06/26/2008 11:00PM

U.S. could learn from Ascot's example

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NEW YORK - That last week's congressional inquiry into the status of the American racing and breeding industries should have coincided with Royal Ascot is an irony that will have escaped most of the participants. If the good congressmen and women had wanted insight into what a sport looks like with horses running within the five-furlong to 2 1/2-mile parameters of the Thoroughbred breed while racing without the aid of race-day medication, they would have been better off hopping a plane to England and interviewing people like John Magnier, Aidan O'Brien, Khalid Abdullah, and Michael Stoute for advice on what might be done to get American racing back on track.

While the lawmakers and their interviewees were chewing the fat in Washington, Ascot was treating us to a glorious week of Thoroughbred sport, successful in large part because the problems plaguing the Stateside game are absent. U.S. racing was accurately described by one witness as "dysfunctional," but there was nothing dysfunctional about this year's edition of Royal Ascot, nor is there about the racing industries in Britain, Ireland, or France, where national administration of the sport - without government interference - has been a bulwark against the implementation of lenient drug rules.

One of the issues raised in Washington was the failure to breed horses capable of staying beyond sprint distances. A comparison between Ascot and the three major tracks operating in America last week reveals the different roads down which the American and European games are traveling.

The 30 races that were run during the five-day royal meeting averaged 9.28 furlongs, whereas the five days of racing at Belmont last week averaged 7.27 furlongs, at Hollywood 7.04 furlongs, and at Churchill Downs 7 furlongs flat. Only three of the 138 races run at the three American tracks were run at distances longer than the Ascot average. Seventy-one of the American races, or 51.4 percent, were sprints. Only nine of the American races were run at distances beyond 1 1/16 miles, none farther than 1 1/4 miles.

At Ascot there was an even distribution of distances: 11 sprints, seven one-mile races, eight between 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 miles, and four staying races at two miles or longer. Royal Ascot was a reflection of the Thoroughbred displaying the full range of its capabilities before an audience that has always taken the sport to heart. Belmont, Hollywood, and Churchill were providing a supermarket of cheap speed largely for the benefit of big bettors concerned almost exclusively with exotic wagering and speed figures, and a commercial breeding industry too cynical to concern themselves with anything more than a quick return on investment in the sales ring.

The European racing and breeding industries have never lost sight of the fact that some Thoroughbreds can excel at five furlongs while others need a mile, or 1 1/2 miles, or, in the case of the great three-time Ascot Gold Cup winner Yeats, 2 1/2 miles. In America we go into raptures about a 2-year-old that can run a first quarter in 21 and change and hold on to win a six-furlong race in 1:08 and change, then try and get him to stretch his speed to 1 1/4 miles regardless of his breeding.

For more than a year now we have been bickering among ourselves about what kind of surface we should run our non-turf races on. Yet even if those arguments are successfully resolved, they will provide only a partial solution to the problem of breakdowns. Racing in America has a built-in problem that will always lead to more frequent breakdowns than most other places in the world, and that is the configuration of our tracks.

The 11 sprint races run at Royal Ascot last week were all run on straight courses, while the 71 sprints run at Belmont, Hollywood, and Churchill were all run around a sharp turn. When the British began laying out racecourses in the 17th and 18th centuries, they understood even then the strain placed on a horse's legs when running around turns, especially in sprints. Twenty-eight of Britain's 36 flat tracks are designed so that all sprint races are run on straight courses. Ten of those have one-mile straight courses, and one, the Newmarket Rowley Course, has a 1 1/4-mile stretch.

Thanks to the standardization craze that swept through America in the late 19th century, virtually all American racetracks are eight- or nine-furlong ovals. With at least 75 percent of our races being sprints, most of them run on hard dirt surfaces, horses reach top speed as they approach a tight turn. The strain placed on their legs as they hit the turn is debilitating, and it is exacerbated by both the short- and long-term effects of race-day medication and breeding policies designed to create super-fast, top-heavy horses that simply cannot withstand the wear and tear of racing and training in these United States. Those breeding policies are one of the leading reasons our industry has come to rely on race-day medication.

Breeding and racing for speed, racing around tight turns on hard surfaces, race-day medication. It is a vicious cycle that cries out for attention. If we don't do something about it, the federal government will.