The American public has been hoping for a Triple Crown winner for thirty-seven years now. According to some, it hasn’t been won in a long time because it is simply harder to win. These knowledgeable people say that with bigger and fresher fields, it’s harder to win all three races, and that the limited amount of time between the races (five weeks) is not enough. However, it has been enough time for eleven horses, and nearly enough time for forty-seven more. The reason we haven’t seen a Triple Crown in decades? No one knows for sure, but two leading reasons may be the use of drugs on race day an the breeding of American racehorses.
Horses that didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness have run in the Belmont for as long as all three races have been in existence. These fresh horses were brought into the Belmont in years colts became Triple Crown winners. In the 1973 Belmont, for example, the year Secretariat became a Triple Crown winner, a fresh horse named Pvt. Smiles ran. He finished fourth. In 1948, Better Self ran fresh in the Belmont and finished second to Triple Crown winner Citation. Triple Crown winners have beaten fresh horses before. Also, the Belmont fields have always varied in size. The largest field (fifteen horses ran) was in 1983. The Belmont has had a two-horse field five times (1887, 1888, 1892, 1910, 1920). There is nothing new in having a nine or ten horse field.
This is not meant to discredit recent reachers-and-missers, such as California Chrome. It is hard to win all three Triple Crown races. It’s hard to win the longest race of the three after winning the two shorter ones with just two weeks of rest since.
However, the failure to win the Triple Crown may be due to the fact that most American Thoroughbreds have run on drugs since 1995. Every Triple Crown was won before 1995. The Kentucky Derby is no longer run on steroids after the fatal breakdown of Eight Belles in the 2008 Derby, won by Big Brown won. However, most other races allow Lasix and other anti-bleeding medication. There is great question as to whether Big Brown was really as good as he seemed, or if the medication enabled him to do as well as he did. That question still constantly hangs over the industry today.
The failing of recent horses to win the Triple Crown can also be attributed to too much inbreeding. Almost every horse currently running in the United States can trace their bloodlines back to Native Dancer at least once. For example, three of four grandparents of Eight Belles can trace their bloodlines back to Native Dancer within the first three generations of their pedigrees.
Additionally, most graded stakes winners in the U.S. in 2014 come from one of five sire lines: Northern Dancer, Mr. Prospector, Bold Ruler, Turn-to, and In Reality. The top two of these five, Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector, are both grandsons of Native Dancer. 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome, for example, contains at least two of the aforementioned sires in the first five generations of his pedigree. There is a declining amount of variety in American breeding, leading to more inbreeding. In the case of California Chrome, Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector both show up twice in the first five generations of his pedigree.
With more inbreeding, racehorses will become more susceptible to genetic disorders. One example of this is the fact that racehorses’ ankles have become thinner over the years. Thinner and weaker ankles unable to support one thousand pounds on muscle and bone charging at forty miles per hour are bound to lead to more breakdowns, and they do. Breakdowns can be attributed to a.) drug use, and b.) inbreeding.
With the same sires dominating the scene, their talents are passed on the most. Of the top five sires in 2014 graded stakes wins mentioned earlier, Northern Dancer and Bold Ruler never won races longer than ten furlongs (1 ¼ miles), Mr. Prospector never won a race longer than six furlongs (¾ mile), and Turn-to and In Reality never won races longer than nine furlongs (? mile). This may not seem to be a big deal, but when it comes to longer races like the twelve-furlong (1 ½ miles) Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic, only Mr. Prospector produced more than four offspring whose progeny went on to win either of those races.
There is no doubt that the American Thoroughbred has decreased in value over the years. The real question is how much has the Thoroughbred downgraded over the decades. And just how much time and money will it take to bring America and its horses back to the top before it’s too late?