Distance Limitations

By Earl Ola
What cost Smarty Jones the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) was the shortage of distance races in America today.

Thirty years ago, there were 220 racetracks in America; today there are just over 100. Belmont's stands where filled for races like the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, the 2 1/4-mile Gallant Fox, etc. Today the same races are run at 1 1/4 miles and Belmont's stands are mostly empty for those races.

Thirty years ago, every major track and many minor ones had at least one 1 1/2- to two-mile race carded every day. American jockeys were able to get experience riding in longer races. Horses not suited to shorter races had an opportunity to earn income for their owners, instead of being dropped down the claiming ladder, which is what happens to that type of horse today. Think how American owners feel who pay big money for yearlings, absorb one to two years of training fees, and then watch horses that could win long races dropped into short cheap claimers. This is one of the reasons I think the turnover of American owners is so high.

Thirty years ago, there were seven or eight races carded per day. Included were distance races that pleased the American race fan and produced income for owners of horses suited to longer races. Today, the track owners and managers have little interest in anything except putting on a dozen short races and extracting every cent possible from the racing fan. Unlike 30 years ago, today there are many first-time, and often last-time, race goers in the stands.

When America's most successful jockey, Jerry Bailey, rode at the 2000 Royal Ascot meeting for the Godolphin stable, they put him on just one horse in a race over 1 1/4 miles. He did win the Prince of Wales's (Eng-I) on Dubai Millennium at America's classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. Godolphin is very astute and they know that even our very best American riders do not get enough experience riding races beyond 1 1/4 miles to compete against riders who do. Stewart Elliott is an excellent rider who because of the race distances he is required to excel at, like all American jockeys, has just not had the opportunity to learn how to rate horses for 1 1/2-mile races.

Smarty Jones and Elliott were beaten by a horse better suited to long races, ridden by an excellent jockey, Edgar Prado, who came from a nation, Peru, where he had experience riding long races. This same jockey, for the same reason--foreign experience riding long races--has now notched two Belmont victories on long-priced horses.

Quarter Horse racing has far more exciting, close race finishes than Thoroughbred racing. It is common for an entire 10-horse field to hit the finish line close together. Yet Quarter Horse racing has never been as popular as Thoroughbred racing, because the races are too short to give the racing fan time to get emotionally involved in the race.

American Thoroughbred racing is hurting itself by the predominance of sprint races on every race program, and by shortening the distances of our stakes, handicaps, and claiming races. We are limiting the earning ability of owners, trainers no longer know how to train distance horses, and jockeys do not get the necessary experience riding distance races.

The Breeders' Cup has dropped the ball internationally by not having a $2-million, two-mile dirt race, which could be called the Breeders' Cup Stayers Cup, like the two-mile races so popular with race fans all over the world.

Elliott is an excellent jockey at the race distances he is expected to excel at and is experienced riding in. It is almost impossible for Elliott and all "native" American riders to get experience riding longer race distances. If Elliott had had sufficient experience riding 1 1/2- to two-mile Thoroughbred races, Smarty Jones would have won the Triple Crown.

I am truly saddened Smarty Jones did not win. But it is not the jockey's fault the horse lost; it is the fault of an American horse racing industry that is shooting itself in the foot by not putting on the type of Thoroughbred races I believe American fans want to see.

EARL OLA, a farm owner in Morriston, Fla., has 40 years of
experience in the Thoroughbred industry.