It's an age-old question in racing: Do breeders drive the racing program or does the racing program drive the breeding industry? The answer depends on where you're standing.
According to figures from Equibase, of the 41,574 races run in the United States last year, 25,776 of them were run at distances of seven furlongs or less – 62 percent. Only 377 races were run at distances of 1 1/4 mile or more – not even 1 percent. Of those, only 61 were run at the distance of a mile and a half, a trip considered to be the classic middle distance in Europe.
Across the Atlantic, the picture is radically different: The French racing authority, France Galop, reports that of the 4,908 races run in France last year, only 622 races, or 12 percent of the total, were run at distances of seven furlongs or less. But there were 2,582 races longer than a mile and a quarter, or 52 percent of the total.
How did American racing come to this pass?
“We used to regularly have maiden races of 10 and 12 furlongs in New York and southern California in the 1970s,” said Barry Irwin, a longtime owner and breeder through his Team Valor syndicates. “Then newer racing secretaries and trainers figured it was easier to run a horse shorter than longer. Commercial breeders embraced speed in pedigrees, began to surgically alter the limbs of crooked-legged sons and grandsons of Mr. Prospector and Raise a Native, and we have speedy bred horses that have limbs that flaunt Mother Nature. The perfect storm.”
Under these circumstances, how can the American breeding industry provide a viable number of quality horses for its most important races like the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, the Breeders' Cup Classic and Turf, the Travers Stakes, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Santa Anita Handicap, the Pacific Classic, the Turf Classic and the Arlington Million, etc., almost all of them run at distances of at least 10 furlongs, when it must produce most of its horses to fill sprint races?
The answer is: It can't. The once hallowed pastures of Kentucky have for three decades been churning out an increasing number of sprinters customized to cater to the desires of the contemporary American owner, someone who wants a quick return from his precocious investment. Gone are the days when American owner/breeders had the patience to develop bloodlines that would ultimately produce the likes of Northern Dancer, Mill Reef, Nijinsky, Secratariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid and Dancing Brave.
Some may point to American Pharoah to refute this argument, but in rebuttal it can be said that the 2015 Triple Crown winner is the exception to the American rule. After all, it took the American breeding industry 37 years to find a successor to its last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed.
“Commercialism is the culprit,” Irwin said.
And so it would appear that in America, the racing program drives the breeding industry.
In France, probably the least commercial of all the Thoroughbred markets among Europe and North America's four major racing nations, it is a different story, one in which the racing program is determined by the types of horses that are being bred.
Justin Ince, manager of Darley Stud's operations in France, pointed out that most breeders in France breed to race rather than sell.
“Only about 25 percent of the French foal crop ever sees a sales ring,” he said, adding that the French system of premiums, which provide between 43 and 60 percent above published purses to owners and breeders, offers plenty of economic incentive for owner/breeders to race the horses they breed.
Further evidence of the French concern with stamina can be found in an examination of the five stallions that head the 2015 sire lists in that country. The average winning distance this year of the offspring of Dubawi, Cape Cross, Dansili, Galileo and Siyouni is 9.5 furlongs. Meanwhile, America's five leading sires, Tapit, Medaglia d'Oro, Pioneerof the Nile, Candy Ride and Kitten's Joy, produce horses whose average winning distance is just 7.45 furlongs.
With a handful of exceptions, the days of the grand old American breeder/owner families like the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts and Calumet Farm are over. Not so in France, where the Aga Khan, Khalid Abdullah, the Wertheimer brothers and the Niarchos family, among others, continue to patiently supply the most important French races with a substantial number of quality performers. French classic races like the Prix du Jockey-Club and the Prix de Diane at 1 5/16 miles, or the Prix de l'Opera at 1 1/4 miles, the Grand Prix de Paris, the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and the Prix Vermeille at 1 1/2 miles, continue to fill with horses bred with those distances in mind.
Don't think that French horsemen – and Europeans in general – haven't noticed the shift in American breeding. A point in case is the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. In France, all roads lead to the Arc. At the classic distance of a mile and a half, it is the Holy Grail of European racing, and the entire racing calendar is engineered with that championship goal in mind.
During the latter part of the 20th Century, the Arc was virtually dominated by horses bred in the United States. But of late, the Arc serves as the prime example of the growing disregard with which European horsemen view the stamina-depleted American Thoroughbred. From 1971 through 2001, when the USA suffix following a horse's name was a badge of honor in Europe, 14 of the 31 Arc winners were American bred. Since 2001, however, not a single winner of the Arc has been bred in these United States.
Gina Rarick is an American trainer based in Maisons-Laffitte, France, and the former racing correspondent at the International Herald Tribune. Alan Shuback is a former columnist and foreign correspondent at Daily Racing Form and The Sporting Life.
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