Why Does the Belmont Keep Getting Slower?

bigsandy

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?

belmonttimesbydecade

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:

https://thoroedge.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/more-speedwork-plus-less-drugs-equals-faster-horses/

https://thoroedge.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/what-can-thoroughbred-trainers-learn-from-standardbred-conditioners/

(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:

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/twinspires

All podcasts are live at 1pm US Eastern time, with recorded versions always available at the above link.

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About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on June 11, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Hey Bill
    I remember reading somewhere that the Belmont surface is as much as 4inches deeper now than when Secretariat ran. Whether they deem it safer I don’t know. Perhaps the modern day thoroughbred would have soundness issues on the old harder faster surface.

    • Hello Dylan-

      I have heard the same, but then again I have also heard that comment about the Kentucky Derby surface at Churchill, and it was proven false by the CD superintendent himself, Butch Lehr:

      “As far as making tracks deeper now as compared to 20 years ago, I don’t necessarily believe that, 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.”

      I find it hard to believe that in this day and age of speed and media attention, that anyone would purposely be trying to slow horses down. And I think that if you look at shorter races over the BEL strip, they are likely getting a tick faster each decade. But I have no proof of that, merely anecdotal evidence.

  2. Furthermore: if the track surface is 100% to ‘blame’ we’d have to buy into the idea that somewhere in the early 90’s a sudden change was made to a deeper footing – and that practice was systematically increased for the past 25 years – but in the period of 30 years leading up to this change, nothing was done?

    Or, during those glory years the track was made easier to handle?

    I know this theory is a big winner among The Sheets and Thorograph crowds, but I’d rather hang my hat on guys like Butch Lehr rather than handicappers. Although I do recall the BEL super making some remarks to that effect…

    Who in the hell wants to watch a BEL run in 2:32? Even last week’s race had very low TV ratings. Americans want speed, speed, speed – if anything the Belmont groundskeepers should be juicing that track to give us another Secretariat-like performance.

  3. Two points – Icognito was not on Lasix and he was the only horse in front moving forward at the end of the race. The year the much maligned gelding won the Derby, they ran below the decade average in all 3 races with the Belmont down at 2:27.5 – with similar track conditions to this year.

  4. Hi Bill
    There’s an interesting letter from Jerry Brown of Thorograph in todays TDN which leads to this article part 1 of 3 https://www.thorograph.com/archive/getting%20faster%20pt%20I.htm
    Seems that the track at Belmont is not only deeper now but has a higher proportion of sand over clay than in the past. Fascinating stuff.

  5. Trace back when they started breeding for sprinting milers and you have your answer….

    • Certainly that’s part of it, but I don’t think that is the whole reason. Human geneticists scoff at the idea that horse breeders think they can affect significant changes on an animal in a time period of 50 years, and I tend to agree.

  6. Hey Bill,
    How much would you say tracks improved between the 30’s and the 70’s and 80’s? Do you think the improvement in times came from the track, or from improvements in the breed?

    • Hi Jordan, I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘improved’. In general, for a track to get faster it has to get harder, but many in the industry think improving a track makes it safer, or deeper, leading to slower times as opposed to faster ones. It’s well known that the Kentucky Derby won my Monarchos was ‘souped up’ to suit the style of Point Given, and the winning time was the first under 2:00 since the immortal Secretariat. Of course Monarchos never did anything after this race, leading many to chalk up his fast time to the track, rather than his ability. In the past 12 years since no one has approached 2:00. Not even close.

      But in order for the BEL strip to be mainly responsible for the trend in this post, it would have to systematically be slowed down pretty much every year for the past several decades, which is not terribly likely in my opinion. But, others have noted the Secretariat edition of the race was preceded by some record fast times by other unknown horses. So that race very well may be an outlier along the lines of Monarchos’ Derby.

      • So, do you think that tracks kept getting harder up through the 80’s, then Lasix began slowing the horses down?

      • Oh no, I think tracks were the same during that period; and horses got faster because of breeding and aggressive conditioning. Since that time they have gotten slower due to Lasix/Bute use; but primarily the ‘less is more’ conditioning philosophy introduced by D Wayne Lukas, the Quarter Horse cowboy.

  7. Sorry to keep bothering you, but I guess I’m a little confused. I thought you said you didnt think a breed could significantly improve over 50 years? And do you really not think the tracks improved from the 30’s through the 80’s?

    • Oh I don’t think breeding means much, but I put that in there to pacify some of my audience. Butch Lehr the superintendent at Churchill Downs was quoted as saying he didn’t do anything significant to his track for 35 years. Rather than give credit to what was going on over that period, I prefer to assess blame to what is going on now – and my particular ‘angle’ is conditioning. Others tout medications, others love breeding, others are obsessed with track conditions, I am focused on physiological conditioning.

      The correct answer is likely a mix of all these factors in varying degrees of responsibility. But I cannot stomach the few who claim that horses are faster now-a-days, I just don’t buy that one bit.

      And I didn’t say that about the breed over 50 years, that was some human geneticist in a big piece called ‘Do we Need a Sturdier Racehorse’ by Bill Finley, that I was also quoted in. Highly recommended if you haven’t read it yet, I think it’s online for free.

  8. I have to say bill (although I am late with my comment) conditioning,conditioning,conditioning! Of course good genes are the foundation, drugs well I still say a race of “my vet is better than your vet,isnt real racing” ask Lance armstrong…I mean I was an athlete in high school and college, when I conditioned I was faster and had ENDURANCE! Dont any of these people remember ever playing a sport???? And I agree about the lasix in the distance, the last thing you want is to be dehydrated at the turn,and it will happen. !As far as the track goes…i gotta say I really dont have a clue.LOL! keep up the good work.

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