Love to Run!
By Patrick F. Cannon
The Thoroughbred horse is bred to run, and only to run. Every one that steps on to the race track traces back to native English mares bred to one of only three imported Arabian stallions. The Arabians added spirit and endurance to the speedy local mares, creating a breed that could carry that speed over longer distances.
That was a bit over 400 years ago, and the breed has been closed for almost that long, i.e., only Thoroughbreds bred to other Thoroughbreds are recognized. And they are the only breed I’m aware of that must be bred naturally; no artificial insemination is permitted, While they are bred in most states, the center of the Thoroughbred breeding industry in the United States is the area around Lexington, Kentucky. In Europe, Ireland has become the leading breeding center, but England and France are also important. Japan and Australia also have their claims. But no matter where they’re bred, they’re all related.
The Thoroughbred does not have to be convinced to run; it wants and even needs to run. If you were to visit any of a number of farms in Lexington, you would see the proof of this. Farm visits are best done in the fall, since the late winter and early spring are the prime breeding seasons, and many farms are closed to the public. By the fall, however, most foals have been weaned and some farms will grant you access. If you go, you’re likely to see a group of weanlings together in a paddock. They may be grazing when you arrive, but eventually they will simply begin running as a herd, just as they would in the wild.
Even after their racing careers are over, they continue to run. When my children were small, we visited Spendthrift Farm, then the home of Seattle Slew. He was alone in a paddock, and the kids climbed on the fence to look at him. He was on the other side of the paddock and when he spotted them, he ran across at full speed and stopped in front of them. As I recall, it was my daughter Beth (sorry Patrick if I misremembered) who put her hand out to touch him, whereupon a farm worker yelled “get you hand back. He’s a mean one and might bite you!” Imagine, almost being bitten by a Triple Crown winner! (If you ever want to visit a farm in Lexington, I suggest you consider contacting one of the following farms and make an appointment: Claiborne, WinStar, Coolmore, Lanes End or Three Chimneys. If you go in October, you can also take in the races at Keeneland, whose next door neighbor is the legendary Calumet Farm, breeder of 8 Kentucky Derby winners.)
While this is not the place for a primer on breeding, its basic principle is you “breed the best to the best to get the best.” Tapit, for example, the leading sire in North America for the last three years, is the great-great grandson of Seattle Slew, who himself is a descendent of Bold Ruler, who was the sire of Secretariat.
I attended my first Thoroughbred race in 1957. Looking for something different to do, I took the Illinois Central train direct to Washington Park in Homewood, Illinois. It was then one of two major tracks in the Chicago area, the other being Arlington Park in Arlington Heights. Both were then owned by the Lindheimer family. I won’t go into their history, but only Arlington remains after Washington Park burned down.
I have previously written about the decline of racing in Illinois, but in their heyday (1920s to roughly the 1970s), they were as important as any tracks in America. I was too late to see them, but Triple Crown winners like Citation and Whirlaway raced there, as did Nashua and Swaps in a famous 1955 match race. The first great horse I saw was Round Table, who won important races at both tracks and was Horse of the Year in 1958. An iron horse, he won 43 of the 66 races he started, retired as the world’s leading money winner, and went on to a highly successful stud career.
In the years to come, other great horses I saw run included Dr. Fager, who ran a mile at Arlington Park in 1968 in 1 minute, 32-1/5 seconds, still the world record for a dirt track. And he did it carrying 134 pounds, a weight no horse in this country is ever asked to carry now. He broke the record set two years earlier by the great Buckpasser, who won the Arlington Classic in 1 minute, 32-3/5 seconds on his way to being named Horse of the Year.
But the greatest horse ever to run at Arlington Park, and the greatest of the last half of the 20th Century, was Secretariat. Alas, I didn’t see the race in person, but on June 30, 1973, he ran in an invitational race, winning by 9 lengths in 1 minute, 47 seconds. This was his first start since winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in an other-worldly 2 minutes, 24 seconds for the 1-1/2 miles. The next fastest time for the race was a full two seconds slower. Secretariat also owns the track record at Belmont Park for 1-1/8 miles, completing the distance in 1 minute, 45-2/5 seconds. And his Kentucky Derby time of 1 minute, 59-2/5 seconds still stands as the race and track record.
As great as he was, he was fed roughly the same diet – hay, oats and water – as the slowest plug. He never complained, nor ever did a stupid dance when he crossed the finish line. He was rewarded with several years of an active love life. While a successful sire, he never produced his like, but how could he have? He died relatively young at 19, the victim of laminitis, a hoof disease that can now usually be cured. When Jeanette and I visited Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, we saw his grave and his former stall in the stallion barn. The horse cemetery also contains the grave of the great Round Table, the horse that made me a fan forever.
Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon