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It's the height of intensity

Expanded, demanding competition fueled by air travel add to stress, strain.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published May 1, 2007


Sunday Overview of how hard it is to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Monday The business of breeding is muddling and weakening the gene pool.

Today Travel, expanded schedule, tougher competition are taking their toll.

Wednesday A new track to the Triple Crown, via synthetic surfaces?

He is a surgeon with one impressive list of celebrity patients, even if they all happen to be horses.

Dr. Larry Bramlage has been tending to the tendons and fixing the broken bones of many a high-profile thoroughbred as a world-renown equine surgeon. He also serves as on-call spokesman for the American Association of Equine Practitioners during NBC's Triple Crown coverage.

Last year, during the broadcast of the Preakness, he provided the expert commentary on the condition of Barbaro immediately after the Kentucky Derby winner broke down.

Simply put, the man knows racehorses, especially when it comes to understanding the physical stress and pounding they endure. The problem has been heightened in the past two decades, Bramlage says, by the expanded and greater intensity of the competition leading to the Derby.

The upshot: It has become increasingly difficult to sustain the full-throttle run necessary to carry one horse to victory in the 11/4-mile Derby, 13/16-mile Preakness - and still have enough left to survive the mile-and-a-half Belmont, the first and last time it will race at that draining distance.

"One of the big issues is that horses generally run harder leading up to the Triple Crown now than they used to as far as the competitiveness of the races, " he says from his office at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. "It used to be somewhat of a tournament, in that the best two or three horses from New Orleans, Florida, New York, California and elsewhere met in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. And we'd find out which one was the Kentucky Derby winner."

Horses in the mid-20th century often competed 10 or more times as 2- and 3-year-olds before the Derby, and they did so because they traveled shorter distances by railroad. "They essentially could race every couple of weeks without having to extend themselves because they would be dominant in their locale, " he says.

Why are things different now?

Believe it or not, jet-setting thoroughbreds.

From trains to planes

Horses no longer are just flying down the track - they're flying to the track. Planes have replaced trains and van trailers as the preferred mode of transporting thoroughbreds long distances, and that has changed everything.

About 20 years ago, shipping horses in the cargo holds of jets became a common practice. That allowed them to travel in hours to the best competition anywhere in the country. The tougher races, including the Breeders' Cup that began in 1984 and has been hosted by 11 tracks from Santa Anita to Aqueduct, have taken a toll.

"Now that regional preparation doesn't happen, " Bramlage says. "You have to run the major races leading up to the Derby. With air travel, horses can be picked up at the drop of the hat and sent across the country to compete in a prep race. So each race is a little more taxing than what it was when horses moved by rail car. And that's changed the run-up to the Derby."

Of course, the run-up requires that a horse race hard - and successfully - simply to qualify for the Derby. The field is made up of as many as 20 horses, based on their graded stakes earnings led this year by Street Sense's $1.482-million. So owners and trainers need to make sure their horses run where their money is. On top of that, the prep races, 46 beginning Jan. 1, according to KentuckyDerby.com, offer dramatically higher purses than in the past - such as the $1-million Florida Derby, the same as the Preakness and Belmont - adding to the incentive to fly horses all over the country to race.

The ramped-up intensity of the competition has made it harder on Triple Crown contenders in two other ways: altering the racing style into a virtual nonstop sprint and increasing potential for injury.

"(In the United States), horses tend to go out much faster for the first part of the race, and they sort of hang on at the end, " Bramlage says. "But in racing in the past in this country, and still in Europe, the horses basically all gallop along for three-quarters of a mile and then race the last half.

"So it's harder on horses to have to run the entire mile-and-a-quarter, pretty much flat-out. Horses nowadays try to stay up in the pace because of the traffic problems coming from behind. And this is all taking a toll on horses that are going to race three times in a five-week period and that have to run harder coming up to the Derby."

View from the saddle

Julie Krone, the only female jockey in the Hall of Fame, agrees. "It seems to be a tougher life on a horse to run sprints their whole life, " says the first woman to win a Triple Crown race, the 1993 Belmont on Colonial Affair. "I don't like horses that have a desire to exert themselves early. I'd prefer to ride a horse that has a relaxed part of a race."

Hall of Fame jockey and NBC analyst Gary Stevens - winner of three Derbys, two Preaknesses and three Belmonts - has a different take: "West Coast racing has always been known for the speed, and the East Coast is still more of a patience and stamina thing. I wouldn't say it has anything to do with jockeys' tactics to get a horse out front fast. What's happened is that the breeders have bred more specifically to show more speed, and it's resulted in a weaker (horse). They're faster, but they don't have the stamina or longevity of the classic American and European lines of thoroughbreds."

Indeed, the post-Affirmed industry favors speed - not durability and endurance. It is a movement ushered in by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who made a name for himself when he bought Terlingua as a yearling in 1977 at Keeneland for $275, 000 and she defeated colts in her first start, the 1978 Nursery Stakes at Hollywood Park. He developed a national stable, with divisions in different regions. Constantly moving his swift horses around the country earned him the nickname "Off the Plane Wayne."

Yet horses bred for speed are high strung, have very economical and fragile skeletal structures and are more susceptible to injury than those bred for endurance and durability.

"So by definition, fast horses will be the most delicate, " Bramlage says. "The truth is, we don't really aspire to stallions who have long, grind-it-out careers. They're just not popular. And if you want to make durable horses, those are the ones you should select from. The stallions that are popular in recent years are the ones who are brilliant for a short career."

But it remains to be seen whether they will be brilliant enough - and sturdy enough - to handle the heightened competition and physical demands required today to win a Triple Crown.