More distance racing, please!

The damaging effects of the American preoccupation with sprint racing are examined in Part II of the series (SI, Feb. 13), 'The Troubles of a Prosperous Sport'
March 20, 1961

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.

One of the best proposals on this subject comes from Marshall Cassidy, a member of The Jockey Club committee investigating international racing. Cassidy suggests a type of Grand Prix event to be staged annually, on a rotating basis, in the major racing countries of the world. Under such a system an international classic could be held in England, Ireland, France, Italy, Australia, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, Argentina, Russia, Germany, Sweden and Canada in addition to the U.S. "The eventual success of such an idea," says Cassidy, "might depend largely on the education of American horsemen in the systems and methods of foreign racing. For example, there would undoubtedly be more enthusiasm for international racing in this country if more of our leading stables participated in France's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe as well as in some of the English classics. Participation by the individual is the only way to generate enthusiasm."

Jockey Club takes lead

John Schapiro points out that "most foreign jockey club officials would never bother to make the effort that we do to attract the top horses from other countries." But our own Jockey Club, headed by George D. Widener, has invited its colleagues abroad to meet with the U.S. committee to determine whether or not there is sufficient interest to warrant drawing up a plan for a future world classic. The problems to be ironed out before any such race could be held are not minor. Ideally, we think, the conditions of the present Laurel race are best suited for the majority of racing nations: a mile and a half on grass, weight for age, open by invitation only (with no nomination fees) to 3-year-olds and upward of both sexes. Each country's ruling racing body, rather than the host track, should underwrite expenses to send its individual champion or entry. A good start in this direction would be for our own Jockey Club to assist, or at least encourage, the owner of the leading American handicap horse to run this October in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. For that matter, one of the Paris classics could easily serve as the first World International, with the following one to be held, say, at Ascot. This would serve the dual purpose of stimulating some French and English leadership (a very touchy subject, since they are somewhat jealous of each other), while at the same time clarifying America's role as just another participant rather than as self-elected ruler of the roost. Other questions include choosing an appropriate time of year for such a race, the courses most suitable for playing host to it and, in view of foreign prejudice against our mechanization, the alternatives of a barrier or a gate start.

Someday owners and trainers may be willing to send a good horse anywhere in the world at any time for an event of international prestige. That will be a great day for domestic racing, too.