06/03/2014 2:14PM

Beyer: The slowing of the Belmont

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Tom Keyser
California Chrome has a decidedly sprint-tilted pedigree and could hit the wall that has kept other less stoutly bred horses from winning the Triple Crown.

The Belmont Stakes has historically been billed as “the Test of the Champion,” and it may live up to that description when California Chrome bids to sweep the Triple Crown. But in the last decade or so the 147-year-old event has been marked by freakish results and diminished prestige. Its 1 ½-mile distance has made it an anachronism in American racing. Its recent history sheds light on the special challenges that California Chrome will face on Saturday.

One of the most significant trends in the U.S. Thoroughbred industry has been its ever-growing emphasis on speed rather than stamina. Sprinters and milers populate the lists of leading stallions and pass on their traits to future generations. Winners of the Belmont Stakes are often shunned when they go to stud. (Da’ Tara, the winner in 2008, was in such little demand that he was exiled to stud in Venezuela.)

With fewer horses bred to run long distances, major U.S. races have been shortened. The Jockey Club Cup at Belmont, one of the most important stakes for older horses, was reduced from 2 miles to 1 1/2 miles and then to 1 1/4 miles in 1990. The prestigious Woodward Stakes was trimmed from 1 1/4 miles to 1 1/8 miles. But because of its history and its place as the climactic event of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes remains at 1 1/2 miles – the only Grade 1 race at the distance in the U.S.

Pedigree used to be a recognizably important factor in the Belmont. The sires of the winners between 1988 and 1994 were Secretariat, Alydar, Seattle Slew, and Pleasant Colony, plus three other stallions who ranked among the best in the world.  All were rock-sold producers of long-distance runners. But such stamina-packed pedigrees are rarer now, and their shortage has been reflected in recent runnings of the Belmont.

In the aforementioned 1988-94 period, which included notable winners such as Easy Goer and A.P. Indy, five Belmonts were run over fast tracks, in times ranging from 2:26 to 2:28.

The last five Belmonts on fast tracks have been dramatically slower – averaging just about 2:30.  Palace Malice won last year in 2:30.7. Speed figures – which take into account the speed of the racing surface, reflect this decline. The six Belmonts from 2008 to 2013 earned the six lowest Beyer Speed Figures for the event the ratings began in 1992.  The figures for these races have also been significantly slower than almost every Derby and Preakness in the last two decades. The conclusion: Very few contemporary American horses can run 1½ miles.

While the horses’ pedigrees are surely the main reason for these slow performances, there may be other factors involved. Byron Rogers, a bloodstock consultant who is CEO of Performance Genetics, made this observation:  “It is noteworthy that Kentucky and New York began formal testing for bicarbonate loading, or ‘milkshaking’ in 2005, and in 2008 the use of anabolic steroids was prohibited in racehorses.”  He theorized that horses who were formerly able to run long distances with the aid of milkshakes and steroids “are now exposed [as] the sprinters that they genetically are.”

A few Belmont runners still do possess bloodlines suited for 1½ miles. Rags to Riches, the winner in 2007, was the daughter of a Belmont-winning sire, A.P. Indy, and a dam who had produced a Belmont winner. But in many years the results have been governed neither by bloodlines or any discernible logic. No major race in America has such a record of unfathomable results. Eight of the 14 winners since 2000 have paid 10-1 or more, including Sarava ($142.50), Birdstone ($74),  Da’ Tara ($79), and Ruler On Ice ($51.50).

These surprises happen even when one of the entrants has proved his superiority in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Since 2002, only one winner of the Derby or Preakness has come away with a victory in the Belmont – Afleet Alex in 2005.  And, of course, the Belmont has foiled all of the bids for the Triple Crown since 1979, most recently by Big Brown in 2008 and Smarty Jones in 2004. It is reasonable to conclude that many Triple Crown aspirants failed because they were less effective at 1 ½ miles, and that so many big upsets have occurred because the ability of all of the entrants to run the distance is unknowable.

California Chrome’s superior performances in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness may not count for much on Saturday.  Although the colt won those races despite a weak-looking pedigree, his bloodlines do not suggest he will favor the 1 ½-mile distance.  His sire never won a race as long as three-quarters of a mile. When California Chrome rounds the sweeping Belmont Park oval, passes the 1¼-mile mark and turns into the stretch, he – like his rivals – will be venturing into the unknown.

