The lament that our modern Thoroughbred racehorses are not producing as many speed records as those in the past may be heard from time to time. I did some basic research on this trend from the Daily Racing Form's Chart Books and Racing Manuals that I have in my library. I tried to pick time references that would give me approximately 10 year increments over the last century. This study is on going. I wanted to compare how many horses through the decades were able to equal or surpass American Speed Records. I know! It may be a fool's errand to try to compare a racehorse of today with those of the past. This is a pursuit that will come to no clear truths other than the impossibility of it all. Nevertheless, I find trends interesting and fodder for conjecture. You may take from the below graphs and data whatever conclusions you may feel comfortable with, as will I. These figures are taken from the American speed records for the more common distances of six furlongs, 1 mile, 1 mile/70 yards, 1 mile & 1/16, 1 mile & 1/8, 1 mile & 3/16, and the 1 mile & half. The record equalers and surpassers are commingled into one overall bar for each time increment. Hopefully, we will be able to view trends.

From the height in achievement seen in the mid-20th century, a continual downturn in record performers can be observed thereafter.

Individual racehorse numbers have increased dramatically in recent times. One would normally assume that a larger pool of performers would likewise produce more exceptional performers. Such is not the case.

The number of carded race events has also increased dramatically in modern times. Again, one logically would assume that more contested events involving more horses should produce more opportunities to lower records. Such is not the case.

     I find extremes very interesting when they occur in nature. Often there is a good reason behind some observable anomaly. Viewing the above graphs seems to suggest a major decrease in speed records in our modern times and there ought to be a good reason for this! Do not our experts tout this new century as being the best ever for technology as related to equine health, track surfaces, tack, nutrition, etc.? Do we not find more horses racing in more and richer events than ever before? Are our breeding farms ever more elaborate and steeped in proven breeding theories? Even more perplexing, we observe with this decrease in record performances, there was an extreme increase in numbers of individual horses racing and number of racing events carded. The question is why? What makes speed in our Thoroughbred and why does this speed seem to have lapsed in the last few decades? Some of the common variables for our sport may be seen in the breed itself. Representative individuals of the breed are constantly evolving. Training methodology may have changed. Also, riding styles, track surfaces, number of racing dates, advanced tack design, new medications, number of individuals competing, etc. may all have their influence on speed records. Then there is the view that the biologic horse can only go so fast and no faster. Have we hit this proverbial brick wall in performance increases? Another view is the "freak" theory. That those horses that can produce speed records are freaks of nature and should not be used as a gauge for breed improvement at any time in Thoroughbred history. There are, of course, truths to all of these points and fallacies, but I tend to dismiss most of them as not really worthy when given close consideration. It is so easy to lose sight of the forest by viewing only the closest trees. You will have to find your own big picture and look beyond what may appear obvious.

     Depending on who you ask, you will get a different opinion. It is only human nature for the specialist to view his discipline as the primary influence on his world in general. For example, the trainer often views the conditioning program as paramount. The veterinarian will view the therapeutics sphere of racing as most important. The farrier may view improved racing plates as the key. The trackman will view his carefully manicured racing surface as the cause. These self-interests will go on and on. All of these biases aside, I find Dr. Robert Cook's views in his Specifications for Speed in the Racehorse, generally refreshing and enlightening though one must take into account that he is a veterinarian throat/windpipe man. What he has to say is food for thought and should not be lightly dismissed.

     He points out a very vital fact about the Thoroughbred race horse. What is the one thing absolutely required in immediate time for a horse to compete successfully against others? Air, oxygen to be more exact. A horse can run without being fed that day, he can run without water, he can run without human intervention of any kind, but he absolutely must have oxygen to move at that precise moment. Respiration is vital for life and competition. You may have a superior race horse in all other respects, but you remove his capability to efficiently provide his body access to oxygen with corresponding exhalation of wastes and he is doomed. We have all seen the perfect individuals that are conformation and pedigree exquisite but could not beat a fat man! We have also seen horses prepared immaculately by trainer and groom and rode to perfection without achieving much success at all on the track. One thing is for sure, we have never seen a racehorse with an impaired breathing problem, ever, do well in competition. Always look to the variables of crucial importance! Only there within, may lay the truth in analyzing complex systems governed by limiting processes.

