The first Saturday of May always hosts the most well known of the horse races in the United States: the Kentucky Derby. Every year, throngs of people crowd into Churchill Downs, the legendary twin-spire dirt track in Louisville, Kentucky, to watch some of the finest, fittest, fastest three-year-old Thoroughbreds race one and a quarter mile in roughly two minutes.
Dubbed the "Run for the Roses," since the winner is garnished with an enormous cape of red roses, the Derby is the first jewel in the Triple Crown, that ultimate prize in Thoroughbred horse racing. A three million dollar purse (and much fame along with a significant piece of Thoroughbred history) is awarded to the horse that can win three races in succession: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness two weeks later, and then the Belmont, three weeks after the Preakness. The last time a horse won the Triple Crown was in 1978, by a colt named Affirmed. I think we’re about due for another Triple Crown winner, don’t you?
The horse racing industry is an interesting spectacle, to say the least. Despite all the math that goes into understanding split times and purses for trifectas and calculating odds, coupled with the advances in veterinary medicine — such as scintigraphy for finding tricky hidden lameness and endoscopic exams to identify horses that hemorrhage in their upper respiratory tract (called, unimaginatively, "bleeders") — the basis of the industry hasn’t really changed much over the past century. Training programs have stayed the same and even breeding programs haven’t really been shaken up.
If you look at the winning times over the past 137 years (the first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875), you will note the first races were run in roughly two minutes forty seconds (2:40). Then, at the turn of the century, winning times decreased to roughly somewhere around 2:09. Shaving 30 seconds off a race time is quite a feat. However, in the early 1900s, the winning times settled around 2:03ish and there they have stayed for over one hundred years.
Now, in most sports, there’s an almost constant increase in the betterment of the result. People run faster, jump higher, lift heavier weights, swim farther, run farther; you name it and the records keep being broken. Granted, there is always the limit of the human body, but these limits have only just been reached in some sports quite recently, and those limits are still being pushed; there is progress still being made.
In comparison, horse racing is in a slump — a century-old slump. The science indicates that genetic potential just isn’t being tapped. One interesting thing about some of the horses that have won the Derby and continued to win further races and break speed records is that the size of their actual hearts was abnormally large.
Take my personal hero, Secretariat, winner of the Triple Crown in 1973. This gorgeous chestnut specimen of a horse had a heart weighing roughly 22 pounds, which is about three times the size of an average horse heart. This size is due to more than aerobic exercise alone. There’s a theory about something called the "x-factor" that describes how certain Thoroughbred lines carry genes for extra-large hearts — the key (in combo with other things of course) to winning races.
The legendary racehorse Eclipse had an exceptionally large heart as well, and it’s thought that he passed this trait on to his daughters; Secretariat’s mother can trace her heritage back to the daughters of Eclipse. I suppose in a corny way, when someone says a good racehorse has got to have "heart," it’s true in a literal sense as well as figuratively.
Anyway, just some food for thought as you get out your most elegant, extravagant, crazy-looking hat (the more bows and tassels the better, and I believe you get bonus points if there are moving parts), toss down a few mint juleps, and learn (or at least fake) the words to "My Old Kentucky Home." It’s Derby Time!
Dr. Anna O’Brien