10/16/2012 1:05PM

Andrew Beyer: U.S. lags behind England in race for superstars

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Frankel, one of a number of superstars based in Europe over the past decade, attempts to finish his career undefeated on Saturday.

WASHINGTON – Racing fans in the U.S. have reason to believe that the Thoroughbred species is in decline. This year’s anticlimactic Triple Crown series was the fifth in a row in which the nation’s 3-year-olds were sub-par by historical standards. When the Breeders’ Cup is run next month, the year-end championship events are unlikely to produce any winners considered superstars.

But this relative weakness isn’t a Thoroughbred phenomenon; it is an American phenomenon. In many parts of the racing world – Great Britain, Japan, and Australia, for example – the quality of Thoroughbreds appears to be better than ever. Many extraordinary runners have competed in Great Britain over the last few years, notably the brilliant colt Frankel. The 4-year-old has regularly scored runaway victories against top-class competition, and he will attempt to complete a perfect 14-for-14 career when he runs in the Champion Stakes at Ascot Saturday. Respected British racing experts already rate him as the greatest Thoroughbred in history.

The decline of the U.S. and the ascendancy of Britain is not a sudden phenomenon; it is slow-developing trend that has spanned decades. Racing in this country peaked in the 1970s. Any short list of the best American thoroughbreds would be dominated by runners from that decade, notably Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Forego, and Ruffian. Yet since 2000 this country has scarcely produced a horse who could be ranked with such elite company. I could name only one: Ghostzapper, the horse of the year in 2004.

By contrast, Sea The Stars was judged one of Europe’s all-time best runners after capturing the Epsom Derby and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 2009. The extraordinary mare Goldikova won 14 Grade 1 stakes, including three straight victories over males in the Breeders’ Cup Mile from 2008 to 2010. Harbinger was lauded for delivering one of the most brilliant single performances by a British horse when he beat a stellar field by 11 lengths in the 2010 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. And then Frankel came along to eclipse them all.

The colt won the 2000 Guineas [video], the first of the English 3-year-old classics, with a display of raw speed that, for Americans, might have evoked memories of Seattle Slew in his prime. He sped off to a 15-length lead and buried the field with a performance that was as visually impressive as a racehorse can deliver.

Runaway wins can sometimes be deceptive, but Frankel has verified his quality by the margins with which he defeats rivals of unquestionable high quality. Last year he had a showdown with Canford Cliffs – who had won five straight Grade 1 stakes and had defeated the mighty Goldikova in his previous start – and trounced his rival by five lengths. In June he annihilated solid Grade 1 competition in the Queen Anne Stakes at Ascot by 11 lengths.

The venerable company Timeform has assigned numerical ratings to the performances of European Thoroughbreds since 1948, and it gave Frankel’s win in the Queen Anne a rating of 147, eclipsing the 145 earned by Sea-Bird, the legendary runner in the 1960s. By Timeform’s assessment, Frankel is the best ever.

What accounts for the proliferation of great horses in England and their shortage in America? One factor may be the U.S.’s liberal use of drugs that are banned in almost every other racing jurisdiction. Horses win major races with the help of medications, go to stud, pass on their infirmities to their offspring and weaken the breed. The theory appears to be confirmed by the high attrition rate of colts in the Triple Crown series.

But the indisputable explanation for Britain’s ascendancy is its possession of superior Thoroughbred genes. The U.S. owed its former supremacy to the same factor. In the years during and after World War II, top European Thoroughbred stock was exported to the U.S. and transformed the breed on this side of the Atlantic. Nasrullah arrived in the U.S. in 1950 and by the 1970s his mark was everywhere. He was an ancestor of eight Kentucky Derby winners in the 1970s, including Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Spectacular Bid.

Yet as U.S. racing was at its peak, the balance of power slowly began to shift. Britain’s Robert Sangster and his associates recognized that the Maryland-based Northern Dancer was as prepotent a stallion as Nasrullah had been. Europeans began to dominate U.S. yearling sales to acquire offspring of Northern Dancer and his sons, such as the brilliant Danzig. They bred their mares to these same stallions. As the prices for yearlings and stud fees reached astronomical levels, American breeders didn’t hesitate to sell these precious pedigrees.

Sangster bred his mare Fairy Bridge to Northern Dancer in 1980 and the mating produced Sadler’s Wells, who went on to became the best sire in the world and the greatest in European history, begetting more than 320 stakes winners. He sired Epsom Derby winner Galileo – now the most valuable stallion in the world – who in turn sired Frankel.

