Commentary: Distance Dilemma

<i>By Clay S. Robinson</i> - What the breed needs is a series of big money stakes on dirt over a longer distance of ground.

By Clay S. Robinson

When I first heard that trainer Carl Nafzger and owner James Tafel might opt not to run Street Sense in the Belmont (gr. I), I shook my head. Not that I would have disagreed with such a decision. With no Triple Crown on the line, many other horsemen might now make that same choice. Why risk injury? Besides, there are other lucrative spots on the calendar for the horse, whose value at stud also must factor into the equation. After all, it’s only the Belmont.

That’s why I shook my head. In recent years, we’ve seen Belmont fields that lacked both the Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) winner. Everybody knows the breed has changed, becoming softer and less durable on the whole. Yet the Belmont remains, and the race is almost—dare I say it—an anachronism. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t yet think the Belmont is too tough for today’s Thoroughbred, so I don’t think the answer is to shorten it. Far from it. Nor is the answer to give horses more rest between Triple Crown races. But trainer D. Wayne Lukas is right about one thing. Last year, he observed that nobody out there is busy trying, as he put it, “to breed the best mile-and-a-half horse” possible. He’s right. And I’d wager that’s bad for the breed, and also bad for the sport.

Yet simply appealing to tradition or to common sense won’t help. After all, there is group psychology at work here. It is the psychology of speed, and the psychology of money. No one changes his behavior unless provided with a compelling reason to do so. And no one has yet supplied buyers and breeders with a compelling reason to abandon their addiction to speed, and especially to early speed.

Nobody is trying to breed the best mile-and-a-half horse possible, because there is only one graded stakes race in America on dirt at a mile and a half, and that is the Belmont. And if there is a consensus that breeding for more distance also tends to impart more soundness, then clearly the Belmont needs more company.

Now, the last thing I want to do is to oversimplify. I recognize the role medication may play in passing along undesirable traits. Others, however, have articulated the need for more uniform rules on medication far better than I could—so there’s no need to do that again here. Yet reducing or removing medication from the racetrack is not enough. The simple fact is that money talks, and money is the most powerful motivator.

What the breed needs, and what the sport needs, is a series of big money stakes on dirt over a longer distance of ground—races longer than a mile and a quarter, and, most importantly, races that exclude 3-year-olds. That’s right, I’m talking about races restricted to 4-year-olds and up. In other words, races that owners have to wait to win.

That’s how you change behavior. And you don’t change behavior with just a few races. What is needed is a minimum of four spots on the calendar, and preferably six. And I don’t even care if all of the races are at a mile and a half. If your track is not set up for a mile and a half, then make the race at a mile and three eighths, or even (heaven help us!) a mile and five sixteenths.

Do that, and the Belmont would be a preview of things to come, even in years where no Triple Crown is on the line. Do that, and owners will find it harder to duck the race. Do that, and more than a few breeders might want to take a crack at breeding the best mile-and-a-half horse in America.

There is no reason any of the races would conflict with the Breeders’ Cup, so don’t get me started. I don’t want to hear it. End of discussion. All of the races would be longer than the “classic” distance of a mile and a quarter. That’s the point, after all.

Do that, and the Belmont again will be relevant. (Oh, and by the way, the Belmont would still be the only graded stakes race in America on dirt at a mile and a half for 3-year-olds.)

Clay S. Robinson heads the marketing and public relations firm The Byerley Group in Georgetown, Ky.