In recent years, much has been written and said about the alleged declining durability of North American racehorses and how Thoroughbreds have increasingly been bred for speed at the expense of stamina.  As one indicator of the American Thoroughbred’s ability to carry speed over 1 ¼ miles, I looked at data from the Kentucky Derby to see how the winners’ times have trended since the Derby distance was changed in 1896 from 1 ½ miles to 1 ¼ miles.  Following is a summary of my calculations condensed mostly into ten-year components.

Average winning time for:

2010-2019.  2:03.92
2001-2009.  2:01.99
1990-2000.  2:02.27
1980-1989.  2:02.46
1970-1979.  2:01.78
1960-1969.  2:01.68
1950-1959.  2:02.54
1940-1949.  2:04.90
1930-1939.  2:04.54
1920-1929.  2:06.70
1910-1919.  2:06.36
1900-1909.  2:09.58
1896-1899.  2:07.81

(From 2001 to the present the Derby was clocked in tenths of seconds. From 1906 through 2000 it was clocked in one-fifth seconds. From 1896 through 1905 the race was clocked in one-fourth seconds.)

As speed figures demonstrate, such factors as track condition and weather affect performance on any given day.  With this in mind, it is still revealing to look at the twists and turns of Kentucky Derby winning times since 1896.  From 1896 through the 1930s, winning times markedly improved…and leveled off in the 1940s. Subsequently, average winning times decreased in the 1950s through the decade of the 1960s and stabilized in the 1970s.  Since then, average winning times have increased slightly. 

It could be that the American Thoroughbred reached its genetic speed ceiling for a 1 ¼ classic race fifty to sixty years ago and the breed has regressed somewhat since…or at least not improved. While no hard conclusions can be drawn with a data set from one classic race, it is plausible that North American foal crops of recent decades are not as suited genetically for the 10-furlong distance as their predecessors from the ’60s, and ’70s.  Another hypothesis is that trainers in the modern era are not as skilled as their forerunners in preparing racehorses for classic distances. These explanations are, of course, not mutually exclusive and both likely contain an element of truth. 

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business


Linda Rice is arguably the best female racehorse trainer in the United States.  Until recently, she trained the 3-year-old colt Max Player.  After Max Player finished third in the 2020 Travers, his owners, George Hall and SportBLX, moved the colt from Ms. Rice’s barn to Steve Asmussen’s stable.  Mr. Hall said that Ms. Rice had done a “spectacular job” with Max Player, but wanted a trainer with “experience and infrastructure at Churchill” to prep the colt for the Kentucky Derby on September 5.

Regardless of how accustomed and hardened a trainer becomes to the vagaries of dealing with owners, episodes like this one have to hurt psychologically, even if owners’ reasons for moving their horses make sense.  However, in sports, incidents of coaches and managers (and horse trainers) being terminated are so commonplace that they are taken for granted by the media and public. 

In the National Football League, for example, some of the most successful head coaches of all time were fired at least once in their careers, including George Allen, Paul Brown, Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy, Jimmy Johnson, Tom Landry, and Mike Shanahan.  A similar list could be comprised in any major sport. 

It should be of some consolation to an accomplished horse trainer like Ms. Rice that plausibly the greatest coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick, was fired.  On the other hand, from a horse owner’s perspective, it is instructive to reflect on the fact that, since 1969, the storied Pittsburgh Steelers have won six Super Bowls and had only three head coaches. Sticking with competent individuals in good and bad times is a path to enduring success.

Linda Rice handled the transfer of Max Player with aplomb and class by tweeting “We are disappointed to see him go, but we wish George Hall and SportBLX the best of luck.” 

Here’s wishing Linda “best of luck” in eventually winning the Kentucky Derby.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business


Churchill Downs Inc. and Penn National Gaming are the two biggest publicly traded companies in the United States owning horse-racing tracks, using stock-market capitalization as the criterion.  Both own a large portfolio of regional casinos in the United States.

According to recent stock prices, the market capitalization for Churchill Downs Inc. is approximately $6.9 billion and the value of Penn National Gaming is about $7.2 billion.  How do these figures compare to the ten most valuable sports teams around the globe? 

Following are recent estimates from Forbes magazine of the most valuable sports franchises in the world.  The numbers in parentheses designate how much the current owners paid for their franchises.

Dallas Cowboys $5.5 billion ($150 million)
New York Yankees $5 billion ($8.8 million)
New York Knicks $4.6 billion ($300 million)
Los Angeles Lakers $4.4 billion ($268 million)
Golden State Warriors $4.3 billion ($450 million)
Real Madrid $4.3 billion (not available)
New England Patriots $4.1 billion ($172 million)
Barcelona $4.02 billion (not available)
New York Giants $3.9 billion ($500 million)
Manchester United $3.81 billion ($1.4 billion)

When the pandemic began to take a toll in March 2020, forcing most casinos and racetracks to close, Churchill Downs stock plunged to a low of $52.90 per share, giving it a market capitalization of $2.1 billion.  Similarly, Penn National Gaming stock ebbed at $3.75 per share, with an imputed market capitalization of $516 million.  Since then, the stock prices of both companies have soared, making them more valuable than any sports franchise…at least temporarily.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business