It is not that centuries of racing have produced no advances in technology, veterinary medicine, equipment and nutrition, but that all these have failed collectively to develop a horse significantly faster than those who raced a century ago. The best horse of the 20th Century was either Man o’ War, who was born in 1917, or Secretariat, a foal of 1970.
The eleven horses capable of winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes at age three-- the Triple Crown, which is the sport’s ultimate and most rare achievement -- emerged between the years 1919 and 1978. In a world steeped in violent confrontation the racing world remains one level of reality removed from the strife, plagues and travails of humankind and several levels removed even from the most acrimonious and consuming of conflicts.
Federico Tesio, the legendary breeder, owner and trainer of a legion of champion horses and two legends, Nearco and Ribot, observed that, during World War II, the horses at his Dormello Stud, in the north of Italy, became oblivious to the explosions of bombs that fell nearby. The sport was conducted in this country during World War II until shortages or manpower and materials brought on a moratorium at the beginning of 1943. Racing was conducted in Saigon through much of the war in Vietnam, was among the last of public events suspended in Baghdad, days before the invasion of Iraq, and the first to be resumed. In a place where many attach little value on human life, Iraqi grooms stayed with their horses during the rain of bombs.
The planet has seen the rise and fall of pagan, Christian and Muslim empires, fascism and communism, endured Caligula, Nero, Attila, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, Castro, Saddam Hussein, the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, radical fundamentalist Islamofascists and reality television, two global conflicts, revolutions, including the one that resulted in the United States, countless civil wars, including our own, centuries of murder in the name of Jesus and Allah, put humans in outer space, suffered plagues and pandemics, disco, an array of recurring natural disasters, the Industrial Revolution, Prohibition, the information age and 9-11 – but a horse is a horse. If it is capable of running six furlongs in 68 seconds or ten furlongs in two minutes, you’ve got something to work with.
If the animal that is engaged in the central activity, the epicenter of a huge and diverse industry that embraces elements as incongruous as agriculture and gaming has not become appreciably faster in at least a century while the actual task has been affected profoundly only by the invention of the mechanical starting gate and the evolution of the American-style posture of riders, which moved the burden of weight from the back to a position over the withers and greatly diminished its impact on performance, the racing experience is profoundly different than it was when this was really the “Sport of Kings.” -- PM