Sports Nut

Let Them Gallop!

Come on, equestrian pooh-bahs, open the Triple Crown to horses of all ages.

I can’t tell you what Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown will do in this Saturday’s Preakness. But I can tell you what he’ll be doing a year from now: servicing mares in a breeding shed, for up to $100,000 a date, that amount paid by breeders who hope he’ll pass on his championship speed to the next generation of foals.

“When you win the Kentucky Derby, you are a stallion,” says Bill Casner, co-owner of WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky., and chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. “You have won the most prestigious race in the world. There’s such an economic windfall.”

If Big Brown goes on to win the Triple Crown, he may be retired to stud after a mere six races. It was once unthinkable to let such an inexperienced horse near a mare. As breeder Arthur Hancock III told the New York Times recently, his father, “Bull” Hancock, who ran the family’s Claiborne Farm from 1957 to 1972, never employed stallions with fewer than 25 starts. But buyers at yearling sales are no longer interested in durability. They’re looking for horses that will mature quickly, win the Derby, and allow them to cash in on stud fees. As a result, these wunderkind horses are passing on their genes, producing more and more Thoroughbreds designed for short, brilliant careers. Eight Belles, the filly destroyed after breaking down at the Kentucky Derby, was a granddaughter of Unbridled, who has a record of siring speedy but unsound horses.

There is a way to ensure that the priciest studs are also the most durable: stop restricting the Triple Crown races to 3-year-olds. Instead, open them up to horses of all ages. That would immediately eliminate lightly raced 3-year-old studs from the gene pool because it would be nearly impossible for 3-year-olds to win the Derby, the Preakness, or the Belmont. Horses don’t reach their athletic peak until age 4 or 5. A few 3-year-olds have won the Breeders Cup Classic, an all-comers race held in October. But in May and June, when the Triple Crown races are held, 3-year-olds are too immature to beat older horses. The average winning Beyer speed figure in the Kentucky Derby is 109. Top older horses are capable of earning figures over 120.

As Slate explained in 2004, the Triple Crown races are reserved for 3-year-olds because it’s intriguing to match up horses as they’re growing into their talents. You never know who’ll make a big career move on Derby Day.

“What makes the Derby is that it is for 3-year-olds, the best of their generation,” says Casner. “What makes it fun and exciting is that their careers are very new. Some horses move forward, and some don’t. They come from all different directions, and they come together on the first Saturday in May. They all come to Churchill for the Derby. Nobody ducks the Derby.”

The Kentucky Derby may be America’s most prestigious race, but the age restriction means it’s rarely won by the best horse. The colts who compete in Louisville, Ky., are on the same level as top college basketball players. But while the MVP of March Madness goes on to the NBA, the Derby winner is yanked from the track before he can fully develop his talents. When racing’s biggest stars blossom and disappear in a single spring, it’s hard for the sport to develop a crossover hero who can get his mug on the cover of Sports Illustrated, get his trainer on The Tonight Show, and pose for a bobblehead doll that winds up on the bedroom shelves of horse-crazy ‘tweens.

When the Triple Crown was established, it marked the beginning of a great horse’s career, not a career-capping achievement that guaranteed a priapic retirement. But since breeding fees have exploded, there may as well be an ovulating mare standing just past the wire at Belmont Park, ready to receive the seed of the latest immature sire. The breeders’ desire for instant gratification is weakening the Thoroughbred. Either the equestrians who run racing should strip the Triple Crown of its title as racing’s greatest achievement, or they should ensure that it can only be won by durable horses, with long careers. If farms continue producing foals as fragile as Eight Belles, public revulsion may end the Triple Crown—or horse racing itself.

Derby winners used to run for years and build huge public followings. Citation, one of the most popular horses of all time, won the Triple Crown in 1948. He missed his 4-year-old season with an injury that a modern owner would have used as an excuse for retirement. But Citation returned as a 5-year-old, ran his winning streak to 16 races, and captured the Hollywood Gold Cup.

The only modern horse to match Citation’s achievement is Cigar, who also won 16 consecutive races and raced until age 6. But Cigar was a late bloomer who never ran a Triple Crown race. He didn’t even break his maiden until the week after the Kentucky Derby. Had Cigar kicked ass as a 3-year-old, he would never have stayed in the game long enough to tie Citation’s record. In the last 10 years, only three Derby winners have run as older horses: Real Quiet, Giacomo, and Funny Cide (who’s a gelding and had nothing else to do.)

The Breeders’ Cup was intended to give older horses a showcase to match the Triple Crown, but it hasn’t worked out that way. At $4 million, the Breeders’ Cup Classic’s purse is twice as large as the Derby’s, but the race hasn’t caught on with sports fans, who tune in for the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, then ignore horse racing the rest of the year. A $4 million purse is nothing to Big Brown’s owner, who can attract 10 times that much from a breeding syndicate. And, as Casner points out, a horse’s value can decline if he continues to run and loses.

In its early days, the Classic was often won by Derby horses. Between 1987 and 1990, Ferdinand, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, and Unbridled all completed the Derby-Classic double. But no horse has repeated that feat since. In fact, the Triple Crown and the handicap division—highlighted by the Classic—have become separate racing circuits with very few horses in common. The Triple Crown is dominated by colts who show early brilliance, and the Classic by less precocious, more durable horses. (Curlin won both the Preakness and the Classic last year, but he was a late-maturing horse who never raced as a 2-year-old.)

If racing wants bigger stars—and better studs—it should offer its most coveted prize to the fastest horse, no matter his age. This year’s Preakness won’t be much of a race. Big Brown is the dominant horse of what looks like an exceedingly weak generation. It’s a shame. This is one of the few times a year the average sports fan watches a horse race. Instead of seeing a walkover, they could be watching a showdown between Commentator, Monterey Jazz, Heatseeker, and Tiago, four stars of the handicap division. Those horses have all run faster than Big Brown, but they race in obscurity because they didn’t blossom as 3-year-olds. They may breed in obscurity, too, unless owners wise up and learn that a good horse is worth the wait.