With this week's Epsom Derby and the Belmont Stakes, racing's accent on two world-apart fronts is momentarily focused on the enviable qualities that enable Thoroughbreds to utilize their speed and stamina to win at a mile and a half and thereby earn the deserving accolade of "the classic colt."
There is special significance, of course, to the 90th running of the Belmont, for should favored Tim Tam win it he not only secures himself one of those Yankeelike grips on season's honors (before the season is half over), but in doing so he would become only the ninth horse in American racing history to win the Triple Crown—that triumvirate of races composed of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, which have all been on the calendar for over 80 years and all of which have been run concurrently for the last 76 of them.
As the chart on the opposite page suggests, by the very limited number of Triple Crown winners this feat—whether in vintage 3-year-old seasons or mediocre ones—usually goes into the books as the major turf event of the whole year.
If Tim Tam fails to win his Belmont it will not only come as a great surprise to the entire Calumet Farm entourage which bred, trained and raced him through a brilliant spring campaign, but also it would likely throw the shock of his life into the trainer of any horse "lucky" enough to sneak up on the champion on one of his rare off days. For Tim Tam, no matter whether Milo Valenzuela or Bill Hartack is aboard on Belmont Day, has shown such consistent and honest willingness to give his best (surely this must be one of the most genuine racing dispositions that even the oldtimers can recall) that indeed it appears that Tim Tam is wholly incapable of turning in what the race-trackers call a "dull effort."
So it appears that if victory is to be denied Calumet it will have to be by virtue of a super effort on the part of one of those with the temerity to challenge him. I would think it unlikely that there would be more than six or seven willing to make the effort. Lincoln Road ( Tim Tam's finish-line shadow in his last three $100,000 races) has wisely moved on to Chicago, and if the names of any of the other possible starters—such as Victory Morn, Chance It Tony, Candace, Romopolis, Princepado, Grey Monarch, Saferris, Start Courting or Flamingo—should throw a scare into the Calumet team, then it's high time that all of us give up the futile chore of picking winners.
Racing in this country being so utterly different from the sport abroad, comparisons are treacherous. In fact, the only thing in common between the Epsom Derby and the Belmont—the two greatest races in their respective countries—is that they are raced over a mile and a half. This accepted classic distance in Europe is so rare in this country (where most trainers believe the Kentucky Derby distance of a mile and a quarter is an adequate enough testing ground for stamina) that today it seems quite incongruous to many that the Belmont nearly always decides the 3-year-old championship. Furthermore, with the exception of a few rugged colts who elect to challenge older horses in the weight-for-age Jockey Club Gold Cup at two miles in the fall, very few U.S. 3-year-olds, in fact, ever even start in any race as long as a mile and a half.
The situation is understandable. U.S. horsemen, instead of adopting European theories of breeding largely for stamina and racing over distances regulated to test that stamina, have—for the most part—been so speed conscious that racing secretaries from coast to coast have a difficult (if not impossible) job trying to fill the scattered route races that they schedule. The result is that there are not more than a dozen stake races annually on the dirt at a mile and a half or over in the entire country—and almost an equally poor opportunity for the owner of a horse below stakes class. For example, a survey of four major U.S. tracks last year reveals the startling fact that out of a combined total of 1,849 races only 24 of them were at a mile and a half or beyond—and 15 of those were at Belmont Park, long noted, along with its June classic, for an increasingly steady emphasis on distance racing.
At the same time the survey points up the great emphasis on sprint and middle-distance races: of those 1,849 races some 729 were at six furlongs; 159 at seven furlongs; 37 at a mile and 416 at a mile and a 16th. Some tracks, of course, lay particular stress on specific distances: the mile is the predominant distance at Arlington and Washington parks; of 327 races on the dirt at the 1958 Hialeah meeting 113 were at six furlongs and 112 were at the more testing distance of a mile and an eighth; at Belmont, despite a generous share of sprints, the 1957 season saw 73 races carded at a mile and an eighth or over; at Hollywood Park, which had only one race over a mile and a quarter in 1957, they run eight 2-year-old races every five-day week, which accounts for the heavy trend toward sprints.
For comparison with this speed-conscious American program let's see what's going on abroad. On a typical Sunday at Longchamp in mid-May the seven-race card showed only one 3-year-old seven-furlong race, while the other six races ranged from a mile and a 16th (one of them) on up to 2� miles. The day's average distance was a mile and a half. Under the French system of developing young stock with deliberate slowness in order to ready it for the demanding races ahead, few 2-year-olds in France had yet faced the starter. It is not uncommon to see French classic winners—Pharis, for example—kept off the track until they are 3 years old.
During the following week at England's Wingfield Park the six-race card included only one sprint for older horses (along with a couple of five-furlong dashes for juveniles) but required 3-year-old fillies to carry 126 pounds in a mile-and-a-half prep of the traditional approaching Oaks.