The other morning I was alerted to the fact that after decades of debate, Secretariat has been officially given a time of 1:53.0 for his 1973 Preakness Stakes victory, which now elevates him to the position of record holder for this stakes race. For thirty-nine years Secretariat’s official time for the race had stood at 1:54.4, but there were some irregularities with the timing in the race and many believed that the horse certainly ran faster than this official time. I will not go deeply into the details concerning the previous time or the change, but this is big news even almost four decades later because it means that the great racehorse now officially holds the record in each of the American Triple Crown horse races.
But when I saw that this change had been made, it made me think about this year’s Triple Crown races and how we were potentially robbed of a chance for a Triple Crown winner when I’ll Have Another, the horse that had come from behind to win the first two legs of the Crown, came down with an injury the day before the Belmont Stakes. I thought that the winning time by Union Rags of 2:30.42 was slow and believed that if I’ll Have Another had been in the race, he likely would have won it. Obviously it is impossible to determine what would have happened.
Then I started to wonder about the degree of decline of Thoroughbred racing in the country, or, more specifically, the fact that the horses themselves do not appear to be of the same quality that existed in decades past. So I decided to look at the winning data for all of the Triple Crown races going back to 1926 when all of the race courses were for the first time collectively set at their current distances and I found the results very much interesting.
Starting in 1926, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes have each be run eighty-seven times at distances of 1.25 miles, 1.1875 miles, and 1.5 miles, respectively. The average times for the three races over that period of time are 2:03.03 for the Kentucky Derby, 1:56.62 for the Preakness, and 2:29.24 for the Belmont. But what really stunned me was that the standard deviations for the three race winners followed the opposite pattern than expected. The three standard deviations were 2.04 seconds for the Kentucky Derby, 2.24 seconds for the Preakness, and 1.78 seconds for the Belmont. I would never have guessed that the longest race would have the smallest absolute standard deviation while the shortest race would have the largest absolute standard deviation. It is interesting to note that as a result of these standard deviation figures, Secretariat’s Belmont performance of 2:24 lies nearly three standard deviations outside the mean whereas both his Kentucky Derby and Preakness performances are well within two standard deviations. This serves to illustrate just how impressive Secretariat was in New York that June Saturday afternoon in 1973.
However, as interested as I was in seeing the degree to which Secretariat outperformed other American three-year old Thoroughbreds in these important races over the last nine decades, I was more interested in the trends in performances that might exist. So for each of the three races I calculated the average winning speed during that particular decade. (Starting with the 1920s, I averaged the winning speeds for 1926-1929, then averaged the winning speeds from 1930-1939, 1940-1949, and so on until averaging the winning speeds for 2010-2012.) Table 1 below shows the average winning speeds per decade for each race in miles per hour.
Figure 1 below goes on to put these data in graphical form.
The first thing that I notice when I look at these data is that while it is apparent from the first three years of this decade that three-year old Thoroughbreds are in decline in America, it is a small sample size. And if you look at the data from last decade, you can make the case that that decade was may have been the third best racing decade, at least as it applies to three-year olds in the Triple Crown races. But one thing that should not go unnoticed is that relatively speaking, the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were atrocious decades. There is no other way to put it if you look at the winning times of these races. Though the horses in the first three years of this decade have slowed very much in the Belmont Stakes, they still have performed amazingly better than the horses through the 1940s in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. What I find particularly interesting about this is that the two decades, the 1930s and 1940s, saw no less than seven horses win the Triple Crown. (Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in 1935, War Admiral in 1937, Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946, and Citation in 1948.) There are a few ways to look at this information. It could be that horse breeding and training just had not yet reached their pinnacle yet, and these horses were still pretty good horses for their times, despite what the actual winning times in the Triple Crown races indicated. It could be that these horses (the Triple Crown winners) were truly great horses, but just did not have a whole lot of competition. Or it could be that those “great” Triple Crown champions of seventy to eighty years ago were so-so horses and the class of horses they competed against was far inferior to the horses that we see today.
