Why Does the Belmont Keep Getting Slower?
While watching Palice Malice come home the final quarter in a glacial 27.58 seconds I couldn’t help but wonder if winning times in the third jewel of the Triple Crown in the 2:30+ range are becoming the new norm?
As you can see, I am nearly Excel illiterate – so let me explain the data. The Y-axis is the winning time in seconds, averaged for each decade to control for equine gods such as Secretariat and also for varying track conditions at Big Sandy (hence the above image) as well as different pace scenarios which can effect final times. The X-axis represents each decade, with the 1 corresponding to the limited data set of the 2010’s – 4 years, and the 9 representing the 1930’s – the first full 10 year span where the race was run at its current 12 furlong distance.
So, the number 4 on the horizontal axis is the fastest decade (1980’s) when you average the 10 winners’ times and come to a value of 147.94, or 2:27.94. This was quite surprising to me, as I figured the 144 flat/2:24 posted by Secretariat in 1973 would have given the decade of the 70’s (number 5 on my chart) the title.
Of note, the 1980’s never had a final winning time over 2:30, but Secretariat’s decade had 2 such plodders: High Echelon and Pass Catcher in 1970 and 1971, respectively. That is my first point. The 2010’s have so far blessed us with 4 consecutive winning times at 2:30.42 or slower – which hasn’t happened since the early 1930’s.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the overall trend was towards markedly faster Belmont winning times from the 30’s through the 80’s, with a bit of a flattening out around Secretariat’s heroics – but since that era the winning times have crept back upwards towards the 2:30 mark. Granted 2010-2013 is only 40% of the decade, but these 4 winners have dug a hole impossible to get out of, statistically speaking.
What we will be left with come 2020 is a symmetrical version of the above chart – where the 3 decades since the 1980’s will show a gradual INCREASE in the overall winning time of the Belmont when averaged by decade, a trendline that pretty closely matches the overall DECREASE in overall winning time from 1940-1970 – how long will this trend continue?
I am 99% certain there is no sport other than US thoroughbred racing where the winning times of a premier event today are equal to those from the 1940’s. Times are faster in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, as well as in the biggest US harness race:
(EDIT: I am not positive, but I believe Lasix was made legal in NY around 1995, which coincides roughly with the sudden reversal of the trendline of winning times. Now wouldn’t that be interesting! No Lasix in the Arc or the Hambletonian, and they continue to get faster…hmm. Losing 50lbs of water weight will make you faster over 6F undoubtedly, but 12F may be another story as dehydration kicks in. Palice Malice closed in 27.5+ off a hot pace, but neither Oxbow nor Orb could best that mark, and both are champions. All were on the drug, of course.)
Regular blog readers know my particular bias is towards conditioning. Next post will deal a bit with the myriad of differences between training humans and horses. I think I may also be on the radio next Wednesday, June 19th speaking to that topic. This Wednesday, on that same radio program – will undoubtedly be a Belmont analysis. Here is the link should you care to listen to either:
All podcasts are live at 1pm US Eastern time, with recorded versions always available at the above link.