Wait, I hear a chorus of screams. Are you crazy, you can’t do that! What about tradition? What about the Triple Crown? What Triple Crown?

History proliferates with stories of great empires gone awry. There’s one inevitability about this story, and that is that every empire the planet has known, has had its end-times. Yet we all know that we live in a new and untested world, where even the historic impact of the last Great Depression of the 1930s, appears to have been averted this time around through a thing called “quantative easing”, by the very country in which the world’s most recent financial crisis broke out. America is undoubtedly the earth’s current superpower, yet its status in that realm has been under siege in recent times by a combination of the rise of China especially, and a measure of complacency on the part of a generation who’ve been indulging the fruits of their predecessors’ ingenuity ever since the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Does this mean that in this context, America has found the formula to arrest the erosion of their own position at the head of international affairs?

At the peak of America’s ascendency, the centre of the thoroughbred universe also shifted westwards, to the point Kentuckians labelled themselves the “Horse Breeding Capital of the World”, a designation to which they were more than entitled during the era of the legendary stallions Nasrullah, Royal Charger, Bold Ruler, Round Table and Princequillo initially, and thereafter that of Northern Dancer, Mr. Prospector, Danzig, Lyphard, Riverman, Blushing Groom and Seattle Slew. Money talks, and the trans-Atlantic trade in the world’s best stallion prospects was pretty much one-way traffic for close on fifty years, before decades of massive investment through the 80s and 90s by the likes of the Coolmore triumvirate, the Maktoums and any number of other peripheral players, returned the initiative back to Europe.

The impact, it seems of this reversion to the “old guard”, has been a significant denuding of America’s genetic reserves, prompting the industry’s leading guru on the topic, Bill Oppenheim, to question whether the United States’ Triple Crown even matters any longer. “Last weekend’s winners were by Europe’s number two and three sires: Dubawi (Ire) (Dubai Millennium) is the sire of the shock (note the pun) 40-1 winner of the G1 English 2000 Guineas, Night of Thunder (Ire), while Dansili (GB) is the sire of Miss France (Ire), winner of the G1 English 1000 Guineas. In Kentucky, both Classic winners were sired by sons of Pulpit, arguably A.P. Indy’s most influential son. That is largely, of course, because Pulpit sired Tapit, the sire of Untapable, who won the GI Kentucky Oaks last Friday in near-stakes record time while recording a Beyer Speed Figure of 107 for the nine-furlong trip. Tapit has now extended his lead on the TDN Year-to-Date General Sire List to more than $1.5 million, with 2014 progeny earnings now over $5 million. He’s already the sire of seven graded stakes winners this year, including 3-year-old Grade I winners Untapable and Constitution, and 13 graded stakes horses leading all North American sires in both those categories as well. You’re long since bored by now about my banging on about the 2006 sire crop, but it now accounts for four of the top six sires in North America in 2014: #1 Tapit, #4 Candy Ride (Arg), #5 Speightstown, and #6 Medaglia DOro. The other son of Pulpit, the sire of the GI Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, is not so mainstream. This is Lucky Pulpit, who only won one stakes race, the five-furlong Smile Stakes on the turf at Arlington Park as a 4-year-old. Lucky Pulpit has been toiling in relative obscurity (up till now) for a $2,500 fee at Harris Farms in California.

He wasn’t a complete unknown even before California Chrome appeared. His first two crops each included a half-million-dollar plus earner; Luckarack ($534,645) in his first crop (2008) and Rousing Sermon ($735,092) in his second. But he’s a lot more famous now, and Lucky Pulpit’s days as an obscure $2,500 stallion are over. California Chrome went into the Derby off two impressive wins in California, the GII San Felipe Stakes (8 1/2 furlongs), won by 7 1/4 lengths with a 108 Beyer; and the GI Santa Anita Derby (nine furlongs), won by 5 1/4 lengths, with a 107 Beyer.

