One of the dreariest aspects of U.S. Thoroughbred racing is its adherence to a monotonous program of sprint races. It may be true that the bettor cares little about the distance of a race, but for those who hope to keep alive some of racing's traditions, the endless succession of six-furlong sprints must be a cause of deep concern. The majority of America's major owners and breeders (in whose hands the future of our classic racing rests) agrees that sprints do nothing to enhance the reputation of horse, breeder or trainer.
In the past four years, the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes, one of our great classics, has been won only once by an American-bred colt. If this trend is to be halted, the question of distance racing must be taken up by the entire racing industry. Only about 5% of the American stakes program in 1960 was scheduled at a mile and a half or over. In England the figure was nearly 45%, in France about 41%. Less than a dozen stakes in the U.S. were exclusively for 3-year-olds at a mile and a quarter or over. Six of these were in New York.
Joe Estes, editor of The Blood-Horse, crisply sums up the contradictory attitudes on the subject: "The heretical doctrine that eight or nine furlongs is a proper distance for determining the best horses in each generation is popularly supposed to have been dictated by pari-mutuel wagering and its abhorrence of small fields. There are more sprinters and milers than stayers, says the apologist; there are indeed enough sprinters and milers to fill nine races a day; hence he concludes that it is unnecessary, unprofitable and even financially dangerous to offer races for stayers—unless they are selling platers. The fact is that the lack of distance races in North America is due to the inanition of race track management."
An explanation for management's attitude is offered by Santa Anita Racing Secretary Jimmy Kilroe: "We have a tremendously competitive sport.... No one track, in other words, can change things by itself. However, if each track would run, say, three mile-and-a-half races per meeting for a decent purse, then they would develop enough horses to feed each other's programs."
(The recent success with such a program in Ontario was possible because tracks there are centrally located, and because racing is judiciously controlled by one jockey club.)
Distance racing, if properly fostered, would become more important to owners, Estes suggests, because it would bring to light the now suppressed abilities of many horses. It would turn some liabilities into assets. "Most important for the breeder, is that he would have greater latitude and more dependable guidance in selecting breeding stock."
Many trainers firmly believe that longer races are more formful, giving the best instead of the luckiest horse more chance to win. On this score Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons says, "We would have better horses—more stoutly bred, and sounder—and the public would enjoy racing more. I think the shorter races are harder on horses, trying to make them do something they can't do. Distance races give a horse a chance."
The influential directors of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations can solve this problem; all it really needs is cooperation between the racing departments of TRA member tracks. U.S. owner-breeders, instead of standing accused of breeding for speed (when actually it is the economics of today's racing that compels them to train for speed) may yet be-able to stop the English-and Irish-bred invaders from winning the Belmont. First, however, they must fully back up the Estes suggestion that, "the only way to have distance racing is to have it the year round, in many areas, and for all classes of horses—not as a novelty, but as routine."
Racing fans, tired of a starting gate that is perennially anchored on the far reaches of the backstretch, surely will welcome more starts in front of the stands and elsewhere.
The relationship between distance racing and international racing is a natural one; as Americans more and more realize the importance of testing their stock over classic routes, the more willing they may eventually be to take an active role in worldwide competition. To date the only serious part played by our horsemen in that field is to run (with all expenses paid) in the Washington, D.C. International, that popular but costly extravaganza staged for the last nine years by John D. Schapiro at his Laurel Race Course. Laurel's success is now well established. But today's jet service from New York to London and Paris should stimulate other international races in countries where the prestige of winning a classic is much greater than in America.