For several years I have been in awe as I read about the accomplishments of legendary racehorses of the past and in many cases, watched decades-old video of important races. Watching those videos is the only way I could appreciate horses such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, the last three Triple Crown winners. But watching these races on video is also how I came to learn about non-Triple Crown winners such as Dr. Fager and Spectacular Bid. Though I can proudly say that I was alive when Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978, my first vivid memory of a horse race was the famed duel between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in the 1989 Preakness. And then during the 1990s and into the 2000s I made it a point to watch the Triple Crown races annually, hoping that at long last the long drought of an American Triple Crown winner would end, just as it took twenty-five long years for Secretariat to finally accomplish the feat following Citation in 1948. But the years have come and gone, and there still is no Triple Crown winner after thirty-four years. Of course there have been close calls. I remember how agonizingly close Silver Charm and Real Quiet came to winning the Crown in 1997 and 1998, respectively, and I remember that of all the horses that one can say ‘should have’ won the Crown, Point Given was the best of the lot (at least that I saw race, I was too young to see Spectacular Bid race). But one of the things that I’ve heard discussed is that there has been a decline in the quality of Thoroughbred racehorses.
It’s true that if one just looks at the last three years’ (2010-2012) Triple Crown race results and those average finishing times persist throughout the rest of the decade, it can be concluded that the quality of the Thoroughbred racehorses is in decline, particularly in the Belmont, which disturbingly in the last three years has seen a regression of winning times to their slowest consistent levels since the 1920s. However, as already mentioned, this is a limited sample set and it is entirely possible to see a rebound in winning times over the next seven years. But if one ignores for a moment these last three years and compares the 2000s to previous decades, if one uses average winning times of the Triple Crown races as a proxy for Thoroughbred horse quality, then 2000s is no worse than the fourth best of the eight full and two partial decades sampled, behind the 1980s, 1990s, and 1970s. And it can be easily argued that 2000s was no worse or perhaps even better than the fabled 1970s, which saw three legendary horses win the Triple Crown.
Table 2 below would seem to support the idea that the 2000s can be considered a superior decade to the 1970s. In Table 2, I have ranked each of the last eighty-seven years based on the cumulative finish times for the three Triple Crown races during that year. Since the races have all maintained their individual lengths over that time period, this is a useful way to compare the individual years.
Clearly 1973 ranks as number one since, as mentioned before, the change in Secretariat’s official Preakness Stakes time means that he now possesses the fastest time in each of the three races. But while the 1970s also possesses the fourth best year (1978, the Affirmed/Alydar Triple Crown year), ten of the best fifteen years occurred in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. This is a large part of the reason that the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, on average, demonstrated the best winning performances by decade over the last eighty-seven years. Additionally, those three decades also possess better ‘worst years’ than do the other decades (43 in 1986, 53 in 1993, and 50 in 2000). (I should note, though, that if a one year shift is done such that each decade starts with the year ending in numeral one, 1971, for example, some changes will take place. When this is done, the 1970s will become the second best decade, the 2000s will drop to third by average, and the 1990s will drop to fourth. Incidentally, the 1980s will become even better by eliminating a number 29 and accepting number 5. No other changes in order will occur when this is done.)
One thing that should become abundantly clear by looking at these data is that the performances that the likes of Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox (1930), Assault (1946), and Citation (1948) registered on their way to immortality were not very impressive. Each of these horses in winning the Triple Crown ran cumulatively among the ten worst times over the last eighty-seven years. Again, factors such as industry-wide training knowledge and track conditions could have influenced these relatively slow times, but I think that it is improper not to consider these slow times when comparing those supposedly great horses to the horses of today that are said to be in decline. It is a fact that the cumulative winning times over the last two years of the winning horses in the Triple Crown races are superior to all the Triple Crown winners in the data set except the three from the 1970s (Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed). So those great horses of yesteryear (your Citations, Assaults, and Gallant Foxes) may have truly demonstrated incredible performances, but you cannot objectively say that these performances occurred in the Triple Crown races, nor can you demonstrate that they had to defeat truly great horses to accomplish the Triple Crown sweeps.