View From The Eighth Pole: The Disappearing Iron Horse

by | 11.14.2018 | 7:08pm
Accelerate, winning the 2018 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs

I recently took a trip down memory lane with Tom Durkin, the race caller who worked the announcer's booth for the Breeders' Cup's inaugural running at Hollywood Park in 1984 and didn't relinquish the microphone until after the 2005 edition, when the telecast moved from NBC to ESPN.

Durkin gave fans a chance to relive the 1984 Breeders' Cup during a talk at Equestricon, held Breeders' Cup week in Louisville, Ky. I wasn't able to attend (see Natalie Voss's coverage of Durkin's recollections as part of our Breeders' Cup Countdown series here), but the next day I had a chance to catch up with the legendary announcer and reminisce about that event and what I would call the “good old days” of Thoroughbred racing.

Durkin contrasted that first Breeders' Cup with the modern-day versions, specifically focusing on how trainers ran their horses more often back then.

As an example, he cited Eugene Klein and Mel Hatley's Life's Magic, runner-up to Princess Rooney in the Grade 1 Distaff of 1984. The D. Wayne Lukas runner began her year in an allowance race at Santa Anita in February, then ran third in the G1 Santa Susana (now Santa Anita Oaks) in March and fifth against colts in the G1 Santa Anita Derby in April.

Lukas pitched the Cox's Ridge filly against colts again in the G1 Kentucky Derby on May 5, where she finished eighth behind Swale. She then ran second in the G1 Acorn on May 26, won the G1 Mother Goose on June 16, was second in the G1 Coaching Club American Oaks on July 7, won the G2 Monmouth Oaks on July 21, won the G1 Alabama on Aug. 11 and finished third in the G1 Gazelle Handicap on Sept. 1.

Life's Magic then got a six-week break before winning the G1 Beldame on Oct. 21. The Breeders' Cup on Nov. 10 was her 12th race of the year.

Life's Magic ran 13 times in 1985, culminating with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Aqueduct.

Five of the seven runners in that inaugural Distaff had 11 or more races in 1984 going into the Breeders' Cup.

By comparison only six of the 175 runners in this year's Breeders' Cup had 10 races or more in 2018.

Durkin pointed out that horses that race more often are more likely to get a fan following, and that it's easier handicapping a horse by its races rather than by a string of workouts. I think he's right on both counts.

Some other numbers to ponder.

In that first Breeders' Cup 79 horses came into the seven championship races with an average of 8.1 starts each. This year, there were 175 starters in 14 races, each starter averaging 5.1 starts before the Breeders' Cup.

The numbers are similar for the “original seven” races (Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, Sprint, Mile, Distaff, Turf, Classic). There were 84 runners in those seven races this year, each averaging 5.0 starts in 2018 before the Breeders' Cup.

In 1984, the Distaff had the highest average of starts per starter, with 11.0. This year's Distaff field averaged 6.1 starts.

The 1984 Classic's eight runners averaged 9.9 starts before the Breeders' Cup, led by Wild Again, the longshot winner who had raced 15 times. This year's Classic field of 14 averaged 5.6 races coming into the Breeders' Cup. The winner, Accelerate raced six times from February to late September after an eighth-race campaign in 2017.

The Breeders' Cup average starts trend from 1984 to 2018 – a decline of 38 percent – is almost a mirror image of North American statistics on average starts for all runners compiled in The Jockey Club Fact Book.

Geneticists will say it takes longer than 34 years to change a breed so significantly in terms of their frequency of races. There was massive overbreeding in the 1980s (the North American foal crop exceeded 51,000 in the mid-1980s compared to 21,500 now), a growing influence of commercial breeders. the introduction of unsound sires and a creeping reliance on therapeutic medication. There's also advanced veterinary technology that can more effectively diagnose potential injuries today.

People smarter than me have said a couple of the biggest factors in the decline of starts per runner have nothing to do with the soundness of horses. One is the introduction of winning percentages for trainers into Daily Racing Form's past performances (and track programs). Many owners rely on that number when choosing a trainer, and ambitious trainers are cognizant of that. Another is the reliance on performance information like Thorograph and The Sheets that so many trainers use in the management of their horses.

The good news is that average number of starts per horse annually has leveled off over the last 10 to 15 years at just over 6 starts per year The bad news is that it's unlikely to reverse course and it's highly doubtful we'll ever see horses like Life's Magic – or any number of other top-class “iron horses” of the past – who raced a dozen or more times a year.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

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