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Racing Then And Now

June 2024
1min read

Why Seabiscuit is, quite literally, incomparable

The names jingle in horsemen’s pockets with the bright, weighty ring of precious metal. Secretariat. Man o’ War. Ruffian. Citation. Exterminator. Seabiscuit’s name is among those that clang down the years, but attempting to find his place among the greats is a hopeless labor. The conditions of racing have changed so much over time that definitive ranking of its legends is virtually impossible.

Weight .

Until recently, a major hallmark of greatness was the ability to win while lugging a whopping 130 pounds or more and to beat horses toting far lighter burdens. Seabiscuit shattered a track record under 133 pounds, won while carrying as much as 32 pounds more than his rivals, and finished first or second by a nose in eleven of the thirteen races in which he carried 130 or more. A handful have done better—the track record Dr. Fager set under 139 pounds has stood for thirty years—but today’s tracks lure elite horses to their races by offering them low imposts, so top horses seldom carry more than 127 pounds or face a weight spread greater than 12.

Surface .

Modern tracks are several seconds faster than those of decades ago, so race times aren’t a useful means of comparing horses of different eras.

Distance .

Lexington, the most celebrated horse of the nineteenth century, was at his best at four miles; the 1918 Kentucky Derby victor Exterminator won at two and a quarter miles; 1970's champion, Forego, and 1960's star, Kelso, cemented their greatness in two-mile races. Today there are only two top races on dirt at more than a mile and a quarter; both are just one and a half miles.

Competition .

Horses of past eras had the benefit of coming from small “crops,” the group of horses born annually; since superior horses are rarities, barring fantastic coincidence, the smaller the crop, the easier it is for one gifted horse to dominate. Man o’ War’s awesome record—he lost only once and won by as much as one hundred lengths —may be partly attributable to the fact that he was an enormous fish in a tiny pond of 1,680 North American Thoroughbreds born in 1917. Since then crops have seen explosive growth, to 36,000 today, making top-level competition increasingly formidable; the 1972-73 champion Secretariat, usually cited alongside Man o’ War as the best ever, raced in a crop fourteen times the size of Man o’ War’s. As competitive depth has improved, more and more great horses have had to prove themselves, head to head, against other greats, as Seabiscuit did. Epic rivalries between greats have included Nashua vs. Swaps in 1955; Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, Round Table, and General Duke in 1957; Affirmed vs. Alydar, then Seattle Slew, and finally Spectacular Bid, in 1978-79; and Easy Goer vs. Sunday Silence in 1989. Today’s horses may face the toughest challenge; because of the increasing ease of international horse transport, contemporary stars like Cigar and Silver Charm must test their mettle against elite horses of Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, and the Middle East, from a world crop of 110,000 horses.

—L.H.

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