Seattle Slew won the 1977 Kentucky Derby.

Seattle Slew won the 1977 Kentucky Derby.

Blood-Horse Publications

Racing Analysis: To Go Long...Think Fast

In the 'Golden Age,' Triple Crown contenders began their 3YO campaigns sprinting.

Let’s go back to the 1970s, known by many as the “Golden Age of Racing,” because of its parade of Triple Crown winners, not to mention the greatest horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Spectacular Bid. Add Riva Ridge and Bold Forbes, both winners of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, and Foolish Pleasure, who won or placed in all three Triple Crown races.

What did all those horses have in common? Here’s a hint: they all did something in their Triple Crown preparation you rarely see from today’s top 3-year-olds.

They all began their 3-year-old campaigns sprinting, as did the majority of racing’s 11 Triple Crown winners.

The legendary trainer John Nerud could never understand why 3-year-olds nowadays start their year running long, especially the ones who debut going 1 1/8 miles. Nerud feels rushing a young horse to go that far so early in the year is one of the main reasons why the majority of today’s 3-year-olds fail to maintain their form through the Triple Crown.

Nerud started Gallant Man off in four sprints—three at six furlongs and one at seven furlongs. Gallant Man lost the Derby by a nose when Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line, won the Peter Pan, and set a track record winning the Belmont Stakes by eight lengths.

Secretariat began his 3-year-old campaign in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes; Affirmed in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race, Seattle Slew in a seven-furlong allowance race; Spectacular Bid in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes. Foolish Pleasure debuted in a seven-furlong allowance race; Riva Ridge in the seven-furlong Hibiscus Stakes; and Bold Forbes in the six-furlong San Miguel. Going back, Whirlaway started off his Triple Crown campaign with five sprints; Citation with two sprints. The list goes on.

So, why are trainers today so afraid to run their good 3-year-olds in sprints? Nerud feels they help sharpen up a horse and prepare them mentally for the demanding two-turn races that follow.

Now, you rarely see top 3-year-olds dropping back to sprints to start the year. They are rushed into 1 1/16-mile and 1 1/8-mile races and are expected to keep their form racing in a series of tough classic races at distances they’ve never run before. Is the fact that so many fail due to their not being sharpened physically and mentally early in the year? Are these horses being asked to do too much too soon?

It’s time trainers go through the history books and see how it’s supposed to be done. Now, it’s “Got to get two turns in him.” “Can’t waste a precious start in a sprint.” By getting a sprint in them early, they’d be surprised how much sharper and mentally tougher they’ll be come May and June.

It’s all there in black and white.