The day before last Sunday’s Wings For Life World Run, our broadcast production team met up in the hotel bar in Sunrise, Florida to watch the 140th Kentucky Derby. To ratchet up our interest we each ante upped $5 then blindly pulled a number to give us something to hang our hearts on. Even the bartender got in on the act.
Then, amidst various hoots and hollers, we watched 2-1 betting favorite California Chrome pull away down the stretch to earn Churchill Downs famous the blanket of roses. Juli Benson and her husband Bob had the #5 horse, and graciously accepted the $45 first-place jackpot. My 35-1 long-shot Commanding Curve closed like a David Mamet salesman with good leads to place second, bringing me a $22 dollar payoff.
In the aftermath of the race, however, folks on the other side of the bar asked about the winning time.
“2:03.66,” I reported taking a pull from my decidedly non-Kentucky libation. “Four-seconds off the Derby record set by Secretariat in his 1973 Triple Crown year.”
Why so slow, they wanted to know? That’s an interesting question, actually, especially on a day on which we commemorate history’s first sub-4:00 mile.
Of course, some of how any race plays out has to do with conditions and the size of the field. In this year’s Derby there was a backstretch headwind along with 19-ponies stretched across the race track in search of a clean line. In Oxford, England on May 6, 1954 there was a dying breeze and only seven runners on the Iffley Road track for the mile contest pitting three Oxford men against four British AAA runners.
Another factor in racing has to do with the strategy of the race itself. In the Derby, as in all the Triple Crown races, time is immaterial, as place is all that counts. For Bannister’s record attempt the strategy was all about producing the time, and he was assisted by two pacesetters, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher who towed him through three of the event’s four laps.
In Saturday’s Derby California Chrome stayed close to the pace in striking position before coming free in the final furlong. Even so, looking at the long list of Derby champions and their winning times, one thing becomes quite clear. While the human mile record has plummeted over sixteen seconds since Sir Roger’s 3:59.4 in 1954, the time it takes a handsomely muscled thoroughbred to gallop the 1.25-mile Kentucky Derby distance hasn’t seemed to budge at all. Continue reading