The Belmont Stakes has historically been billed as “the test of the champion,” and it may live up to that description when California Chrome bids to sweep the Triple Crown. But in the last decade or so, the 145-year-old event has been marked by freakish results and diminished prestige. Its 11 / 2-mile distance has made it an anachronism in American racing. Its recent history sheds light on the special challenges that California Chrome will face on Saturday.
One of the most significant trends in the U.S. thoroughbred industry has been its ever-growing emphasis on speed rather than stamina. Sprinters and milers populate the lists of leading stallions and pass on their traits to future generations. Winners of the Belmont Stakes are often shunned when they go to stud. (Da’ Tara, the winner in 2008, was in such little demand that he was exiled to stud in Venezuela.)
With fewer horses bred to run long distances, major U.S. races have been shortened. The Jockey Club Cup at Belmont, one of the most important stakes for older horses, was reduced from 2 miles to 11 / 2 miles and then to 11 / 4 miles in 1990. The prestigious Woodward Stakes was trimmed from 11 / 4 miles to 11 / 8 miles. But because of its history and its place as the climactic event of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes remains at 11 / 2 miles — the only Grade I race at the distance in the United States.
Pedigree used to be a recognizably important factor in the Belmont. The sires of the winners between 1988 and 1994 were Secretariat, Alydar, Seattle Slew and Pleasant Colony, plus three other stallions who ranked among the best in the world. All were rock-solid producers of long-distance runners. But such stamina-packed pedigrees are rarer now, and their shortage has been reflected in recent runnings of the Belmont.
In the aforementioned 1988-94 period, which included notable winners such as Easy Goer and A.P. Indy, five Belmonts were run over fast tracks, in times ranging from 2:26 to 2:28.
The last five Belmonts on fast tracks have been dramatically slower — averaging just about 2:30. Palace Malice won last year in 2:30.7. Speed figures — which take into account the speed of the racing surface, reflect this decline. The six Belmonts from 2008 to 2013 earned the six lowest Beyer Speed Figures for the event since the ratings began in 1992. The figures for these races have also been significantly slower than almost every Derby and Preakness in the past two decades. The conclusion: Very few contemporary American horses can run 11 / 2 miles.
While the horses’ pedigrees are surely the main reason for these slow performances, there may be other factors involved. Byron Rogers, a bloodstock consultant who is CEO of Performance Genetics, made this observation: “It is noteworthy that Kentucky and New York began formal testing for bicarbonate loading, or ‘milkshaking,’ in 2005, and in 2008 the use of anabolic steroids was prohibited in racehorses.” He theorized that horses who were formerly able to run long distances with the aid of milkshakes and steroids “are now exposed [as] the sprinters that they genetically are.”
A few Belmont runners still do possess bloodlines suited for 11 / 2 miles. Rags to Riches, the winner in 2007, was the daughter of a Belmont-winning sire, A.P. Indy, and a dam who had produced a Belmont winner. But in many years the results have been governed neither by bloodlines or any discernible logic. No major race in America has such a record of unfathomable results. Eight of the 14 winners since 2000 have paid 10 to 1 or more, including Sarava ($142.50), Birdstone ($74), Da’ Tara ($79) and Ruler on Ice ($51.50).
These surprises happen even when one of the entrants has proved his superiority in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Since 2002, only one winner of the Derby or Preakness has come away with a victory in the Belmont — Afleet Alex in 2005. And, of course, the Belmont has foiled all of the bids for the Triple Crown since 1979, most recently by Big Brown in 2008, Smarty Jones in 2004 and Funny Cide in 2003. It is reasonable to conclude that many Triple Crown aspirants failed because they were less effective at 11 / 2 miles, and that so many big upsets have occurred because the ability of all of the entrants to run the distance is unknowable.
California Chrome’s superior performances in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness may not count for much on Saturday. Although the colt won those races despite a weak-looking pedigree, his bloodlines do not suggest he will favor the distance. His sire never won a race as long as three-quarters of a mile. When California Chrome rounds the sweeping Belmont Park oval, passes the 11 / 4-mile mark and turns into the stretch, he — like his rivals — will be venturing into the unknown.