06/04/2012 10:41AM

Beyer: Triple Crown drought result of change in breeding priorities

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Barbara D. Livingston
I'll Have Another (left) and Lava Man ontrack at Belmont Park on Monday, six days before the Belmont Stakes.

As I’ll Have Another tries to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 34 years, plenty of casual fans will be asking: Why is this feat so difficult? Why is it more difficult than it was in the 1970s, when three different horses in a span of six years swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes?

Some of the explanations are relatively obvious. Three demanding races in a five-week period constitute a tough grind for contemporary horses, who are generally less robust than their forebears. Moreover, the Triple Crown races draw bigger fields than in the past, because so many owners and trainers are obsessed by winning these events. When Citation swept the series in 1948, he beat 15 opponents in the three races combined. I’ll Have Another had to defeat 19 in the Derby alone.

While these factors are undeniably significant, there is another theory to explain the difficulty of winning the contemporary Triple Crown: The obstacle is not the Triple Crown itself. The real stumbling block is the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes.

[BELMONT STAKES: Video updates, expected field, early odds]

Horses who might be Triple Crown-worthy have not often been foiled by losses in the Derby or Preakness during the last 15 years. (Two exceptions: Point Given in 2001 and Afleet Alex in 2005.) In the same period, however, seven colts have seen their Triple Crown hopes smashed in the Belmont.

During those years, too, a phenomenon has occurred in the Belmont Stakes that is rare in top-level stakes competition. The outcomes of the races have been regularly unexpected or incomprehensible. Ruler On Ice paid $51.50 to win last year. The impossible-looking Da’ Tara (2008) paid $79. Birdstone (2004) paid $74 as he foiled Smarty Jones’s Triple Crown bid. Sarava (2002) defied most handicapping logic when he paid $142.50 as War Emblem lost his chance for Triple Crown. Commendable (2000), coming off a 17th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, paid $39.60.

Forget about handicapping; if you bet every starter in every Belmont Stakes for the last 15 years you’d have almost doubled your money.

These freakish results in the 1 1/2-mile classic appear to be the culmination of a decades-long trend well known to people in the horse industry. For the benefit of fans who may pay little attention to the sport outside of the Triple Crown series, here is the abbreviated story.

Thoroughbred racing used to be dominated by wealthy dynastic families (the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts, the Phippses, etc.) who bred the horses they raced and imbued them with the stamina they deemed necessary to win the championship events that were contested at distances up to 1 1/2 miles.

Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of pedigrees can glance at the bloodlines of Kentucky Derby winners as recently as the 1980s and see that these horses were bred to run all day. During that decade, every Derby winner had a high-class 1 1/2-mile runner in the first two generations of his pedigree.

But as the racing dynasties diminished in importance, the sport came to be dominated by commercial breeders who sold their foals at auctions. Most buyers at these sales didn’t have the patience of the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts. They wanted fast results, and breeders obliged them by producing horses who were quick and precocious. As sales of 2-year-olds in training came into vogue, a youngster who could fly one-eighth of a mile in fast time would often be more valuable than one with the genes to win the Belmont Stakes.

Because of the demands of the marketplace, there was a proliferation of stallions who imbue their offspring with speed rather than staying power. Distorted Humor, More Than Ready, and Speightstown were specialists at running only six or seven furlongs, but they ranked among the country’s top seven sires of 2011 and all command stud fees between $50,000 and $100,000. Meanwhile, the marketplace disdains a horse whose chief claim to fame is a victory at 1 1/2 miles. Sarava stands at stud in Florida for a $1,500 fee. Da’ Tara was so lightly regarded in the United States that he was exiled to Venezuela.

The result of these trends, says Barry Irwin, manager of the partnership that owned 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, is this simple fact: “In America, nobody breeds a horse for the Belmont Stakes and we don’t breed for a mile and a quarter, either.”

[I’LL HAVE ANOTHER: Derby, Preakness winner runs for Triple Crown]

By modern-day standards, I’ll Have Another possesses some respectable stamina influences in his pedigree – though the pedigree is hardly a regal one. (That’s why he sold at auction for $35,000.) His sire, Flower Alley, although a son of the sprinter Distorted Humor, won at 1 1/4 miles in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. His dam is a daughter of Arch, who won at 1 1/4 miles and sired the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame.

But the results in the Belmont Stakes in recent years suggest that form at 1 1/4 miles doesn’t guarantee success at 1 1/2 miles; the longer distance is a whole different game. I’ll Have Another is the most talented horse in the Belmont field, but his bid to win it – like almost everybody else’s – will be a roll of the genetic dice.

© 2012, The Washington Post

Jane Myhra More than 1 year ago
I loved reading the comments this article generated. Very nice review of reasons why there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner in recent years. But why did no one address the drug regulations?
Greg Rouch More than 1 year ago
OK, so we bemoan the "change in breeding priorities." What's to be done about it now? Play Jurassic Park with DNA from the bones of Stage Door Johnny? Import horses with as many crosses as possible of Epsom Derby winners in their pedigrees? What? Would it help to make a push to put up more purse money for longer races? How about writing more ten, eleven and twelve - furlong races into the condition books for normal racing days, year round? Are we going to see the breed diverge into two semi-separate sub-breeds, ie., sprinters and routers, as with trotters and pacers in harness racing? Where is the solution?
Robin Dawson More than 1 year ago
Greg, you make some interesting suggestions. I think it would be a great idea to start writing longer races and more turf races into condition books, and also increasing prizemoney the further you go. The sad fact, though, is that the reason there are so many sprints in North American racing is nothing to do with pedigrees...its just that. after a while (and a bunch of injuries), most horses are physically incapable of going any further than the minimum distance.
Alberto Rodriguez More than 1 year ago
Trainers dont have to train them at all , just race them , also more often.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sure, genetics are a deterrent to winning the Triple Crown, but it's those 20-horse Derby fields that are the main problem. Scale the fields back to 14 and you'll start having Triple Crown winners again. The reason we don't see many runners lose the Derby and then win the Preakness and the Belmont is that more and more well-intended Derby losers are skipping the Preakness to train for the Belmont (or for easier races). Fact is, at least one colt in the past 34 years was good enough to win the Triple Crown, and his name was Point Given. Take a look at his Derby trip and you'll see why the Derby fields need to be reduced in size.
Ron Fox More than 1 year ago
Genietic dice? really? Thats what you come up with. What about Beuer speed figures? training? luck?. 11-5 excata bank it!
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
while i agree with mr beyer that horses are not bred for the classics has they were in the past i dont agree that ILL HAVE ANOTHER is not regally bred for a mile and a half race,the main reason has mr bayer pointed out is of course that today we have mostly horses bred for sale the market dictates that a horse be precocious so much so that many are expected to run fast 1 furlong trials at their yearling sale,if they are to sell at a decent price this ofcourse does not bode well for that same horse staying sound or staying a distance when he grows up ,in the past great breeders were usualy wealthy sportsmen who often kept their best prospects with a eye on winning the classics and bred accordingly they could afford to do so and the result was a more robust specimen,now to ILL HAVE ANOTHERS pedegree despite being inbred beautifully to mr prospector and northern dancer the whole thing is balanced by the presence of some strong staying influences like Roberto through Arch,Pleasant colony,Sea-bird,Vaguely noble,Alydar,Pricequillo, Stage door johny and although some of the northern dancer blood came from danzig a very fast horse theres also northern dancer through Saddlers wells,lyphard and nijinsky and a sprinkle of Tom rolfe to add a little Ribot to the mix,with a di=2,11 and a cd=0,5 and dp 2-4-7-1-0 (14) Its hard to argue that he wont get the distance or at least that he isnt as qualified as any other in the field to do so from a breeding point of view.
MJP More than 1 year ago
You HAVE to mention Storm Cat in an article like this. I'll quote Eric (way below): "Storm Cat has polluted Bloodlines. He has never appeared in the Pedigree of any Derby winners and only one Belmont winner. (Tabasco Cat) . Rarely does his Bloodline even make it to run in their 4 yr old season. Giant's Causeway and Cat Thief are exceptions that excelled at farther distances but they lasted until 4." Storm Cat was MASSIVELY influential for a long long time, with enormous stud fees, and produced endless precocious 2yo's but hardly a horse that could run 10 furlongs without looking for a place to lie down.
MICHAEL More than 1 year ago
WOW...there are still who does believe breeding is the main factor when going longer!...must be newbies of the racing world...OK how many here believes Black Caviar can run in the Melbourne Cup or Frankel can give it a go in the Arc de Trioumphe?.....please sure pace might make the race but you have to have the horse to make the race first....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In the past 15 years no Derby winner has won the Belmont. Several Derby winners did came back to win the Preakness. It would appear the key factor is not so much breeding as the difficulty in getting a horse to peak at the Derby, and then carry that form five more weeks to the Belmont.
Fred Reardon More than 1 year ago
In ought one, Point Given won the San Felipe and SA Derby before running 5th in Kentucky ( his only finish - ever - worse than 2nd). He then won the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell and Travers for a 6 for 7 season. Lest we forget. His Kentucky Derby was brutal.
Greg Rouch More than 1 year ago
Gary Stevens made it brutal.
Alan Deitch More than 1 year ago
One other point of contention with the phrase: "Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of pedigrees can glance at the bloodlines of Kentucky Derby winners as recently as the 1980s and see that these horses were bred to run all day." Mr Beyer, the challenge as you well know is to get to the wire first. Also ran's who want to run around the track after the wire are enticing bets but worth little more than a galloping Giraffe at the races. So my theory is "Trip Trumps Breeding." Not always but in a race where so many factors come to play, the clocker doesn't care who great grand daddy is, the jock doesn't rationalize who great gran ma is, the trainer doesen't dwell on granpa or gran ma, the owners only considered ma and pa when the pin hooker told them "this is a barn burner" or "get out the wallet cause you'll never have another great grand descendant of War Admiral in this years crop." on and on etc.,
Christine More than 1 year ago
how was woody stephens able to win 5 belmonts in a row some years ago?
Robin Dawson More than 1 year ago
There is no logical explanation...each was so different (Creme Fraiche to Conquistador Cielo)....and pedigree had nothing to do with it.