|Daily Racing Form|
|Monday, November 15
|Faster than they used to be?|
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
Unlike human endeavors such as track and field and swimming, records just don't fall in horse racing. Based on raw times, the thoroughbred of 2004 seems not faster than the thoroughbred of 1994, 1984 or even 1954. It's easy to conclude that the breed is stuck in neutral, not getting any better, not getting any worse.
But one expert on the subject has challenged conventional wisdom. Jerry Brown, who owns Thoro-Graph, a service that compiles high-tech speed figures for all the major tracks in the country, says that horses are not just faster than they used to be, but much faster.
"Secretariat is to today's horses as Jesse Owens is to today's track and field athletes," Brown said. "There are a lot of high school athletes running faster today than Jesse Owens. If you think about all the things that happened with human beings over that time–they're bigger, stronger, eat better, train much better. The same holds true for horses, but horses, unlike human beings, have something to say about what gets put in their bodies and human beings are not selectively bred to try to improve the breed. These things have dramatically increased the ability and athleticism of horses.
Brown's evidence is his own speed figures. Thoro-Graph has been making numbers since 1982 and Brown says he has seen a dramatic change. Horses like Ghostzapper, whose figures of minus 6 ˝ (the lower the number the better) in the Iselin and Woodward, are now running numbers that Brown said were unthinkable as recently as 1990.
"It sounds like heresy, but basically, today's horses are 10 lengths faster at a mile and a quarter than the horses of 15 years ago," Brown said. "I know no one believes that. The only way you can do that is by looking at how fast horses run day to day on each given racetrack and using figures to measure that. I understand that's counterintuitive to believe these horses can be 10 lengths faster. But if you look at what harness horses have done, where it is easier to compare since they all run the same distance on comparable racetracks and where they have dramatically lowered all their world records, in terms of improvement, thoroughbreds are doing the same thing. If you look at what human athletes have done in terms of percentage of improvement, again, what thoroughbreds are doing is comparable."
Brown is the first to acknowledge that his theory does not hold up when looking simply at raw times. A track record falls here or there, but, for the most part, final times are not that much different than they've been since the modern era of racing began. For example, Secretariat won the 1973 Belmont at a mile and a half in 2:24. No one has cracked 2:26 since. The answer, says Brown, is that racetracks are far deeper and slower now than they were in the seventies and eighties.
"The overall point is that horses are just getting better," he says. "One of the reasons people don't recognize that is that racetracks are getting slower. When the horses of the seventies were running, the cushion at Belmont was three inches. The cushion there is now four inches. To give you an idea of what that means, there was only one day in 2003 at Belmont when the cushion was 3 ˝ inches and that was the day when (the moderately talented) Najran ran the 1:32 1/5 mile (when winning the Westchester Handicap) mile. The other difference is that in order to get tracks to dry out faster they've gone to a higher sand content. When sand is dry, it creates a slower track."
At least one well informed source begs to differ. Butch Lehr, the track superintendent at Churchill Downs, who has been employed there for 38 years, says that the Churchill strip is no different than it was when he started.
"As far as making tracks deeper now as compared to 20 years ago, I don't necessarily believe that," Lehr said. "If anything, it's the opposite. I've been here a long time and, at Churchill, we haven't done anything to change the track."
It's also notable that the popular Beyer figures published in the Daily Racing Form don't seem to reflect any significant changes in the speed of the modern race horse as compared to their contemporaries from 15 or 20 years ago.
Still another opinion comes from Richard Sowers, who researched the subject while writing his recently released book "The Abstract Primer of Thoroughbred Racing." Sowers has found that sprinters are getting faster, while routers are not. He notes that the five fastest winning times since 1946 in stakes races run at six furlongs have all been recorded since 1999. By contrast, there have been 11 1 1/4-mile stakes races won in 1:58 3/5 or faster since 1946. Only one has been within the last 14 years, the 1991 Suburban won by In Excess.
"Horses are getting faster at shorter distances but not longer distances," he said. "The reason is that everybody is breeding for speed, rather than stamina. They've cut the distance of so many important races. The Belmont is the last mile-and-a-half Grade I race in the country on dirt. I don't know how it happened, but a mile and an eighth has become the classic distance."
So, are horses any faster now than they used to be? It depends, apparently, on who you ask.