The Belmont Stakes is known as the “test of champions” because of its 1 ½ mile distance. This was once true but may no longer be so.

A mile and a half is the classic distance in Europe and the ability of a racehorse to stay this route is considered a mark of high distinction. Unfortunately, North America has long since deemphasized distance races and the neglect has been costly.

The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities recently released The World Thoroughbred Rankings for the period December 1, 2010 through May 23, 2011. Not a single racehorse from the United States is in the top ten rankings and only two American racehorses are in the top 20 rankings. Of the 37 racehorses ranked, United States-based racehorses account for eight of the 37 or 21.6%. Animal Kingdom was the best American placing at number 13.

Absent some controlled experiment, it is not possible to say with certainty why American racehorses fare so poorly in the top-10 ranks. Following, however, are some plausible reasons.

First, for approximately the past 30 years, racing interests outside the United States have purchased many of the best-bred American yearlings and in particular the sons of Northern Dancer. Coolmore Stud and Darley were the major buyers. Now these bloodlines are represented by the premier stallions in Europe and Australia. Notably, Galileo and Montjeu are both sons of the Northern Dancer sired Sadler’s Wells. Galileo is the sire of the brilliant 3-year-old Frankel.

Second, owners and trainers in the United States look for precocious yearlings and two-year-olds and seek conformation and breeding that is suited to the shorter races carded in the United States and Canada. The vast majority of the three-year olds that contest the Belmont Stakes will never again run a race of a 1 ½ mile distance. In fact, the vast majority of North American racehorses will never run a race at 1 ¼ miles.

Third, the relatively permissive drug policy in North America arguably has led to racehorses that don’t have the stamina and durability of stock from countries with a much more restrictive drug policy. Racehorses in North America breed on their traits to the next generations and if the breeding stock has genetic deficiencies, generally so will the progeny.

Fourth, trainers from Europe, Australia, and several other locations may generally be more proficient than their North American counterparts in readying horses for classic distances. The reason is straightforward—these foreign-based trainers have more practice because there are many more long-distance races carded at their nations’ race tracks.

A step in the right direction is to ban race-day medication. In several generations, the result could be be a sturdier American racehorse, although the result wouldn’t be known until after it is tried.

Further,  it may again be time to import more stallions (and mares) to improve the American racehorse. For instance, Animal Kingdom is a result of foreign breeding, with his sire coming from Brazil and his dam from Germany; he is ostensibly bred for the turf, but excels on dirt. The great racehorse breeder A. B. “Bull” Hancock imported stallions from Europe and that had a profound effect on American bloodstock and elevated the overall quality.

The question that comes to mind with the Belmont Stakes in the limelight is whether this race really is “the test of champions” or whether the true champions tend to reside in Europe, Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere?

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

Click here to see the International Horseracing Authorities complete ranking of the world’s best Thoroughbred racehorses.