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.
Over the last sixty years the average winning time at the Derby has hovered right around 2:02, with Secretariat’s 1973 record of 1:59 1/5 standing as one of only two sub-2:00 winning performances in Derby history — Monarchos, 1:59.97 in 2001, has the other.
So what is it about human running that has produced continuously improving times, while horses have hit a time wall? And I don’t mean drugs — while acknowledging that the mile record of 3:43.13 by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999 has stood for 15 years in part due to the lack of mile races being staged in lieu of the more internationally recognized 1500 meters — though that mark, too, has stood since 1998.
I asked the same question back in February 1997 when a horse named Isitingood took down the one-mile turf record at Santa Anita with a 1:32:00 clocking, knocking 1/5th of a second off the old mark set by Dr. Fagar at Chicago’s Arlington Park track on August 24, 1968.
The man I asked in 1997 was a then four (now five) time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer of the year, D. Wayne Lukas, who now holds four Kentucky Derby wins. Dissecting the topic 17 years ago Lukas didn’t hone in on the restricted number of horses in the thoroughbred pool, or the inbreeding therein. Instead he looked at how a horse is trained in comparison to a human runner.
“There are a number of factors why human records continue to improve while horse records remain stable,” he began. “Soundness and safety is the biggest problem. A horse can’t talk back to you. So if times get too quick, we tend to increase the cushion of the track immediately.
“Tracks have been negligent in improving safety. Running tracks are relatively constant whether at UCLA, Tennessee or Arkansas. Our surfaces — if you go to 28 race tracks, you will find 28 different surfaces. So the minute we get fast times we say, ‘put some water on that track, cushion it more.’ The goal is to beat the horses in front of you, not beat the times that have been run before. Everything is relative.”
D. Wayne Lukas is a U.S. Racing Hall of Fame inductee. Three of his horses—Lady’s Secret in 1986, Criminal Type in 1990 and Charismatic in 1999—won the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. He holds the record for the most Triple Crown race wins at 14, and he was the first trainer to earn more than $100 million in purse money, while topping the yearly money list 14 times.
“There is a great variance to how horses handle a surface,” he went on. “Cigar was no good on turf, but a super horse on dirt. With turf there is nothing flying back in the horse’s face like the clods on a dirt track. Therein lies the problem, there is no uniformity of tracks to compare times.
“When the surfaces are so varied, drying out the track, like we saw with Isitingood, he’s not the fastest horse by a long way. The six-furlong record is held at the Turf Paradise track in Arizona. They’ve had all kinds of records there, but it’s ridiculous to say the fastest horses ran there. Yet they have all the records.”
Horse racing is a hand-me-down sport, Lukas explained. There is no computerized method saying how to win the Kentucky Derby. At the same time there remains a close mindedness in the thoroughbred community that we don’t see in the track & field world. Says Lukas:
“In running circles coaches hold clinics share ideas, medical breakthroughs, stride analysis, overload principles. There is nothing like that in horse racing. In fact, it’s a closely kept world of secrets rather than shared knowledge. I’ve been offered six-figures to lecture in Japan, but no way.
“Also what differentiates human racing from thoroughbred racing is the random breeding in humans and the selective breeding of horses. But mostly there is no success to interval training a horse. A horse is not equipped to take that much stress. It has no mental capacity to handle that. It can’t tell you when overload has been reached. Anyone who has tried to interval train their horse has ended up with a sore and stale horse. So keeping them sound is the key.”
Though the Kentucky Derby bills itself as “the greatest two minutes in sport”, because that’s essentially how long it takes to win the race, time isn’t really a consideration in thoroughbred horse racing.
“Time also has a way of fading into some deep corridor of our mind as a horse goes on to further accomplishments,” wrote Steve Haskin in his excellent Blood-Horse blog.
However, the legacy of pacing that brought Roger Bannister to history on this date sixty years ago has hung stubbornly around track & field like a low-grade virus ever since, even as an increasing number of people believe its benefit has long outstripped its value. So, even as the 60th anniversary of Bannister’s time-busting run is once again widely celebrated, perhaps its time to put that May 6, 1954 strategy out to pasture.
Now, if we could just open the paramutuel betting windows at Hayward Field…