09/19/2010 3:01PM

Less is Less

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The average number of starts by America's Horse of the Year has declined from 11.8 in the 1960's to between 9 and 10 from the 1970's through the 1990's and to 7.3 in the 2000's. The 2010's may start with the bar even lower.

If the four leading contenders for the HOTY honor in 2010 stick to their current schedules en route to a showdown in the Breeders' Cup Classic Nov. 6, they will have made only 5 (Blame), 6 (Quality Road, Zenyatta) or 7 (Lookin at Lucky)starts this year.

Only 3 of the last 50 HOTY honorees made six or fewer starts in a season, all in the last six years. Only 6 others made just 7 starts, all since 1977.

Only 1 of the last 14 HOTY's has made 10 or more starts -- and that was, of all horses, Charismatic, who made those 10 starts in the first 5 1/2 months of 1999. That 1 for 14 stretch follows a period when 19 of 36 HOTY's made 10 or more starts during their championship seasons, led by Damascus (16 in 1967) and Lady's Secret (15 in 1986).

Secretariat, often cited as the poster child for foreshortened careers because he was retired after his 3-year-old campaign, still made more starts in two seasons (21) than Zenyatta (20) will have made in four.

This year's campaigns by the Big Four are unusually brief even by recent standards, filled with long gaps that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago in the absence of being sidelined by injury. Blame made his third start of the year in the Whitney Aug. 1 and is waiting nine weeks to return in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.  Quality Road, unraced for nearly three months between the Donn and the Met Mile, is not scheduled  to run in the nine weeks between the Woodward and the Classic. Lookin at Lucky took 11 weeks off between the Preakness and Haskell, and another nine between that race and the Indiana Derby. Zenyatta has raced four times in eight months.

So Zenyatta will come into the Classic without having faced a male (or probably even a Grade 1-winning filly) this year; Lookin at Lucky will be making his first start against older horses; and Blame and Quality Road, who had the only meaningful HOTY-level showdown this year when they finished a nose apart in the Whitney, will be meeting for only the second time after ducking each other in the Woodward and Gold Cup.

"Less is more" is a popular mantra in racing these days, and it may have some value when it comes to reducing the glut of racing in some markets, but when it comes to championship-level racing, less is just less and it is diminishing the sport. 