© 2014 The Washington Post

Maynard More than 1 year ago
Well, Tonalist nosed out Commissioner for the Belmont victory and Medal Count was third with Wicked Strong and California Chrome dead heated for fourth. Interestingly, the time was not bad in the 2:28 and change range. The top three had the best figures if you added the sire's AWD with the damsire's AWD which I divided by half because it was a generation further back. Wicked strong was slightly lower than Matuzak (too long a layoff)and Matterhorn (only fourth in Peter Pan) who I would have discounted anyway. Ride On Curlin was next and I was surprised to see Commanding Curve was just ahead of California Chrome for last although tied with Samraat. I was scared off by the fact that I heard Tonalist had lost his frogs and I worrie that he would not appreciate a fast track. Too bad as I would have had half of the Super. Anyway, Chrome did fairly well but it was unfair to expect him to get that distance. Anyway, AWD is better than just looking at the sire and damsire's race records as it is based on the winning distances of their offspring. Nothing is fool proof, of course, an needs to be looked into over a much greater sampling. I was wondering why no one liked Commissioner when e was by A.P. Indy out of a Touch Gold mare and he came within a nose of winning. I felt ba that CC's owner was saying only the Derby entrants should be allowed to go on in the other two legs of the Triple crown. That would have resulted in a four horse race and Chrome would have been the Triple Crown winner, but I do not think it would have earned him much respect. Congratulations Andy for good analysis of Chrome's chances. Some people took it as an East West thing, but although opinions are subjective, they can and should be based on evidence, logic, and reasoning as much as possible and I am sure the person who was the first to try to come up with a way to compare performancs from different tracks and distances knows quite a bit about being objectve. My name sometimes changes to Anonymous when I post so I will write it here -Maynard.
george pelyak More than 1 year ago
Google "Backstretch Blog" for another take...
george pelyak More than 1 year ago
They say that because of all the inbreeding that our horse has declined and is not bred to go a distance. All one has to do is check the pedigrees of the Englis, Irish and Frech horses and it's easy to see that, for the most part, they are really inbred to Northern Dancer and Nasrullah lines. How is it that they can run all day? Might be the tracks, dirt vs Turf...the style of running or the non-use of drugs...a wild mustang can run all day if going slow enough...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Only one horse since 2002 has won the derby or the preakness. He made 2002 the cut off point because he would have had to include Point Given in 2001.
barry thomson More than 1 year ago
When California Chrome rounds the sweeping Belmont Park oval, passes the 1¼-mile mark and turns into the stretch, he – like his rivals – will be venturing into the unknown. exactly
W.H. Anderson More than 1 year ago
I saw a vision....The Chromester wins the Belmont and the margin of victory breaks the 31 length Secretariat winning margin 41 years ago......well maybe ??? I'll settle on a comfortable 2 or 3 lengths. Art and Viictor we love ya in the Bay Area. Good Luck !!!
Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
DRF Bets is taking advance wagering for Saturdays' card. You might have thought Anndrew would have mentioned that...
S Chronister More than 1 year ago
I wish people--like Beyer, who should know better--would stop using Big Brown as a figure of comparison in this context. He didn't lose the Belmont on account of not being able to go the distance: HE WAS PHYSICALLY REMOVED FROM THE RACE BY HIS JOCKEY. Look, I'm pretty certain he would have had a disappointing Belmont finish, but let's be realistic--none of us knows, because he did not finish the race. Just leave him out of these conversations.
Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
The truth is, that horse came back with a shoe hanging from a cracked hoof. The Rider did exactly the right thing.
Michael Riley More than 1 year ago
CC will be off the board.
mikey More than 1 year ago
I love all these post of pace subjectivity etc etc...... TRUTH IS WE BREED FOR SPRINTERS AND MILERS.....that there I agree with Andy.... that is the reason we keep shortening races that is the reason that the 2 year olds who can run sub 10 sec furlongs command a premium that is the reason the Met Mile is called the Stallion Maker..... funny how some just want to keep pretending we still breed horses for the triple crown....lol