06/17/2010 11:00PM

Stamina factor - all but gone


The story behind the runnings of the Epsom Derby and the Belmont Stakes two weeks ago were less the tale of two racetracks than the tale of two different worlds.

For the first time in history on June 5, the Epsom Derby was run in a time faster than the Belmont Stakes. [See note at end.]

As both races are run at 1 1/2 miles, that may not sound the least bit surprising, until you take the nature of the two courses into account, at which point, this seemingly arcane bit of clock-watching takes on momentous proportions.

That is because the first six furlongs of the Epsom Derby are run stiffly uphill, and while most of the last six furlongs are downhill, the finish is on ground considerably higher than the start. Moreover, the long downhill turn is not banked, and horses generally hold their positions through the turn, saving themselves for the long stretch run of 3 1/2 furlongs. Finally, the last sixteenth of a mile is slightly uphill again. By comparison, once around Belmont's perfectly level main track is a cakewalk.

In setting a course record of 2:31.33 in the Epsom Derby, Workforce cracked Lammtarra's 1995 mark of 2:32.31 by a rather astonishing .98 of a second. Drosselmeyer, on the other hand, plodded home at Belmont in 2:31.57, the slowest time since Thunder Gulch's 2:32.02 in 1995, coincidentally the same year Lammtarra had broken Mahmoud's long standing 1936 Epsom record of 2:33.80.

Drosselmeyer's Belmont Stakes time was the 10th-slowest since the race was first run at 1 1/2 miles in 1926, and the third-slowest since 1944. Clearly, there is something afoot here, and it isn't the ability of American horses to stay the internationally recognized classic distance of 12 furlongs.

In fact, none of the 12 horses running in this year's Belmont has any business running beyond 1 1/8 miles. Obsessed with speed and its commercial implications, the U.S. breeding industry has all but eliminated stamina as a factor, all to the detriment of American racing and the Thoroughbred breed in general.

Of course, as Henry Cecil once opined, "Time only counts in jail." That is a sentiment with which virtually every trainer outside of North America will concur, but since American trainers are as obsessed with time as American breeders are with speed, this year's Epsom-Belmont comparison highlights a weakness in the American breed.

Workforce, who was racing for just the third time in his career, had a lot of help at Epsom from the pacesetting At First Sight. Employed by Aidan O'Brien as a rabbit for Ballydoyle's better-fancied runners, he set out on a strong gallop and nearly stole the race before Workforce caught him at the three-sixteenths pole and sprinted clear. Meanwhile, the second six furlongs in the Belmont went in a snail-like 1:16.63. They were all gasping for breath entering the stretch, a further indication that none of them had any business trying 12 furlongs.

This is really a pity, as the Belmont Stakes remains one of the most important races in America. How long that will continue to be the case is questionable, and whether it remains the "Test of the Champion" is highly debatable. In the days when Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed were winning the Triple Crown, this country was only beginning its exclusive love affair with speed, so horses who could stay 12 furlongs were still plentiful on these shores. Indeed, Epsom Derby winners Sir Ivor (1968), Mill Reef (1971), Roberto (1972), Empery (1976), Henbit (1980), Golden Fleece (1982), Teenoso (1983), Secreto (1984), Shahrastani (1986), and Nashwan (1989) were all bred in Kentucky while Nijinsky (1970) and The Minstrel (1977) were bred in Canada. The only American-bred horse to win the Derby since 1997 was Kris Kin in 2003.

Since 1973, when Secretariat set the Belmont track record of 2:24.00, the closest to that clocking were Easy Goer, who was timed in 2:26.00 in 1989, before hundredths were recorded, and A.P. Indy, who did it in 2:26.13 in 1992. It is probably not a coincidence that A.P. Indy has been one of the few stamina influences in North America since then. If we don't soon develop a few more like him, or like Dynaformer and Smart Strike, who can also get them to stay longer distances, the Belmont Stakes will become an anachronism.

Note: Technically, the Epsom Derby was run in a faster time than the Belmont Stakes in 1944 and 1945. But that was during World War II, when the race was run on Newmarket's considerably easier 12-furlong course and the race was temporarily rechristened the New Derby.