Lukas: "Nobody cares about mile and a half horses any more."

Lukas: "Nobody cares about mile and a half horses any more."

Anne M. Eberhardt

Haskin's Belmont Report: Leave Crown Alone

There was a quote from D. Wayne Lukas in Saturday’s New York Post suggesting the distances of the Triple Crown races be changed to 1 1/8 miles, 1 3/16 miles, and 1 1/4 miles. Lukas said, “Nobody cares about mile and a half horses any more. The living proof is that every Belmont winner winds up in Italy, Puerto Rico, you name it. They don’t stand in Lexington. I’ve had four Belmont winners and I don’t know where the hell they are.”


When Wayne says, “nobody,” to whom is he referring? Is Wayne basically admitting we’re not breeding racehorses as much as we are future stallion prospects? Isn’t it time breeders start breeding stamina back into the horses before what little we have left is gone forever?


Yes, many buyers at the sale shy away from stamina-laden horses, but not because they have no interest in winning the Belmont Stakes. It’s because they’re looking far ahead to that horse’s worth as a stallion, which brings us back to the breeders. I understand it’s all about market value, but the breeders dictate the market value and they have the power to decide what kind of blood is infused in our champions. As for the quick-fix owners, they can learn to adapt by showing patience. The rewards are well worth it. Let them ask themselves, “Would I rather stand in the winner’s circle after a five-furlong maiden race in May or after a Triple Crown race or the Travers the following year?”


The Triple Crown was designed to test horses by making them do things they’ve never done before. It was meant to be difficult. Horses are asked to go 1 1/4 miles for the first time in the Derby. They have to come back in two weeks and drop back to 1 3/16 miles in the Preakness. And finally, they have to go 1 1/2 miles for the first and, likely, only time in the Belmont. Each race provides its own unique test. And only if a horse is special enough will he pass each one. I would rather go 30 years without a Triple Crown winner than have one every three or four years until it becomes mundane. It sure was worth the 25-year wait to witness Secretariat make history in 1973.


As for Wayne’s belief that every Belmont winner is shipped off to Siberia, sure, if a horse wins only the Belmont Stakes in his career he’s not going to be sought after as a stallion. But that’s only because one race should not make a stallion. There are always fluke performances in racing, so a stallion’s worth should be based on body of work.


Wayne obviously has already forgotten that Belmont winner Birdstone  sired this year’s Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness runner-up Mine That Bird and will have two hot horses (Mine That Bird and Summer Bird) in the Belmont. Another Belmont winner, Lemon Drop Kid , likely will have the second favorite in the Belmont, Peter Pan and Futurity winner Charitable Man, who already has proven himself a desirable stallion prospect. Belmont winner Empire Maker  is the sire of this year’s Santa Anita Derby winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile. Belmont runner-up Medaglia d'Oro  is the sire of Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra, and is now one of the most sought after young stallions in the country. Belmont winner Afleet Alex’s yearlings have been in high demand at the sales. Belmont winner Touch Gold got off to a fast start as a sire, and is now beginning to make a name for himself once again. And Wayne apparently has forgotten that one of his Belmont winners, who did not wind up in Italy or Puerto Rico, is Thunder Gulch, who has had a successful stud career at Ashford Stud, siring dual classic winner and Horse of the Year Point Given among others.


Nobody cares about mile and a half horses any more?


Wayne also said, “There is very little progressive thinking in racing.” In some areas he may be right. But with the Triple Crown, it’s like taking any big test. If you keep failing it, you don’t demand they make it easier. You make adjustments and study harder for it until you finally pass. At least then you’ll take some kind of satisfaction in doing so. You didn’t hear mountain climbers earlier this century say, “Gee, Mt. Everest is too high and too tough, let’s try a smaller, easier mountain.” Do you think Sir Edmund Hillary would have gotten the same satisfaction or left as indelible a mark on history by reaching the summit of a smaller, less challenging mountain?”


The difference with the Triple Crown mountain is that it has already been scaled 11 times. Let’s keep waiting for No. 12 and appreciate the feat when it happens rather than trying to make it easier.