John More than 1 year ago
Steeplestakes, Again, why haven't there been any tracks out there that were willing to ante up their purses to lure Zenyatta. She is the biggest attraction in years, isn't she? The answer is both Del Mar and Hollywood didn't have to knowing that Zenyatta's connections had already indicated that she would using a race each at those tracks as an expensive paid workout. Sure, if the powers that be actually wanted to intice Zenyatta into the HGC or PC, then they had all the power in the world to ante up their purses. I wouldn't test my mare against males if they weren't willing to add an extra incentive to the race, especially when she had already beat most of them anyway. Wasn't the BC people willing to ante up the Classic an extra million on top of the $5 million to lure Rachel Alexandra?
Chris Garrity More than 1 year ago
Steve, congrats on the Hall of Fame thing. There's nobody more deserving of going in the honor roll. A heartfelt congratulations from your average degenerate horseplayer in Philly.
Walt P. More than 1 year ago
To add onto what Jeffrey said: The inbreeding and lack of distance racing is a real problem, but I also blame that on trainers who either don't know how or don't want to train their horses to go 1 1/4, 1 1/2 Miles or longer distances. This is where BC Ltd. needs to make serious changes as well. First change I would make is to lengthen the BC Classic to 1 5/8 Miles and both the Turf and Filly-Mare turf to two miles. Lengthening the BC Classic to 1 5/8 Miles would have the immediate effect of seeing the Jockey Club Gold Cup returned to 1 1/2 Miles (which it was run at from 1976-'89) and many other major races at 1 1/8 and 1 1/4 Miles suddenly lengthened to 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 Miles respectively, with many turf races that are currently at 1 1/4 Miles being lengthened to 1 1/2 or even 1 3/4 Miles (depending on course configuration). At the same time, the Ladies Classic would also go to 1 5/8 Miles, forcing many other filly and mare races on dirt to be lengthened as well to 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 Miles. For trainers not wanting to deal with the longer distances of the real big events, the BC Dirt Mile would be renamed the BC Middle Distance and be run at 1 1/8 Miles for a $500,000 purse (reduced from $1 Million), while the BC Marathon would be lengthened to 2 1/4 Miles and see its purse doubled to $1 Million (the BC Mile would remain the same as that does attract many top Euro milers). The changes probably would be met with resistance at first, but I suspect long term, coupled with what I previously said about phasing out lasix would strengthen the breed over time. The suggestions on Graded Stakes are something I have said myself in previous blogs, as by making only the TC, BC and other truly major races Grade 1 (that would require a minimum purse of $750,000 as I would do it), it would help force star horses to face each other more often, something if I were a commissioner with teeth I would be doing anyway by waiving a "best interest" clause that would allow a commissioner to force a horse's connection to run in a spot they don't want to if it is in the best interest of the sport from a national perspective to have the horse in that spot. It's a clause I would hope to never have to use, but as said, the mere threat of having such hang over horsemen would this year for instance likely have had Zenyatta at Saratoga facing Quality Road twice in the Whitney (with Blame) and Woodward, and a third time in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (again with Blame) as well. Another issue is horses not racing enough. This too I would change by making it where horses have to race at three, four and five for their progeny to be eligible to race as soon as they turn two. As I would do it: Horses who retire at three would see their progeny not eligible to race until the stallion turns 13. Horses who retire at four would see their progeny not eligible to race until the stallion turns 11. Horses who retire at five would see their progeny eligible to race as soon as such horses turn two. There also would be a minimum start requirement for each of those years, usually 10 starts. While it would be nice if horses could also have 8-10 starts at two, horses don't develop at the same rate, so that would not be included in any way. This is a draconian measure that I would rather not see, but if it helps eliminate the more fragile members of the breed, then it's something that may need to be done.
Saratoga_mike More than 1 year ago
Zenyatta wouldn't draw more than 10,000 to Belmont? Sorry, but that's absolutely absurd.
Rolly More than 1 year ago
Rachel at the height of her streak with extensive promotion drew only 13,000 people to Belmont for the Mother Goose on a beautiful June day. Do you really think NYRA could get that same number of people to go to Belmont on a chilly fall day... Also, what was the attendance when Rags to Riches returned in the Gazelle in 2007? Finally, even if 10k show up, that place still looks empty with 40k there (i.e. Rags to Riches' Belmont Stakes).
John More than 1 year ago
Steeplestakes, Being 18 for 18 is not a good thing? Hum.. At last check, the Breeders' Cup has sold twice as many tickets at this time compared to last year when than Santa Anita drew about 100,000 for the two days. And guess what the biggest attraction is - Zenyatta and her 18 for 18 career. Further, I understand that Churchill Downs is flooded with media requests from around the world, mostly to witness Zenyatta as she approaches racing immortality. Zenyatta is the best thing going for horseracing now. Her recognition is just starting to come in as seen by Opray's 2010 Power List and the Huffington Post. She already boosts the largest facebook members in horseracing history - more than twice that of Seabiscuit or Secretariat. Steeplestakes, instead of being critical, complaining, and demanding what can Zenyatta do for you today, or to appease your cynical attitude toward her and her racing career why don't you take time and recognize what Zenyatta has already done to bolster racing. Things like being the only thoroughbred in America in the last 100 years to be 18 for 18 and not against state inbred races. Or the only horse in history to win two different Breeders' Cup races. Or the only female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Or a horse that has beaten the winners of 50 Grade 1 races and yet never lost a race. Or a horse that has within her perfect record the last 16 races being either Grade 1 or Grade 2 status. With some people enough is never enough. There will always be something that Zenyatta must do to prove herself to you. Beating five Divisional Champions, four Eclipse Award Champions, and two Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic Champions is not enough. And it goes on and on. I will always remember the remarks from Penny Tweedy after numerous tries to lure Secretariat out to California..."Secreatariat does not need to prove himself to anyone or anyplace. His record speaks for himself." The same can be said for Zenyatta.
Rolly More than 1 year ago
