Even before the 90,000 frenzied eyewitness and the 15.3 million riveted TV viewers could catch their collective breath in the wake of Justify’s thrilling Triple Crown coronation, speculation was already rampant over whether America’s freshest-minted sports hero would ever race again. At best, the strapping chestnut colt might forge on for another few races and echo the model set by American Pharoah three years ago: Pharoah breathed new life into horse racing by ending a 37-year Triple Crown drought but then disappeared from the racetrack and our consciousness way too soon, retiring to stud immediately following his rousing 3-year-old season.
No wonder horse racing doesn’t have the huge fan following that it once enjoyed. Supernovas like Pharoah and Justify may be able to capture the public’s imagination with their Triple Crowning glories in the spring of their lives, but the economic realities of Thoroughbred racing and breeding soon turn them into shooting stars gone from view long before they can mature into part of the permanent firmament. Although experts cite many factors to explain horse racing’s declining popularity over the past few decades, no sport could thrive without enduring stars to build a following. Just imagine where basketball might be today if the generation-defining likes of LeBron James were to have retired right after emerging as the NBA’s youngest-ever Rookie of the Year.
Comparing racing’s state today to its last golden age, in the ’70s, one factor becomes abundantly clear: Thoroughbred heroes once stayed on the scene much longer than do their modern-day counterparts. It was commonplace back then for Triple Crown winners to continue racing as 4 year olds, giving fans more chances to cheer for them, bet on them, and bond with them. Affirmed, who in 1978 became the last to sweep the Triple Crown before Pharoah did, encored as a 4 year old by earning 1979 Horse of the Year honors. And although 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat was the rare exception that retired before turning 4, he did follow the most dominating Belmont Stakes coronation of them all with half a dozen more stakes to cap a 21-race career every bit as legendary as the great Man o’ War’s.
Contrast that with American Pharoah’s 11-race career, by far the shortest of any Triple Crown winner’s… until, that is, Justify’s. As it stands, Justify’s entire unblemished career has spanned a grand total of six races over a whirlwind 112 days that launched him from complete anonymity to immortality. The only one of history’s 13 Triple Crown winners never to race before turning 3, he has introduced to the racing lexicon the controversial basketball concept of “one and done” in which the biggest college stars turn pro right after their freshman years. As Bob Baffert, the peerless trainer of both Justify and Pharoah, quipped in the hour before this year’s Belmont triumph, “I’m like a basketball coach: one and done, two and done.”
It isn’t just horse racing’s stars, however. Since the ’70s, the average number of races per Thoroughbred runner has plummeted by a whopping 65 percent from 34 career starts to just 12 today, while the average starts per year has dropped 40 percent from 10 to just 6 today. Even more striking is a comparison of today’s meager averages with those back in the ’40s—horse racing’s all-time golden age, when “The Sport of Kings” reigned as the king of sports and rivaled baseball as America’s most popular pastime. That tumultuous decade alone produced four legendary Triple Crown winners starting with Whirlaway, who followed his scintillating 1941 sweep by topping every poll in ’42 as the nation’s single most popular athlete of any species and climaxing with the great Citation.
These days, horse racing transcends the sports page only for the Kentucky Derby and, on those occasional years like this one when a Triple Crown is on the line for a favorite that has swept its first two jewels, for the Belmont Stakes. But back in the ’40s, horses didn’t even have to win the Triple Crown in order to capture hearts and imaginations across America. In fact, the Triple Crown races were then viewed as a glorified spring training that prepped 3-year-olds for a long career in the major leagues of the handicaps, racing’s heavyweight division where mature older horses slugged it out week after week under backbreaking weights. In a bygone era when Thoroughbreds averaged 45 career starts, it is no coincidence that fans bonded most with the old warhorses who dominated the longest: Whirlaway through 60 races, Seabiscuit 89, Exterminator 100.
The stoutest of all those warhorses was Stymie, who was purchased out of a cheap claiming race by the bargain-hunting trainer Hirsch Jacobs for a paltry $1,500. Failing to win a single stakes until he was 4, Stymie suddenly blossomed into the greatest rags-to-riches Cinderella story the sport has ever known. As gallant as he was durable, he soldiered on through a staggering 131 races—winning 35 of them, a record-smashing $918,485 in purses, and a following that cemented his legend among history’s most popular champions. “The People’s Horse,” as his fervent fans nicknamed him, became a beloved iron horse whose star burned brighter with each passing year and each passing mile. When he was finally retired as the world’s richest racehorse at the grand old age of 8, Stymie had raced a staggering total of 142 miles—or, 135 miles more than Justify has.
To be sure, horse racing has changed dramatically in the intervening seven decades. Today’s Thoroughbred racehorses are decidedly less sound, less rugged, and less durable than their ancestors from the sport’s golden ages—a result, in part, of breeding trends and training practices. Still, that doesn’t mean the cream of the crop—prodigies the likes of American Pharoah and Justify—aren’t sound enough and strong enough to keep chasing purses for at least another year before retiring to the even more lucrative business of breeding.
Linda Carroll and David Rosner are the authors of Out of the Clouds: The Unlikely Horseman and the Unwanted Colt Who Conquered the Sport of Kings, published this spring by Hachette Books.