The field for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby could be the worst in decades. Except for Uncle Mo — the champion colt whose current form is suspect and who may not get to the starting gate — not one of the 19 other entrants would rate as a serious contender in an average Derby.
Three-year-old crops vary from year to year, of course, and racing fans periodically lament the quality of the colts in the Triple Crown series. But this year’s group comes on the heels of mediocre Derby fields in 2009 and 2010, a trend that raises an uncomfortable question. While human athletes are getting bigger, stronger and faster, benefiting from improved training techniques and nutrition, are America’s thoroughbred racehorses getting worse? And, if so, why?
Horse racing expert Andrew Beyer gives his expert analysis of the field for the 2011 Kentucky Derby.
It is an incontrovertible fact that the competition in recent Triple Crown series has been weak. Last year Super Saver was one of the least talented colts in the postwar era to earn a blanket of roses. He had won a single Grade II stakes race before the Derby, lost his three starts after the Derby and was retired. I
n 2009 the impossible long shot Mine That Bird ran away with the Derby; it was his only victory in a dozen starts as a 3- and 4-year-old.
Time is the most objective measurement of a horses’ ability, and the 3-year-olds in recent years have been slower than their counterparts in the past. Over the last quarter century, the average winning Beyer Speed Figure in the Derby has been 109. Mine That Bird’s 105 and Super Saver’s 104 were below the norm. But the slowness of this year’s field is unprecedented.
Not a single horse comes into the Derby with a figure better than 98 in his last start. Only two entrants have ever earned a triple-digit number. Uncle Mo, of course, was brilliant as a 2-year-old, earning a spectacular figure of 108 that suggested he was a superstar in the making.
I wrote that this was going to be a banner year for the Triple Crown series — not the first time I have been dead wrong about these races. Uncle Mo has apparently regressed as a 3-year-old; nobody else has stepped forward; Dialed In may be the favorite on the strength of a Florida Derby in which he earned a figure of 93. In other years a horse so slow would be a throw-out.
Part of the explanation for the decline in U.S. thoroughbreds is the exodus of well-bred horses to other countries. Arab and British buyers began dominating U.S. yearling sales in the late 1970s. Japan remade its entire thoroughbred industry with the purchase of 1989 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence. Now Australians are becoming a major force at U.S. sales.
Pedigree expert Bill Oppenheim observed, “You can’t replace class. It has been leaving America and spreading around the world. American thoroughbreds appear to be getting worse, yet in the rest of the world they are getting better.” British racing fans are hailing their undefeated 3-year-old, Frankel, who earned one of the biggest Timeform ratings in history when he won the first of England’s 3-year-old classics last Saturday.