What good would having these horses race more often achieve? Zenyatta could have raced five times at Belmont in the spring and fall, won every time and still she wouldn't draw more than 10,000 people to that track. Her one appearance at Del Mar brought as many people as would have seen her on Long Island in three starts, and even then, how many fannies did she really draw that wouldn't have come to Del Mar otherwise? Did the showdown between Blame and Quality Road do anything to help Saratoga? They still had handle and attendance declines. Wouldn't people have shown up anyway to see a huge day of racing at the Spa? Why would a series of showdowns suddenly make more people show up at Belmont? The Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup has conditioned the sports world to focus on racing four times a year. Albany and San Diego pay attention for an extra few weeks and Lexington pays attention two months a year. The Jersey Shore paid attention more this year. It's about big events and popular venues. We've got a tremendous and compelling story here with Zenyatta trying for 20 straight wins. We had a tremendous campaign last year with Rachel and the debate between the two horses' camps. There are exceptionally strong stars and storylines surrounding us. The only thing missing would be a Triple Crown winner. Even with all that, we are incredulously wondering if the game's stars need to do more. (?) Truth is, equine stars aren't going to save the game in it's current form. They aren't going to save the game just by virtue of being fast horses running for the sake of running. Equine stars will save the game when they are given proper showcases to perform. Equine stars will save the game when we stop pretending all Grade 1s are equal. We need to stop thinking the Derby preps and the Jockey Club Gold Cup are equal to the Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup Classic as events just because good horses have raced there in the past. The new Preakness bonus may start that process if $5 million suddenly makes winning the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness more important that the Derby, but even then, if a horse does win a pile of money on TV in Baltimore, or some horse sweeps the Triple Crown, will 20,000 people show up at Delaware Park the next Sunday to watch a run-of-the-mill card? Will 20,000 people even show up to watch the Delaware Handicap? With Rachel in it? Less racing in appreciative markets will be better for the game as a whole. There will be less clutter and our stars will really shine because the competition will be stronger, and the ones who emerge will be that much more worthy.
fcb696 More than 1 year ago
I find it funny how anyone could try to minimize what Zenyatta has accomplished. I don't see all these grade 1 winners calling her out. As a matter of fact I know many connection would be happy if she sit out the classic. That stretch @ Churchill should be right up her alley....to be the Champ you got to beat the Champ....WOOOW
DennisR More than 1 year ago
Only three things matter in this sport. The Triple Crown, the Breeders' Cup, and the Eclipse Award. Nothing else matters. All of the other graded stakes, Saratoga, Del Mar, etc. are scraps from the table. If you have a 3YO, get him in position to try and win a Triple Crown race then prepare for the Breeders Cup. If you are not eligible for the Triple Crown, plan the easiest route possible to the Breeders' Cup. Once you have won your Breeders' Cup race, go collect your Eclipse Award. That's what today's horse racing is all about. And none of them care about competitiveness or what you and I think. Here's an interesting thought. Reduce the field in a breeders' Cup field to a maximum of ten horses and base entry to graded stakes wins. Then maybe the rest of the year will mean something.
Michael More than 1 year ago
Most comments here don't really understand what is taken place. Look, Zenyatta is the premier attraction in horseracing today. Her following is like none other. Her star value is unlike anything we've seen in years and her connections are not going to showcase her without some kind of compensation... She has absolutely nothing to prove. She has already beaten most of what is out there racing, with the others either driven into retirement, the sidelines, or out of her way. Jim C., had it right when he said that Zenyatta was preparing for a $5 million payday in the Apple Blossom with a paid workout in the Santa Barbara beforehand. Except that Rachel Alexandra ducked her. Without any compensation, Zenyatta will pick and chose whatever race she wants to run in and, thus will become a paid workout, however still open to those of her choosing that dare to enter. To date, I have not heard of any track, including those in California, willing and offering to ante up purse money past what there're already paying out to entice Zenyatta to step beyond what has become expensive paid workouts this year. Why couldn't Del Mar push up the value of the Pacific Classic an extra $1 million for Zenyatta to race. Why couldn't Hollywood Park add another $1 million to the Gold Cup's purse. You pay for what you get....
mr velvet More than 1 year ago
There are 2 significant problems with horseracing that ruin the competitive nature of the game. The first problem is that there are way too many Grade 1 races... there should be 3 grade 1's per year for each older division that leads up to its Breeders Cup race. This would reduce the number undeserving g1 winners that get sent to the breeding shed after they steal a g1 in a four horse field, and this would encourage owners to keep their horses in training. A Grade 1 winner in the breeding shed would actually mean something. Also, it would force owners to ship all over the country to EARN a g1 vs a full field, exposing great horses to multiple venues. For 3yo, the triple crown series/travers/ and one of the 3yo filly races should be it- no preps. Great horses would have been forced to face true g1 fields 3 or 4 times a year, not just on Breeders Cup day. The 2nd issue is that there needs to be a purse bracket on graded stakes. Grade 3s should be worth up to 250k, Grade 2 between 300k and 500k, while G1 need to have a minimum purse of 600k(or something along these lines). This would discourage owners from seeking out less competitive races that have bigger purses where they can pick up an easy check. Currently, there is no reason for an owner to look at another owner and say, "my horse is faster than yours and I will prove it on the track for these stakes," which is the basis of what horseracing is founded on. Instead, they can both win the same amount of money and graded status by avoiding one another. Smaller tracks with huge slot infused purses obviously wouldn't like purse brackets preventing them from dumping money to attract a couple good horses to a g3, but they could be using the extra money to attract fans with promotional type events or to improve facilities. Who knows, maybe a system like this would even create rivalries, something that hasn't truly been seen in decades. The greatness of horses such as Zenyatta and many others would be proven and immortalized on various racetracks, not left in question after so few competitive races.
Ariah More than 1 year ago
I don't see Rachel and Zen at the BC, JMO zen has no chance this year, and Rachal has nothing more to proof! what she did is amazing love her to death! i named my baby girl after her! zen is good at what she does. but i don't c her beat Blame or QR, i just hope shes not another Eight Belles hate to c that happen they should slow down. JMO