I can't tell you what Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown will do in this Saturday's Preakness. But I can tell you what he'll be doing a year from now: servicing mares in a breeding shed, for up to $100,000 a date, that amount paid by breeders who hope he'll pass on his championship speed to the next generation of foals.
"When you win the Kentucky Derby, you are a stallion," says Bill Casner, co-owner of WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky., and chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. "You have won the most prestigious race in the world. There's such an economic windfall."
If Big Brown goes on to win the Triple Crown, he may be retired to stud after a mere six races. It was once unthinkable to let such an inexperienced horse near a mare. As breeder Arthur Hancock III told the New York Times recently, his father, "Bull" Hancock, who ran the family's Claiborne Farm from 1957 to 1972, never employed stallions with fewer than 25 starts. But buyers at yearling sales are no longer interested in durability. They're looking for horses that will mature quickly, win the Derby, and allow them to cash in on stud fees. As a result, these wunderkind horses are passing on their genes, producing more and more Thoroughbreds designed for short, brilliant careers. Eight Belles, the filly destroyed after breaking down at the Kentucky Derby, was a granddaughter of Unbridled, who has a record of siring speedy but unsound horses.
There is a way to ensure that the priciest studs are also the most durable: stop restricting the Triple Crown races to 3-year-olds. Instead, open them up to horses of all ages. That would immediately eliminate lightly raced 3-year-old studs from the gene pool because it would be nearly impossible for 3-year-olds to win the Derby, the Preakness, or the Belmont. Horses don't reach their athletic peak until age 4 or 5. A few 3-year-olds have won the Breeders Cup Classic, an all-comers race held in October. But in May and June, when the Triple Crown races are held, 3-year-olds are too immature to beat older horses. The average winning Beyer speed figure in the Kentucky Derby is 109. Top older horses are capable of earning figures over 120.
As Slate explained in 2004, the Triple Crown races are reserved for 3-year-olds because it's intriguing to match up horses as they're growing into their talents. You never know who'll make a big career move on Derby Day.
"What makes the Derby is that it is for 3-year-olds, the best of their generation," says Casner. "What makes it fun and exciting is that their careers are very new. Some horses move forward, and some don't. They come from all different directions, and they come together on the first Saturday in May. They all come to Churchill for the Derby. Nobody ducks the Derby."
The Kentucky Derby may be America's most prestigious race, but the age restriction means it's rarely won by the best horse. The colts who compete in Louisville, Ky., are on the same level as top college basketball players. But while the MVP of March Madness goes on to the NBA, the Derby winner is yanked from the track before he can fully develop his talents. When racing's biggest stars blossom and disappear in a single spring, it's hard for the sport to develop a crossover hero who can get his mug on the cover of Sports Illustrated, get his trainer on The Tonight Show, and pose for a bobblehead doll that winds up on the bedroom shelves of horse-crazy 'tweens.