05/09/2005 11:00PM

Speed shoving stamina into extinction


LAS VEGAS - The connections of the top three finishers in the Kentucky Derby may be celebrating their good fortune, but the founding fathers of racing would not be thrilled with the result.

For the fourth straight year, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, Giacomo, is by a stallion who is a speed influence (sprinter-miler). Holy Bull (by Great Above) was a deserving Horse of the Year and a gifted animal, but he is a source of speed, not stamina. And what about runner-up Closing Argument? How does a colt by another speed influence, Successful Appeal (Valid Appeal), outrun 18 other 3-year-olds at 1 1/4 miles?

Afleet Alex, a colt by sprinter-miler Northern Afleet (Afleet), finished third to complete a trifecta of colts by sprinter-milers.

The Churchill Downs strip was like a speedway on Derby Day, and with a hot pace that was expected once Spanish Chestnut and Going Wild were confirmed starters, it was a no-brainer that the race would set up for the late-runners. And that opened the door for sons of Holy Bull and Successful Appeal to walk home the final quarter in 26.87 seconds. It all underscores the fact that we are breeding milers and asking them to win at 1 1/4 miles - an alarming trend.

When War Emblem and Proud Citizen completed the 2002 Kentucky Derby exacta, it seemed an aberration. Eyebrows were raised when Funny Cide won the following year, and it became official last year when Smarty Jones and Lion Heart finished one-two.

War Emblem got good at the right time in the spring of 2002. He is a son of Our Emblem, a stakes-placed sprinter whose running style was in contrast to his full brother Miner's Mark, who excelled at 1 1/4 miles, winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Proud Citizen, a son of high-speed influence Gone West, had the most impressive female family of any Derby starter in many years - his third dam is a full sister to Northern Dancer - but he hardly had the pedigree to excel at 1 1/4 miles.

Make no mistake, Funny Cide is a very good horse and was certainly underrated before the 2003 Derby, but Empire Maker had his number at nine furlongs in the Wood Memorial and would have beaten him again, especially at 1 1/4 miles, had it not been for recurrent foot problems leading up to the Derby. A son of sprinter-miler Distorted Humor, Funny Cide ran a game third in the Belmont but was no match for either Empire Maker or Ten Most Wanted - slop or no slop - at 1 1/2 miles.

A son of speedball Elusive Quality (Gone West) out of a mare by sprint champion Smile (In Reality), Smarty Jones was the least likely of the recent Derby winners to get 1 1/4 miles. Although many still believe his jockey cost him the Triple Crown, the truth is that gutsy Smarty Jones wanted no part of 1 1/2 miles and was simply running to his pedigree in the Belmont, staggering home his final quarter.

Breeding strictly for speed with little or no regard to stamina, combined with permissive medication standards since the introduction of Lasix three decades ago, has resulted in today's watered-down version of the Thoroughbred. The modern American racehorse is fragile, running considerably fewer lifetime races, and needs much more time between races. Thankfully, common sense still prevails throughout the rest of the world. While Europe, Australia, and Asia respect sprinters and milers, their most important races are still at the classic distances of 1 1/4 miles or more.

Around the country, major stakes races have been reduced in distance, and last year after Smarty Jones lost the Belmont Stakes, the widespread knee-jerk reaction was a cry to once and for all reduce the Belmont Stakes to "a more realistic distance," since 1 1/2 miles is going the way of the dinosaur. In the hope of seeing a Triple Crown winner in their lifetime, many people are willing to alter the distance to suit today's Thoroughbred miler.

European countries have never allowed the use of Lasix, a diuretic that is believed to aid horses who bleed from the lungs, and the racing product there does not suffer. There are still full fields for major European races, and the quality of Europe's bloodstock has not declined. The New York Racing Association was the last major American track operator not to allow Lasix, but NYRA eventually relented under pressure. The no-Lasix policy created some controversy in the 1987 Belmont Stakes when the connections of Alysheba, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with the medication, then had to decide whether to run in the Belmont without it. They chose to race for the Triple Crown, and Alysheba finished a soundly beaten fourth, 14 lengths behind Bet Twice.

For more than 30 years, we have been breeding to stallions who raced with Lasix. Is it any wonder then, while breeding for speed and coupled with such medication policies, that we are seeing these kinds of results in our classic races?

It has taken decades for this trend to develop, and it can be reversed only if American breeders have the courage to value stamina as much as precocious speed.