lot of articles blaming the trainers concentrating on speed instead of stamina. That is probably true but in order to get the best out of a horse at the classic distance or longer, that horse must have the breeding to get that distance. Even the greatest trainer in the world is no going to make a miler out of a quarterhorse.

    • Sure Charles, breeding may be a small part of the problem, but the real experts (not me) minimize the role: http://pdfs.thoroughbreddailynews.com/generic_upload/pdf/SturdierRacehorse.pdf

      I simply choose to emphasize conditioning, which every trainer can impact today. Of course, no ‘born’ sprinter can turn into a 12F champ, that is not my point – but proper conditioning for stamina can buy one an extra 1-2F. We are never going to see a Triple Crown champ when 3yo rarely breeze more than 5F in their careers, and never race more than 1x a month.

      Breeding is nature, conditioning is nurture – any result is a combination of the two, but the ‘nurture’ aspect is more easily controlled, breeding is a crapshoot at it’s most basic level.

      • Now that is true, better conditioning would get an extra furlongs here and there. Goldikova again is a good example of a miler nipping 9 furlongs or 9 furlongs Rachel Alexandra got another 1/16 in the Preakness. My point is if a 8/9 furlong horse gets the same conditioning as a blood router, the blood router would have a definite advantage going 10 furlongs or longer. Lately, I have been reading a bunch of articles blaming speed trainers concerning our weak routers but imo that is really minimizing the role of breeding. The breeding of speed horses who are inherently fragile. Btw thanks for this great forum.

  11. Thanks Charles, and your comments are most welcome.

    I compare it to the surface issue and breakdowns: we changed many strips to polytrack and overall fatalities per start went from 2.2 or so on dirt, to 1.7 on synthetics/turf. Not great, as most of the world checks in at 0.7 on turf or thereabouts, but a start.

    Therefore, surface is not the only problem with regards to breakdowns, it only accounts for roughly 25% of the issue. The other culprits: conditioning, year round racing, nutrition, sales prep for horses who will later race, raceday drug use, etc.

    Similarly, the loss of stamina is due to, in some combination: breeding for speed, sales prep hothousing, conditioning, fewer races written for routers, drug use, etc.

    Funny, every article I read blames the breeders for the problem! The fundamental principle is so opposite of reality – even in a 6F race as much as 60% of the energy comes from aerobic pathways, i.e. stamina – for a 10F Derby we are at 80+%.

  12. Very interesting to know that 6f = 60% and 10f = 80% comes from aerobic pathways. I am amazed at the 80%. I learn something new everyday. 🙂 Now I am more convince that breeding might not be the biggest factor but it is the initiating factor. We have been breeding bleeders and using lasix(drug) to control it. I wonder how much it takes out of our horses to recover from these drugs between races and or training. To train for stamina and make these 2 year olds sturdier, you going to have to work them harder. How are we going to do that with unsound lines and bleeders? European does not seem to have that kind of problem with bleeders, that’s because they don’t breed bleeders.

  13. Somewhere on here Charles is a blog post about stamina. Pedigree sets the blueprint for what is achievable, conditioning dictates how much of that blueprint is put into practice.

    To keep it very simple consider one aspect of stamina: the number of mitochondria in muscles. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the muscle cell as they take metabolic energy and convert it into movement. All else being equal, the more you have the further you make it down the track before fatigue sets in.

    Nature, or genetics, will dictate how many mitochondria one is born with, but aerobic training at 60-75% of max HR will allow one to form additional mitochondria. When every single damn horse in the US gallops a max of 1.5 miles daily, they all receive equal stimulus to develop increased mitochondrial density, but if a select trainer works up to galloping 2.5 miles a day – he will improve upon the pedigree blueprint with respect to mitochondrial development and nurture improved stamina, moreso than the rest.

    Aerobic stamina is not improved maximally during speedwork, it is gallops around a 2:30 mile for claimers and 1:50 per mile for stakes stock that does the trick. No one gets this concept as every ‘horseman’ thinks speed, speed, speed is the only way to improve. If they had been a collegiate track athlete they would know differently.

    On the Lasix front it seems every trainer gives 14 days off speedwork after a race run with Lasix. But then Aidan O’Brien comes over here to KEE with a filly named Together and wins 2 Grade 1’s in a week running on the drug!-

  14. Well all good stuff. I am an owner and rider and manager of a small farm for thoroighbreds. Even fortunate enough to have breezed horses like Sunday Silence and Ferdanand to name a few. But a topic definitely missing in all this IS the poor poor condition of horses feet that come from the tracks. Was holding. A few today to get there feet repaired. The angles on these feet were horrible. And they were wondering why he was going off. He was destined to break down if they had not noticed he was a little off. He is only just two a beautiful colt. Angles bad. Low. slung heel long toes. And even the walls were not level. Low on the inside wall and high on outside. I see this way too frequently. Could this not be a serious problem?

    • Absolutely! Just like the garbage involving toe grabs, modifying hoof angles in an attempt to improve upon nature and effect gait is a recipe for disaster.

  1. Pingback: What is Stamina? (or the myth of the 2 minute lick) | ThoroEdge Equine Performance

  2. Pingback: These 3yo Aren’t a Bad Group, Just Another Slow One | ThoroEdge Equine Performance

  3. Pingback: US Thoroughbreds Are Not Only Slower, But Also Breakdown More Often « ThoroEdge Equine Performance

  4. Pingback: California Chrome is no Swaps | ThoroEdge Equine Performance

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: