09/25/2014 1:10PM

Crist: 3-year-olds rarely kick it old school


There was a time when the main attraction of top-flight racing after Labor Day was seeing how the season’s 3-year-olds stacked up against the older horses. Is that still the case?

At first glance, it is. This weekend, the first three finishers in the Travers are the favorites in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, while the 3-year-old Shared Belief will be favored in Santa Anita’s premier prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race now called the Awesome Again. Yet looking beyond those two races, where the perceived dominance of the 3-year-old males may be a function of an older-male division ravaged by injuries and retirements, it’s a different story.

Saturday’s six other Grade 1 races for 3-year-olds and up – the Beldame, Flower Bowl, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, and Vosburgh at Belmont, and the Zenyatta and Rodeo Drive at Santa Anita – drew a total of 58 entries. How many of those are 3-year-olds? Just five, most of them longshots.

What has changed so much that older horses account for 53 of those 58 entries and 68 of the 78 entered in all eight of Saturday’s Grade 1 races? There seem to be two factors in play here.

The first is the extension of the restricted 3-year-old season. California Chrome and Bayern are on anyone’s list of the most accomplished sophomores in the sport, and Untapable is the clear leader of the 3-year-old fillies. None of them will be taking on their elders this weekend because all three of them raced last weekend in the Pennsylvania Derby or Cotillion at Parx, races restricted to 3-year-olds. The $1 million purses for those races offer both far more money and easier competition than the traditionally more important races for 3-year-olds and up a week later.

Restricted 3-year-old racing at the highest level once ended with the Alabama and Travers, but now it runs through the final Breeders’ Cup prep cycle. The emergence of the two Parx races has been a boon for the track, giving it one day a year in the national spotlight, but has had a detrimental effect on fall racing in general. Even a race such as the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland in October has an effect, drawing turf fillies away from the Flower Bowl and Rodeo Drive for a final and easier chance at a Grade 1 victory in restricted company.

So, instead of seeing Untapable face older fillies in the Beldame, she faced a nondescript field of fellow 3-year-olds in the Cotillion. Her only conceivable competition in that race, Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama winner Stopchargingmaria, was scratched to duck her and take on easier company in the once-mighty Beldame.

The other factor is the mixed blessing of the Breeders’ Cup itself – a spectacular and vital event that has had the unintended consequence of creating single showdowns at year’s end instead of two or three during the final third of the year. Combine that emphasis on a single race with more restricted races and the reality that horses are now trained to run less often, usually just once each during the eight weeks before the Breeders’ Cup, and fall racing is not what it used to be. The very fact that we all now call races such as the Beldame and the Jockey Club Gold Cup mere preps for the Breeders’ Cup has diminished the value of winning those races.

I used the examples of the Beldame and Gold Cup because the names of Santa Anita’s races on Saturday no longer resonate with history since being changed two years ago. The name changes stemmed from a dispute between Santa Anita and Oak Tree that one would think could have been resolved by now, with the races again called what they always were and reconnected to their history and prominence.

If new names were unavoidable, there were more dignified alternatives than those decreed by Santa Anita’s owner, Frank Stronach, who chose instead to honor a shopping center (Rodeo Drive), a track restaurant (FrontRunner), and his own prized stallion (Awesome Again), a horse who never even raced at Santa Anita. They don’t have quite the same ring as the Yellow Ribbon, Norfolk, and Goodwood, do they?

Jim Pappas More than 1 year ago
i miss horse racing was glad to see shared belief win but was great to see them go after him. cordero lives if they had run any real kind of race in the kentucky derby CC would have not hit the board
anna villafane More than 1 year ago
Breeders Cup Racing Day = The Demise of glorious Fall Championship meets at Belmont, Santa Anita, and other major racing venues in this country. Very sad not to see the likes of say, John Henry, Forego, and Buckpasser taking on all comers for all the marbles in races like the Woodward, The Jockey Club Gold Cup, and The Goodwood. Instead, today, all these once venerable stakes races are treated as mere preps or means to gaining a berth in a over hyped Breeders Cup race.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Rodeo drive is the best betting race this Saturday. Any Suggestions.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
8 with 1,3,5 Tonalist
russell More than 1 year ago
To be in TC picture you have to be training hard in February. By June you have a tired horse that needs a rest. Very few 3 year-olds can last the whole year and keep top form.
jim lefferts More than 1 year ago
Well said. History and tradition compose the legacy of horse racing. To truly appreciate a great horse there must be context. We get that context from head-to-head confrontations and in the case of 3yos their ability to take on their elders. Today, far too often those meetings only happen in the Breeder's Cup races often leaving a potential champion subject to post-position draw or track bias because it's only a sample of one. The other culprit beyond those Steven refers to is drugs - especially Lasix. Thoroughbreds are left so dehydrated - literally drained - that trainers are reluctant to give them more than a few tough races. Horses simply don't race often enough to allow these head-to-head and 3yo vs older matchups to take place.
Gunner More than 1 year ago
Jim Rome once had a comment about horse racing that is shared by most people that stay apart from the game, "It's not a sport, it's a bet." Mr. Rome has taken a different view of the sport now that he has been bitten (and smitten) by it. As long as a bunch of separate entities are allowed to run (and ruin) the sport as they please, that is what horse racing will remain. A bunch of separate entities. Take the BIG Days for what they are (see: article above).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I remember Easy Goer beating his elders in the Whitney, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup. What a horse he was. He won the Travers too. It'll never be done again.
L. More than 1 year ago
He remains the only horse to win the Belmont, Whitney, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup in the same year. That feat will never be equaled since NYRA has destroyed the spacing and slashed distances of the races and made it impossible to race in them all now...not that today's thoroughbred could handle anything like he accomplished in 1989. Truly amazing animal. I miss the days when racehorses actually ran and competed instead of ducked each other. The BC has really destroyed more on the calendar than it's promoted.
Slew32A More than 1 year ago
It's funny but you have the exact opposite happening in college football. They had there Breeder's Cup ( bowl games ) and now they have been pushed to have Playoffs. The masses want a hero and a hero runs more than a few times a year and becomes a legend running like a warrior against the best competition.
Amy Hurley More than 1 year ago
Imagine that! The temerity of an upstart track like Parx, putting up big purse money to attract some of the best 3 year olds in training, and to run against their own age group after the big summer stakes at Saratoga no less! Will horrrors never cease! Seriously, I see nothing wrong with 3 year olds racing against their own age group as long as they can. There will be opportunities to take on their elders, either in the B.C., or the next year, if they remain in training. And spreading the wealth, so to speak, and allowing people in smaller markets (i.e., outside of NY/CA/KY) to see top-class racing - what's so wrong about that?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Makes me wish I could give more than one thumbs down.
Jay Friedman More than 1 year ago
i gave u a thumb up
Jamie Murphy More than 1 year ago
the drama isnt there. would u want to see the yankees beat up on the local college? or play the red sox?!
B More than 1 year ago
No, they sure don't have the same ring and the name changes have been a pet peeve of mine since it occurred. Another change that really annoyed me was renaming the Lady's Secret to the Zenyatta. Sure, Zenyatta deserves a race named after her, but they didn't have to insult another great filly to do so. There were other races they could have chosen to rename. I read a similar article elsewhere recently about this adverse effect the BC has had on fall racing and both your article and the other are spot on. We used to have numerous confrontations between the best in the fall and now we are lucky if we get two and many try to keep it down to one, the Breeders Cup. When they created the BC, I don't think anyone thought that this would occur, but even as recently as 1984, we raced horses more often than we do now. I wish I had some idea of a solution, but the name of the game nowadays is run as little as possible and avoid confrontations amongst the best as much as possible. I loved the comment made my Sean McCarthy the other day about his Majestic Harbor. He's running him in the terribly named Awesome Again because he doesn't want to just work and work his horse and would rather run him instead of waiting for two months. The sport needs more like him..
Walt Gekko More than 1 year ago
Part of the problem was when the BC was conceived in 1982, the sports landscape was MUCH different than it is now. Back then, you didn't have a GLUT of college football on Saturdays (the NCAA continued to have a monopoly on those games with restrictions until two years later when the Supereme Court struck that down) nor did you have the NFL anywhere close to the 800-pound gorilla of sports it is now and so forth. The solutions to getting horses to race more often are these: 1. PHASING OUT LASIX. Lasix is widely considered to be a big problem in horses racing more often. Getting Lasix out of the sport likely is a big step forward in changing this. 2. Making it so top horses have to race through their five year old season. This expands on rules already in place in Harness Racing that make it so top three year olds have to return at four as in Harness Racing, horses whose sires were four or younger when conceived are NOT eligible for major stakes. By having similar rules and going to age five in TB racing, it would force breeders to breed for stamina, soundness and durability over speed and precociousness. That over time would result in horses racing more often.
TomPHickey More than 1 year ago
Just curious how you soul transition to that? There would be avery tough year, economically wouldn't it. Would be people keep running top level horses in allowances until they were allow in stakes, resulting in a huge reduction in income?
Gunner More than 1 year ago
never gonna happen