     To make sense out of such a complex sport of many variables, a perspective of priorities is a must. Without the presence of oxygen, muscles will not move, the mind will not respond, and the body will not compete. We all know how quickly an inserted sponge can affect performance in the tampered racehorse! Stride length and stride rate is often pointed to as making speed. However, Dr. Cook points out that "…speed is probably governed more by the ability to breathe than by the ability to stride." Rate and depth of breathing in the racehorse is intimately linked to stride length and stride rate of that same horse. And Dr. Cook goes on to write that the most important factor limiting respiration is resistance to airflow found mostly in the throat and voice box. A running horse takes one stride for every breath. Breathing seems to govern striding in the racehorse. As Dr. Cook writes: "The deeper the breath, the longer the stride. The classic racehorses have the longest stride. As length of stride seems to be governed by ease with which a horse can breathe, rather than by the length of leg, the easy breathers are the best racehorses."

     So, what comes in second on our priorities list to breathing? Personally, I think it is still something that must be intimately linked to breathing efficiency and that would be conditioning. It is the training program that hones the breathing apparatus of the racehorse for maximum efficiency. You can run a horse with flawless breathing conformation, but if he is not conditioned to compete most efficiently at the distance he is entered, he will fail. It doesn't matter if he has the biggest natural heart, the most prolific pedigree, the genetically superior natural speed, the best jock, etc—he will most likely fail and the longer the race the more certain that failure will be. Air flow and the training program designed to condition respiration under stress are the two requisites of priority for speed in the Thoroughbred. All others are dwarfed by their importance. The trends shown in the above graphs probably are influenced by those two variables more than any other, a healthy airflow path and a properly conditioned animal. I feel that our modern trends to under-train our horses, particularly during the initial foundation stages of a racehorse's program, in the last 20 years or so is a major detriment to obtaining top performance from our modern horses and the lowering of our current records. I do not feel that the American Thoroughbred has hit a physiological barrier. Our breed has the capability of sustaining a high rate of speed, longer, over a racing event than ever before. Conditioning is a key.

American Records as of 1910:

Races carded: 6,501 events
Individual horses competing: 4,180 animals
¾ mile ------ 2 horses equaling the record in Dec, 1908 and July, 1909(1:11)
1 mile ------- Dec, 1908 (1:37.1)
1 mile&70--- 3 horses equaling 1:42.1 in Aug, 1909, Nov, 1909, and June,1910
1 mile&1/16---Aug, 1909 (1:43.2)
1 mile &1/8 ---Dec, 1908 (1:50)
1 mile & ¼ ---2 horses equaling 2:02.4 in July 1904 and July 1910
1 mile & ½ ---July, 1898 (2:30.1)
Note: Ten records were equaled or reduced within 10 years of 1910 with the most distant record being 12 years off. Ten horses qualify for the above speed record graph.

American Records as of 1926:

Races carded: 12,065 events

Individual horses competing: 7,218 animals

¾ mile ----------Jan. 1914 (1:09.3)

1 mile ----------Sept, 1923 (135.2)

1 mile & 70----2 horses equaling 1:41.3 in May 1918 and May 1919

1 mile & 1/16-Sept, 1923 (1:42.1)

1 mile & 1/8 ---Sept, 1926 (1:48.3)

1 mile & ¼ ----June 1913 (2:00)

1 ½ --------------Sept 1920 (2:28.4)

Note: Five of these records were within 10 years of 1926 with the most distant being 13 years off.Six horses qualify for the speed record graph from this year increment.

American Records as of 1937:

Races carded: 16,250 events
Individual horses competing: 11,515 animals
¾ mile -----------Oct, 1935 (1:09.1)
1 mile ------------June, 1932 (1:34.2)
1 & 70------------2 horses equaling 1:40.3 in Oct, 1927 and Sept 1935,
1 & 1/16---------Dec, 1934 (1:42)
1 & 1/8 ----------April 1936 (1:47.3)
1 & ¼ ----------June 1913 (2:00)
1 & ½ -----------2 horses equaling 2:28.3 in June 1927 and June 1937.

Note: Six of these records were obtained in 10 years of 1937 with the most distant being 24 years off. Eight horses qualify for the speed record graph for this increment of 10 years.

American Records as of 1948

Races carded: 25,388 events
Individual horses competing: 20,254 animals
¾ mile -------Oct, 1947 (1:08.2)
1 mile --------equaling of the record, Oct, 1948 (1:34.2)
1 & 70 -------Aug, 1945 (1:40)
1 & 1/16 -----Oct, 1947 (1:41)
1 & 1/8 -------2 horses equaling 1:47.3 in April 1936 and Oct 1948 (1:46.4),
 1 & ¼ -------Oct, 1948 (1:59.4)
1 & ½ -------Sept, 1942 (2:27.3)

Note: All 7 records were obtained in less than 10 years of 1948 and qualify for the above speed record graph..

