If there was something to be learned from the now-concluded Triple Crown, it is far from obvious to those who judge all horses in terms of speed.
Initial observations that this is not a particularly talented generation of 3-year-olds were substantiated, which is not exactly what we were hoping to establish. An anticipated rivalry fizzled on Saturday in a Belmont Stakes won by the third long shot in the series while the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners finished unplaced, neither embarrassed in light of circumstance nor substantiated. There was no Triple Crown possibility hanging in the result of the Belmont Stakes, but we've grown accustomed to that. The substance of the 3-year-olds of 2011 may be found between the past-performance lines.
Theories do not abound in the wake of these springtime classics but the most interesting is that what is perceived as an ordinary crop of 3-year-olds is the inevitable result of a ban of anabolic steroids imposed in all racing jurisdiction in 2009.
There is no hard evidence that what is seen as the ordinary nature of this group -- though it has shown itself to be comparatively slow afoot -- is more than an aberration. But there is also a lack of depth among older horses this season, most of the leading figures having come to maturity in a steroid-free environment. If this is true, lack of extreme speed in racing may be the new normal.
Whatever the price, the absence of steroids in racing cannot be viewed as a bad thing. The use of anabolic agents, while resulting in more muscular, faster animals better equipped to withstand hard training and racing, does nothing to serve the interest of the horses' physical welfare. If the result is a generally slower thoroughbred, so what? If the result is a horse that stands up to a longer, more useful racing career, all the better.
For this, ironically, the sport has bad-boy trainer Rick Dutrow to thank.
Dutrow, currently embattled as authorities in Kentucky and New York seek to deny his license for a career-long record of repeated transgression, spoke openly of his use of steroids while preparing Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown for the last unsuccessful attempt to win the Triple Crown in 2008. In the process, he inadvertently drew attention to what had been part of the training regimen of many, if not most, horsemen but was seldom discussed and never in a public forum. Steroids were racing's little secret, and with his admissions Dutrow unleashed a firestorm of backlash, most vociferously from animal rights groups, though at the time steroids were legal in racing. His flippant, almost disarming disclosures resulted in an industry-wide rush to ban the substances -- perhaps the only unanimous action in the history of American racing.
Almost all involved in the sport have become focused on speed in an age in which performance is viewed in terms of a number. Durability, stamina, class and courage are less readily quantified and have been subjugated by handicappers. Speed rules from trials at 2-year-old-in-training sales to classic races and sheer speed was only a few years ago the byproduct of steroids. It may be time to reevaluate.
The last 3-year-old to post paint-peeling speed figures in the Triple Crown series, Big Brown, was a horse whose talent was admittedly steroid-enhanced, as were many champions before him. Since 2009, handicappers have carped about pedestrian figures recorded by a dizzying series of long shots that have prevailed in the season's centerpiece events without attempt to connect cause and effect. The new normal has been slow to gain in popularity but begs for change in the accepted parameters within which horses are judged. Would steroids have resulted in faster times run by the same horses? Perhaps. Would they be judged more kindly? Absolutely.
The lingering post-Belmont impression is that Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness winner Shackleford are horses of substantial quality, speed notwithstanding. Belmont winner Ruler On Ice, perhaps the proverbial mud lark, has more to prove, but there will be ample opportunity in the season's second half. They will not become appreciably faster, wherever they race, but they will have every opportunity to display the breed's less tangible virtues. The Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., and Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga, N.Y., are likely to attract the horses that rose to prominence during the Triple Crown. The major races of autumn leading to the Breeders' Cup, when they will encounter their elders, will provide stages upon which to prove their mettle. The principals of spring will become better, if not faster, with maturity, and it is not impossible that these are horses that will remain in training beyond the current season, which may be remembered in time as the dawn of the new normal.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.