Times have changed. Amos Rusie pitched in 56 of the New York Giants' 132 baseball games in 1893, and his 50 complete games stands as the sport's all-time single-season record. Compare that to the major league-leading nine complete games pitched by David Wells of the Chicago White Sox last year.
Thoroughbred racing's Donau made 41 starts as a 2-year-old in 1909, then won the Kentucky Derby the following year. By contrast, last year's Derby winner, Fusaichi Pegasus, raced just once at two and made only nine career starts before being retired.
But it isn't necessary to go back a century to see how things are different.
In the late 1960s and early '70s, Fergie Jenkins of the Chicago Cubs was like a precision timepiece, going to the mound every four games, and, more often than not, finishing off what he started. In 1971, he led the league in complete games, with 30.
Cannonade raced 17 times as a 2-year-old in 1973, then gave Woody Stephens his first Kentucky Derby triumph the following year.
For better or worse, baseball's workhorses have been replaced by specialists. A starting pitcher is expected to go a strong six or seven innings before a set-up man comes in to keep the opposition in check until it's time for the closer. For the most part, complete games are a thing of the past.
Expectations for starting pitchers are lower. Baseballs are juiced. Equipment is better. And the players are stronger--in part because of a more serious approach to training but also because of admitted use of "nutritional supplements" that are banned in many other sports.
What of horses? Perhaps our expectations also are lower, but that probably is due to the widely held perception that this new breed of Thoroughbred is weaker. By almost any measure, Thoroughbreds racing today are not much faster and certainly less durable than their ancestors. The annual average number of starts per runner has been on a steep decline for more than 25 years. In 1975, the average runner started 10.23 times per year. By 2000, it was 7.10, down 30.6%.
Coincidence or not, it was the mid-1970s when state racing commissions began liberalizing medication rules, first allowing horses to be treated with Butazolidin for soreness and then with Lasix for internal bleeding. Writing in The Blood-Horse of July 12, 1976, Kent Hollingsworth, an outspoken opponent of medication, said a "bottom-line argument" led to policies permitting Bute. "More horses could start more often on Bute," Hollingsworth wrote, "giving owners more opportunity to win purse money; more horses starting meant larger fields, more betting, and increased revenue therefrom. It was not the principle of the thing; it was the money. Or the prospect of money."
Considering where we were when those words were written (10.23 starts per year) and where we are today (7.10 starts), the "bottom-line argument" hasn't stood the test of time.
There are other factors, to be sure. Year-round racing. A decline in horsemanship by some of today's trainers. The influence of the commercial market, prompting breeders to plan matings for the sale ring rather than the racetrack.
Yet those factors seem trivial when stood alongside the possible effects that medication may have had on the American racehorse of the last quarter-century. Bute, Lasix, and other drugs are considered therapeutic, as opposed to performance-enhancing, but many of the animals treated with these "normalizers" have gone on to the breeding shed, their flaws and weaknesses covered up in part by the miracle of modern medicine.
The reasons for liberalizing medication regulations in the 1970s were misguided. It shouldn't have been about money. Perhaps it's time to revisit those issues from a different perspective: that of the horse.