American Records as of 1958:

Races carded: 33,325 events
Individual horses competing: 28,099 animals
3/4 mile---Nov 2, 1957 (1:08)
1 mile ----June 9, 1956 (1:33.1)
1mile/70----Sept 6, 1958 (1:39.1)
1 & 1/16-----June 23, 1956 (1:39)
1 & 1/8-----equaling of this record by 5 different horses from 1950 to 1958! (1:46.4)
1 & 3/16---Oct 24, 1953 (1:52.3)
1 & 1/4----June 24, 1950 (1:58.1)
1 & ½ ---June, 1957 (2:26.3)

Note: That all 7 records were obtained in less than 10 years of 1958. A grand total of 12 efforts in this ten year span qualify for the above speed graph.

American Records as of 1969:

Races carded: 52,315 events
Individual horses competing: 45,808 animals
¾ mile -------- Dec, 1966 and equaled again on June, 1969 (1:07.2)
1 mile -------- Aug, 1968 (1:32.1)
1 mile/70 ----- Oct, 1964 (1:38.4)
1 & 1/16 ------ June, 1956 (1:39)
1 & 1/8 ------- Sept, 1969 (1:46.1)
1 & 3/16 ------ Oct, 1953 (1:52.3)
1 & ¼ -------- June, 1950 (1:58.1)
1 & ½ -------- Oct, 1964 (2:26.1)

Note: Six records were equaled or lowered in less than 10 years of 1970 and will go on the graph..

American Records of 1981:

Races carded: 70,882 events
Individual horses competing: 72,205 animals
¾ mile ---------- Sept, 1972 (1:07.1)
1 mile ---------- Aug, 1968 (1:32.1)
1 mile/70 -------- Oct, 1964 (1:38.4)
1 & 1/16 --------- June, 1956 (1:39)
1 & 1/8 -------- Sept, 1973 (1:45.2)
1 & 3/16 -------- July, 1973 (1:52.2)
1 & ¼ ---------- Feb, 1980 (1:57.4)
1 & ½ ---------- June, 1973 (2:24)

Note: Five records were equaled or lowered in less than 10 years of 1981 and that number will be in the above speed record graph..

American Records as of 1991

Races carded: 79,305 events
Individual horses competing: 79,036 animals
3/4 mile ----- March, 1987 (1:06)
1 mile ------ Aug, 1968 (1:32.1)
1mile/70 ----March, 1984 and Feb, 1991 (1:38.2)
1 & 1/16 ---Oct. 1983 (1:38.2)
1 & 1/8 --- April, 1988 (1:45)
1 & 1/4 --- Feb, 1980 (1:57.4)

1 & 1/2 --- June, 1973 (2:24)

Note: Five records were equaled or lowered in 10 years or less of 1991.

American Records as of 2002:

Races carded: not available at this time
Individual horses competing: 72,384 animals
¾ mile ----- April, 1995 (1:06 3)
1 mile ------Aug 1968 (1:32.1)
1 mile/70---July, 1993 (1:38.1)
1 & 1/16 ---Oct, 1983 (1:38.2)
1 & 1/8 ----April, 1988 (1:45)
1 & 3/16 ---Feb, 1976 (1:51.2)
1 & ¼ ------Feb 1980 (1:57.4)
1 & ½ ------June, 1973 (2:24)

Note: There have been only 2 records lowered in the last 10 years of 2002.

This photo is an excellent example of the lack of sophistication of grooming tracks in the early 20th century. You can see and imagine how hard the average track was back then. A hard track promotes speed, but it is thought that more breakdowns will occur as a result. However, I suspect that if a horse is habitually conditioned on such footing that breakdowns may not be as prevalent as us moderns may surmise. Bone is a very dynamic tissue that needs stress to know how to protect itself from stress. Harder track surfaces are absolutely one reason why race records were faster back then

The above is an old photograph of the race mare, Jenny Burn, pictured on the Lawton, Oklahoma race track back in the 1910s era. Note how hard this track is and the lack of a cushion that is not comparable to today's norm of a deeper surface. I would guess this was quite typical of most tracks' surfaces back in that day and age. Also note the inscription that this mare has just been timed a half in :48 1/2 that day. Probably a pretty impressive speed for that class of track.

Racing Officials of the old St. Louis Fair race track.  It the rear of these racing gentlemen stands the old elephant in harness in which he drew the track harrow and drags employed in conditioning the running track. I bet one will not get much cushion on a track using even this unusual heavy duty machinery!