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Saturday, January 29, 2011

O Stamina, Where Art Thou?

Over the next several months, one issue—and one issue alone—will dominate horse racing blogs, chat boards and industry publications: debate as to whether or not certain 3-year-olds have the ability to “get” the classic distances. Endurance. Stamina.

And yet, ironically, because true stamina is so rarely tested in American horse racing, it seems almost anachronistic. Only one graded-stakes race for 3-year-olds is contested over 10 furlongs—the 12 furlong G1 Belmont Stakes. After that, unless they race on turf, the only graded-stakes for true routers are the G2 Brooklyn Handicap, G3 Cougar II, G3 Tokyo City Cup, and G3 Turfway Park Fall Championship, all at 12 furlongs, while (finally) for the first time, the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Marathon was contested at 14 furlongs.

It’s even worse for fillies and mares. Unless they run in open company or on turf, there are no graded-stakes races over 10 furlongs—and only three at that distance: the G1 Alabama (for 3-year-olds only), G1 Personal Ensign and G2 Delaware Handicap. The G1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (pitifully named the Ladies Classic) is a paltry 9 furlongs.

For whatever reason, racetracks have shortened the distances of some great American classic races in recent decades. For instance, the G1 Coaching Club American Oaks is now run at 9 furlongs, but from 1971 to 1989, and again from 1998 to 2000, it was a 12 furlong race. Ditto the now-10 furlong G1 Jockey Club Gold Cup which, from 1976 to 1989, was run at 12 furlongs—and before that, from 1921 until 1975, was a whopping 16 furlongs (2 miles). The list of horses victorious at that prodigious distance is truly impressive, a virtual “who’s who” of horse racing legends—Gallant Fox, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Citation, Nashua, Forego, Shuvee and five-time winner Kelso. Winners also included some of the greatest broodmare sires of the 20th century—Princequillo, Gallant Man, Buckpasser, and Damascus. Truly, tests of stamina not only proved mettle and ability on the track, but enriched the breed in the shed as well.

Why did that change? Seriously, I want to understand the motivation behind shortening these races because in no way has it improved the breed. And I don’t buy the excuse that horses today are physically unable to route. Maybe they aren’t being bred for it only because certain fashionable speed (read: precocious) sires disproportionately dominate breeding—that’s the fault of breeders and owners, not fans who have little to no say about the product put on the racetrack.

Now is the time to click away to another website if you don’t want to read yet another defense of Foolish Pleasure’s stamina breeding importance, specifically as a broodmare sire and through dam-lines, but I feel compelled to plead his case since his breeding career was so underappreciated (and mishandled) when he was alive.

I’ve discussed at length his daughter Idyllic’s son Scenic (by Sadler’s Wells), who enjoyed a banner year in 2008-09, with Scenic Blast winning the 5 furlong G1 King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot, and Viewed capturing the 16 furlong G1 Melbourne Cup. Add in Australian champion 2-year-old Phelan Ready, and a host of others, and there’s no doubt Foolish Pleasure contributed to turfsters Down Under.

Recently I stumbled across a history of the Cesarewitch, the great autumn handicap at Newmarket first contested in 1839. Still run at 18 furlongs (2 1/4 miles), it’s one of those races that smash the fiction about fillies and mares not being able to defeat males. From Cruiskeen who won the inaugural running, to 2002 winner Miss Fara, a total of 39 fillies and mares have won this race, with numerous other placings, including the Mull of Kintyre mare La Vecchia Scuola who ran second in 2010. Curious, I delved into the pedigrees of Cesarewitch winners, hoping to gain some insight on stamina breeding, and the usual suspects were there—Kingmambo, Sadler’s Wells, Rainbow Quest, Sir Gaylord, Roberto.

And then, much to my surprise, two horses leapt out off the screen:

1998 winner Spirit of Love, a son of Arc winner Trempolino, out of G3 Arlington Oaks runner-up Dream Mary, daughter of Marfa, son of Foolish Pleasure.

1994 winner Captain’s Guest, by Be My Guest, who also sired Belmont winner Go and Go, as well as Pentire, and was the damsire of Rock of Gibraltar and Manduro. His dam? The unplaced Foolish Pleasure mare Watership.

Go figure.

Even better, someone posted Spirit of Love's Cesarewitch victory on YouTube, and what an impressive performance it was!


John said...

FYI British Pathe has lots of vintage Cesarewitch footage, there is (was?)an Irish version of the race.

Anonymous said...

Could it be because the sport is now dominated by ex-quarter horse trainers who have become successful and other trainers have followed by adopting their method of drill, baby, drill? Preston Burch is rolling over in his grave.

Valerie Grash said...

Cool stuff, John!

And, I totally agree about the quarter-horse mentality of trainers. That's why I respect Jonathan Sheppard so much, as well as Graham Motion. Building up stamina rather than drilling bullet works.