Keeneland presents American Graded Stakes Standings: Distance Limitations
Recent runnings of the Belmont Stakes have been extremely unpredictable and difficult to handicap. Among some of the recent winning mutual payoffs: Ruler On Ice paid $51.50 to win on a $2 bet in 2011; Drosselemeyer paid $28 in 2010; Summer Bird paid $25.80 in 2009; Da’ Tara paid $79 in 2008; Birdstone paid $74 in 2004; and Sarava paid a record $142.50 in 2002.
Horses running in the Triple Crown are doing things today they’ve never been asked to do before, whether it’s the distance of the three races, competing in front of massive-sized crowds; or even running in three demanding races in a five-week period of time.
The biggest question mark of all those factors may be distance, and whether or not a horse can handle the mile and one-half of the Belmont Stakes, one time around North America’s largest horse racing oval. For starters, few horses, if any, are bred with the breeder thinking, “This could be my Belmont Stakes horse.”
Not many trainers have experience training for mile and a half race, either. Woody Stephens sure knew how to win the Belmont. He accomplished the feat five times in a row from 1982-86, though three trainers won more Belmonts than Stephens: James Rowe, with eight between 1883-1913; Sam Hildreth, with seven between 1899-1924; and James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, with six between 1930 and 1955.
There just aren’t that many opportunities running horses over long distances, especially at racing’s highest level in American Graded Stakes. Of the 192 Graded Stakes run so far in 2012, only 15, or 7.8%, have been run at distances of 10 furlongs or more. Three of those 15 are on dirt, the balance on turf. So only three of 192 AGS races have been run on the “traditional “ American surface at what we like to refer to as the “classic” distance.
What distances dominate the AGS system? There have been 46 Graded sprint races (seven furlongs or less), four of them G1; and 131 Graded “middle distance” races, at distances above seven furlongs and less than 1 1/4 miles.
Sires of winners of AGS races at distances of a mile and a quarter or longer in 2012 are: Arch, Dixieland Band, Dynaformer, Flower Alley, Full Mandate, Maria’s Mon, Mr. Greeley, Rock Hard Ten, Roi Normand, Sligo Bay, Smart Strike, and Val Royal.
Sires of broodmares that produced winners of AGS distance races are: Arch, Caerleon, Chief’s Crown, Conquistador Cielo, Falcon Jet, Fortunate Prospect, French Deputy, Lord At War, Pulpit, Seeking the Gold, Spectacular Bid, Strawberry Road, and Unbridled.
The Breeders’ Cup has added the Marathon to its championship event, but one race is not going to change the shape or pattern of a country’s overall racing program and the Thoroughbred breed itself. American racing needs more important races run over a distance of ground, and not just on turf, in order to encourage breeders to produce horses that are more stout than those currently running. That can only happen if every major racing circuit revises stakes schedules and condition books to bring back marathon races.