For the last five runnings of the Derby (2009-2013), the winning Beyers were: 105 (Mine That Bird {Birdstone}); 104 (Super Saver {Maria’s Mon}); 103 (Animal Kingdom {Leroidesanimaux); 101 (I’ll Have Another {Flower Alley}); 104 (Orb {Malibu Moon}); average 103.4. Even that is well below the 25-year average (108), but now, if we’re going to start seeing winning Derby Beyers below 100 - well, it’s not a good sign, is it?

There is a precedent for this decline in winning Beyers, too, the GI Belmont Stakes run at 1 1/2 miles. From a 25-year average of 107 (we ran a table with the specifics last May 22, in the six years 2002-2007 the average winning Beyer for the Belmont was 105. For the next six years, 2008-2013, the winner never ran higher than a 100, and the average for the last six years has been 97.4. Last year, speed figure guru Andy Beyer hypothesized that the reason for the decline, if I may paraphrase, is that American breeders don’t breed 12-furlong horses any more. After his team’s calculations confirmed California Chrome’s figure as 97, Andy sent me this note: I think what we saw yesterday was an extension of the Belmont Stakes phenomenon. The last six Belmonts have been 100 or less because nobody is bred to go 1 1/2 miles anymore. When you look at the final half mile of the Derby - a half mile in :51.86 - you might reasonably conclude that nobody is bred for 1 1/4 miles either.

Does it matter? Somebody still wins the races, collects the money, guarantees a stud career (well, except for the two geldings, Funny Cide and Mine That Bird, who seemingly got a sort of movie career, if not a stud career). From the point of view of the betting public and the (still) millions of people who tune in to watch the Derby and Belmont, it probably doesn’t matter that these races are being won by horses who are clearly more effective at shorter distances, especially at nine furlongs. That’s the true distance for two-turn horses in North America now.  For that reason - because in America now a two-turn horse is really bred to go nine furlongs - it does (or it should) matter to the breeder. What the breeder needs to know, really, is how fast was this horse at its best distance? At the very least, in the first half of their 3-year-old year that is almost certainly now nine furlongs. So here’s a proposal for a radical change: Kentucky Derby: nine furlongs, Preakness: 9 1/2 furlongs and Belmont: 10 furlongs.

Wait, I hear a chorus of screams. Are you crazy, you can’t do that! What about tradition? What about the Triple Crown? What Triple Crown? It hasn’t been won in 36 years, though I for one would be delighted if California Chrome wins it this year, and I think I’ll Have Another would have won it in 2012 if he hadn’t gone wrong three days before the Belmont. And tradition?

Well, the Kentucky Derby itself, you know, was originally run at 1 1/2 miles, from its inception in 1875 through 1895. Its 22nd running, in 1896, was its first at 1 ¼ miles. Then there’s the storied GI Jockey Club Gold Cup. Its first two runnings, in 1919 and 1920 (when Man O’ War beat one other horse), were at 1 1/2 miles.

From 1921 through 1975, including the five times in a row Kelso won it in 1960-1964, it was run at two miles. From 1976-1989 it was 1 1/2 miles and since 1990 it’s been run at 1 1/4 miles. That’s fine, and as part of the Belmont fall meet and a key prep for the GI Breeders Cup Classic, 10 furlongs is fine, but the point is, the distance of the race has changed with the times. But the Triple Crown races have not.

The winning figures for the Belmont demonstrate that it’s not the best distance for the winners, unless they’re very moderate winners. The unmistakable trend is that the same is happening with the Kentucky Derby. Sure, it would be a tough sell. Sure, it would horrify so-called purists and  traditionalists. Though I would argue that breeders are the true purists and traditionalists, and they would be better served by seeing the Classic races run at distances at which the winners can really show their stuff. For fillies for example, the Kentucky Oaks is run at nine furlongs, not 10. The GI Coaching Club American Oaks, once the equivalent of the Fillies Belmont, run at 12 furlongs for most of its life when the likes of Ruffian won it, then dropped to ten furlongs and is now contested at nine furlongs. Are the distances of the Triple Crown races really so sacred? Should they be?”.

Extracts from Thoroughbred Daily News