A Discredit to Their Race

The weak field in the Kentucky Derby speaks for the state of the American racehorse
May 02, 1993

Every year, along about this time, it is fashionable for the nation's turf-writing geniuses to decry the present crop of Kentucky Derby candidates as mediocre at best, very mediocre at worst. Having covered the Derby every year since 1972, I have learned to step gingerly around that familiar old trap. And, indeed, there is nothing mediocre about this year's Derby horses. They are a travesty.

They are so slow that the track kitchen at Churchill Downs will be offering, for its breakfast special on Derby Day, a six-minute egg. And this year the traditional mint julep is out; the sloe gin fizz is in. The race could be the least exciting two minutes and six seconds in sports. A field of 18 horses is expected to be loaded into the gate on Saturday, all of them sleepers, a few of them very deep sleepers. And it appears that the favorite will be Prairie Bayou, an obscurely bred former colt who woke up one day to find himself a gelding. Perfect.

If Prairie Bayou wins the roses, he will be the first Kentucky Derby winner to have suffered the unkindest cut of all since Clyde Van Dusen, a gelded son of Man o' War, led nearly all the way in 1929 to win by two lengths. By the way, if Prairie Bayou wins, the bansheelike howls you hear coming from Churchill Downs will be the cries of hundreds of Kentucky thoroughbred breeders as they execute high dives—kill-the-trainer triple-gainers—from the third deck of the stands. On your average Kentucky breeder's least-wanted list, a gelding ranks somewhere between last place and last call.

What is so remarkable about this year's field of horses (its singular lack of charm and quality aside) is the alarming trend it brings into focus. It is the clearest signal yet that the American thoroughbred is running slower than ever, that the domestic strain has lost its vigor and is on the wane. It is as though the deterioration of the sport in the U.S. is being carried, like a replicating virus, in the very genes of its classic performers. Over the last few years there have been some exceptional runners—Sunday Silence and Easy Goer come to mind—but there has also been a general falling off in the quality of American racers. Today's horses do not photograph well in the reflected light of yesterday's champions.

Just 20 years ago next week, Secretariat dispelled the most ancient notions of time and pace when he blazed through a final half mile in the Kentucky Derby in 46[2/5] seconds, an unprecedented show of stamina and speed, and so launched himself upon a Triple Crown campaign that became the standard against which all 3-year-olds have since been measured. Seen in the perspective of history, his five-week charge through America's most demanding series of races was merely the crowning performance in the grandest three decades of American racing history—an incomparable 28-year span when giants roamed the turf and U.S. breeders churned out champions with a fabulous, nearly solar regularity.

From 1953 to '69, beginning with Tom Fool and Native Dancer and ending with Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters, America's racehorses ranged from very good to great: Swaps, Nashua, Bold Ruler, Round Table, Tim Tam, Sword Dancer, Carry Back, Kelso, Ridan, Jaipur, Northern Dancer, Graustark, Buckpasser, Damascus and Dr. Fager. But the gods of racing were only warming up. In the '70s, in addition to Secretariat, there were two more Triple Crown winners—Seattle Slew and Affirmed (with Alydar at his throat)—and a herd of other champions: the mighty gelding Forego and the flying black filly Ruffian, plus Canonero II, Riva Ridge, Foolish Pleasure and Bold Forbes. In the end there was Spectacular Bid, whose undefeated 4-year-old season in 1980 had all the sudden brightness of a light bulb about to burn out, as, indeed, American racing was about to do.

The long run was over. The earliest seeds of the decline had been planted in the late 1950s and '60s, when the stock of the great private breeders—the Whitneys, the Woodwards and the Wideners—was gradually broken up and sold at auction. Over the ensuing years more American bloodstock went under the hammer, much of it sold to the English, the Irish, the Japanese and the Arabs. Bill Oppenheim, editor of Racing Update, a breeding-industry newsletter published in Kentucky, says that there has been a significant movement of blue-blooded American-bred mares into foreign hands, particularly the Arabs'. Of the five leading sires in Europe today, four of them, Sadler's Wells, Caerleon, Green Desert and Rainbow Quest, were bred in America.

Nothing more vividly illustrates the impact of this gene drain to Europe than the victories last fall of Tenby, Zafonic and Armiger, all owned and bred by Khaled Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms, in the three most important 2-year-old races in Europe. Of the six parents that produced those three colts, five were bred in the U.S.; only the dam of Tenby was not. Today Tenby is the favorite to win the June 2 Epsom Derby, and Zafonic is even money to win the 2,000 Guineas, on the day that Prairie Bayou meets umpteen other undistinguished horses in the Kentucky Derby.

This first Saturday in May is an afternoon we've all been yawning for. During the post parade 135,000 people at Churchill Downs will sit down to sing "Up a lazy river..." and 10 minutes later the biggest crapshoot of the year will begin. The last time I ignored a slow Florida Derby winner, Unbridled in 1990, he wound up winning the Derby. I'm not making the same mistake again. Bull Inthe Heather looks terrific and appears to love this track. He's my horse.