Prince Khalid Abdullah bred a mare to Danzig and the mating produced Danehill, who became the most prolific sire of stakes winners in history by shuttling between Great Britain and Australia. His son Dansili begat Harbinger, who in 2010 earned a 140 Timeform rating (the ninth-best of all time.)

Thanks to its acquisition of the best U.S. genes in the 1970s and 1980s, Great Britain now has the pedigree power to produce the best horses in the world. American racing fans will surely look on these developments with regret, wishing that we could be thrilling to the exploits of a superhorse like Frankel.

© 2012, The Washington Post

Bwell More than 1 year ago
Sea the Stars has an amazing pedigree Northern Dancer on top Mr. Prospector on Bottom. I'd love to see his offspring over here.
mikey More than 1 year ago
What is so funny is Andy criticizing our 3 yr old triple crown runners as mediocre and yet is hyping Frankel a British horse who never even attempted the British Triple and only attempted their shortest the 2KG. In reality, the British breeding has regressed just like us in the USA for short speed horses.
Jonathan Yarde More than 1 year ago
Frankel wasn't bred for speed. Horses who make their 2-y-old debuts in 1 mile races in GB are horses who are expected to be able to get the classic middle distances at 3. Frankel just happens to be a freak that's apparently unbeatable at the mile distance. Note that his 3/4 brother, Bullet Train, won the Lingfield Derby trial at a mile and a half, while his full brother, Noble Mission, won the Gordon Stakes at 1 1/2 miles defeating St. Leger winner Encke, and 3rd place finisher Michelangelo in the process.
MICHAEL More than 1 year ago
Jezz..would u people give that bs....he duc ked every prestigious 12 fur race. ..derby at epsom, king george And 2 Arcs
Dave Schuler More than 1 year ago
OH OH-The Connections Are Walking The Course (May BE Too SOFT For Greatest Of All Time Frankel -Say What -Just Do It -Turf Is Harder At Breeders CupTake Your Choice Or Stay In Barn)-lolk-DS
Jonathan Yarde More than 1 year ago
Maybe it's the circle of life Albert. Offspring of the Darley Arabian, Godolphin Barb and Byerley Turk returning to their ancestral owners.
Albert More than 1 year ago
Andy's history is basically accurate in terms of what happened in the bloodstock markets here. As a very minor player myself throughout the 80s and 90s this was the big topic of conversation among American breeders. One thing Andy does not pinpoint is the source of the buying of the entire Northern Dancer bloodline....it was the Arabs who were basically repatriating American dollars that were spent on oil. OK, so this was a cyclical phenomenon, as Andy points out. We brought Nasrullah here when we had all the money and they brought Northern Dancer there when they got the money from us. Now that we have shale oil and new drilling techniques, the US is about to become an energy exporter....dollars are coming here. Who will will buy from them in order to restimulate our bloodline pool? As some pretty erudite people have pointed out in this blog, it's not likely to be an individual which has only proven that it can run on grass. It would not be likely to be Frankel, which has beaten the same group over and over on the grass. Perhaps it will be some individual coming out of a successful Dubai career.
Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
Secretariat went the first 6 furlongs in less than 1:10 and galloped on to set a world record for 12 furlongs in 2:24 flat. Sorry the pictures of him turning for home without a horse around him are just incredible. No matter how good Frankel is or isn't; no one of his races will come close to that performance. Timeform can eat me. When Frankel is on the cover of Time, Sports Illustrated and News Week all at the same time, he will cement himself as the greatest.. That is not going to happen. And he will be a failure at stud. Odds on.
Horse Cents More than 1 year ago
It's incredible to me that anyone drags Secretariat into this conversation having nothing to do with this article. And even more incredible that you would say Frankel will be a failure at stud before he's retired, but Secretariat was proven to be a failure at stud long after he was retired. Just weird.
Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
Also, which does tie into the article, Bold Ruler was probably the greatest stud ever; not a stud of studs -- like Northern Dancer or Mr. Prospector -- but his average earning index was like 5.15 ( it was over 5 ) I had to work with one of his sons, King Emperor. And he was as common as an Oregon bred. And it does matter because what Beyer is saying is just his opinion. Racing in the US has lots of problems. From shoeing to drugs. I am not dumping on Frankel. That would be stupid. But it is just my guess he will be a mediocre stud -- like Seattle Dancer.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
The good ones rarely recreate themselves, if ever
Spero Plagianos More than 1 year ago
US Racing-Drugs! Secretariat great at stud? Average to good at best. World record belongs to Hawkster 2.22 4/5 at Santa Anita 1989 Turf . Time,Sports Illustrated, News Week, in England who cares, we don't care about there'publications. Who are you betting that he will be failure at stud?
ElizabethL More than 1 year ago
Secretariat average to good at stud? Lady's Secret (HOY in '86, HoF '92, BHI top 100 US racehorses), Risen Star, (4th fastest in Belmont history), General Assembly (holds record for Travers Stakes, 34 yrs and counting), Kingston Rule (holds record for Melbourne Cup, 23 yrs and counting), Terlingua (dam of most prepotent sire in US history), Weekend Surprise (dam of 2nd most prepotent sire in US history), Secrettame (dam of Gone West),Tinner's Way, etc. etc. If we call Bold Ruler or Storm Cat great, we'd have to say Secretariat was very good. Hawkster world record on Santa Anita course that is 3 furlongs (aka, 1/4 of the 12 furlong race) downhill, so it has a HUGE asterisk next to it.
Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
Its all talking out the backside. Watch this and you'll dismiss any idea that Frankel is the greatest. ( sorry you have to resemble the link ) youtube . com / watch ? v=xoFquax2F-k
Greg Rouch More than 1 year ago
If America had kept these bloodlines, would they have excelled quite as well in our dirt racing as they have in Euro turf racing?
Horse Cents More than 1 year ago
Yes, they would have been paired with mares more suitable to our racing.
IHAnother More than 1 year ago
Andy was right in every respect but one. Northern Dancer the foundation sire of great European horses was Canadian, not American. The first example was the brilliant Nijinsky an English Triple Crown winner bought at the Woodbine yearling sales. You can almost handicap turf races at the top level by the incidence of Dancer blood. Americans had the chance to lock up these bloodlines, but missed the opportunity. Same thing with probably the most brilliant American 3 year old after Spec Bid - Sunday Silence. Deja vu with I'll Have Another - only time will tell. But hey a lot of mediocre dirt horses will be running in the Classic - hoooooray!
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
A son of Neartic, he stood in Maryland for many years. Bring your mare n take her home came into play in the early seventies. Northern Dancer remains one of those 'everyones' Horses.
Dave Schuler More than 1 year ago
Thats Because The( Greatest Of ALL Time Euros Chose Not To Come To The Bc And Get Beat) Frankel Great Trainer, Horse Not So Great-lolk-DS
Kevin Ryan More than 1 year ago
Don't give Andy so much credit. He posted an opinion as though it was science. Can he really say Frankel ( who WILL win his last race ) yet has never left his home country, and never will, is a sign of the US not having the right breeding stock? And some of the horses he has beaten have been in pretty shaky form this year: St Nicholas Abbey -- his resume is more or less based on his victory in the BC Turf; but he is not going to win again; and I am not sure if O'Brien will even send him over to try. He has only won a single race since the BC. Now why is he a measure of greatness if he gets beaten by Frankel but not any barometer when beaten by a 4 year old filly, Solemia. The latter of which has gotten very little respect, especially by the be all end all experts at Timeform. Some of the most durable and lasting horses are not coming from the USA or England/Ireland but South America: Sandpit, Siphon, Gentlemen, Invasor etc... You can take any opinion and back it up with numbers. But if you LOOK at all of the numbers it changes the story. When you pick and choose any story can hold together. That's why it is so easy to be a liar with statistics. Frankel is a great horse. But he is no Ribot, Kelso or Secretariat in my book.
Richard More than 1 year ago
Andy, you know more about thoroughbred horseracing then I ever will in my entire life and I truly always read what you have to say and have to respect your opinion! The thing I have to question just for thought and not for argument is that the thoroughbred horse racing in Europe is almost entirely on turf. I watched Frankel’s last race The Queen Anne’s at Ascot at seven furlongs and it reminded me of a dirt race in the states. Most turf races start their stretch run much later than dirt horses that begin to start during the last turn or once they hit the straight depending on their running style. Frankel reminded me of a dirt horse that started his stretch run as soon as he hit the straight. Many other handicappers’s questioned the distance Frankel has run to be called the greatest race horse. Had Frankel ran in and won the Arc at Longchamp perhaps that statement could have been valid. To say he is the greatest or one of the greatest milers I think would have been more valid. I have been hearing this drug issue to many times to ignore it now. There are late bloomers like Nonios, Golden Ticket, Fast Falcon, and Atigun who showed in the Belmont and did well in his other two races to count out all the three year olds from the U.S. in 2012!