As Orb charged to the wire at Churchill Downs last weekend, he established his clear superiority to the other 18 thoroughbreds on horse racing's biggest stage, the Kentucky Derby.
But compared to Derby champions of the past, Orb's time is less impressive — his 2:02.89 run doesn't rank among the top 10 in the race's history. It is slower than the times of many winners from the 1950s and 1960s, and well behind Secretariat's 1973 record. Blame the muddy track? Fair enough, but none of the past decade's Derby winners recorded a top 10 time either.
This is hardly a Kentucky phenomenon. Among recent Preakness winners, only Curlin in 2007 recorded a time that ranks among the 10 fastest in that race. Recent winning times in the Belmont Stakes were even slower compared to historical standards
Triple Crown thoroughbreds are not running as fast as they used to. And those in the racing industry cite any number of reasons, including lax training schedules, new track surfaces and breeding that stresses short-distance speed.
"In general, American horses have not been as good as in the past, and they have not been as good at the classic distances," said longtime racing writer Andrew Beyer, whose analysis of running times is used throughout the industry. "I haven't seen horses in the last 20 years that deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Seattle Slew or Secretariat or Affirmed."
The discussions about speed come as Orb — and Baltimore — prepare for the 138th running of the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course next Saturday. The race, annually the largest sporting event in Maryland, drew a record crowd of 121,309 last year, and organizers said ticket sales were up nearly 10 percent with the race a week away.
In the early 1970s, Beyer devised "speed figures" for each race, accounting not only for raw times but for track conditions. Even by those figures, which make it easier to compare races across decades, recent winners of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont have run at speeds below historical norms.
Forty years after he won the Triple Crown, Secretariat still holds the record in each race.
This stands in stark contrast to human performance, where time records fall every few years in running and swimming.
Consider Mark Spitz, who was the Secretariat of swimming, winning seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics. His records range from 5 to 10 seconds slower than those of Michael Phelps, meaning that by the stopwatch, Spitz wouldn't have even belonged in the pool at the 2012 Olympics.
In running, Jim Hines set a 100-meter world record at the 1968 Olympics. Now Hines' time is no longer among the 300 fastest in history, and the 10 fastest sprints have all been run since 2007.
The question then: Why has U.S. thoroughbred performance in the biggest races stalled?
The explanations are varied and often conflicting. Some analysts say American breeding has focused too much on producing precociously fast 2-year-olds rather than durable racehorses built for the duress of the Triple Crown. In a related issue, some say the genetic pool has become too narrow, with too much emphasis on a few prominent sires.
Others blame modern training, saying the best horses are underworked and too many mediocre horses are pointed toward the Kentucky Derby.
And then there are those who say the whole issue is overblown. These defenders of the modern horse say thoroughbreds are trained to win races, not set time records. Besides, they add, the tracks themselves are kept slower these days because safety, not raw speed, is the chief concern.
"There's an internal debate in the sport about this very topic," said NBC horse racing anlyst Randy Moss. "If you look at most tracks and most stakes times, the fastest times are relatively recent. But if you look at it through the prism of the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, it's a different story. And that's partly because of Secretariat, the greatest racehorse of the last 50 years."
On one side of that debate are analysts such as Beyer, who have crunched the numbers and found recent Triple Crown horses wanting.
But Jerry Brown, a statistically minded New York handicapper who founded the service Thoro-Graph, looks at the same numbers and comes to a different conclusion. Brown's studies have found that track surfaces are significantly different than they were in the 1970s, with as much as an inch more cushioning and more sand as opposed to hardened clay.
"It's like they're running in a sandbox," he said of contemporary racehorses.
Accounting for this difference, Brown concludes that many of the most impressive runs in Triple Crown and other races have come in recent years. In fact, a 3-year-old filly named Dreaming of Julia recently delivered the best performance Brown has measured in his 31 years of analyzing races. Orb's Derby run was among the three best Brown has measured in that race.
Brown disagrees with those who say thorougbreds haven't benefited as much as human athletes from advances in medicine, nutrition and training. He notes that harness racers, who run on surfaces that have hardly changed over the generations, are much faster as measured by raw times. Thus he believes that if Orb — owned by Baltimore County resident Stuart Janney III — could be magically transported to a 1970s track, the colt would likely be 8-10 lengths faster than Triple Crown competitors from that era.
"Basically, all athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than they've ever been," Brown said. "And that includes horses."
He is hardly alone in his defense of the modern horse.
"Horse racing is based on who gets to the wire first under the circumstances, and the circumstances vary so much from race to race, track to track, and year to year, that it's hard to compare one year from the next based on race times," said Anne Peters, a longtime Kentucky breeder.
Josh Pons notes that like champions of the 1970s and 1980s, Orb was bred to run at longer distances from some of the stoutest bloodlines in American racing. Pons can't see any logical reason why the horse would be weaker or slower than champions of other eras, though he says differences in track surfaces make the comparison difficult.
"All you can do is show up and beat the best they put against you," said Pons, who, along with his brother Mike, stood Orb's sire, Malibu Moon, at their Country Life Farm in Bel Air.
"It's the same question you ask in any sport. You know, how would the current guys in the NBA do against Bill Russell?" he added. "But if you take [Orb] back to one of those 1970s races and pop the gate, I think he's right there."
Those who question the quality of contemporary champions, however, say there's simply too much evidence of decreased speed over too many Triple Crown races.
"I don't know if it's a permanent condition or a historical blip," said Beyer, a longtime racing writer for The Washington Post and Daily Racing Form. "But I don't know many people who know the business who would argue that nothing has changed."
He places the peak of the American thoroughbred in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when the breed experienced genetic payoff from an influx of European stallions brought to the U.S. in the years after World War II.
Since then, he and others say, American breeders have sought to produce horses that mature young and run fastest over shorter distances. Some old-school horsemen see this as a byproduct of a wider instant-gratification culture.
"There's no question that the mind-set of the American breeder is to like sprinters or milers," said Geoffrey Russell, director of sales at Keeneland in Kentucky, which holds the sport's most popular yearling auctions. "Our horses are fast, but a majority of our races are not run at 11/4 or 11/2 miles. So you get into a chicken-or-egg question: Has the breed changed because of the shorter distances, or have we made the races shorter because the breed has changed? The answer is somewhere in the middle."
At 1 3/16 miles, the Preakness is the shortest Triple Crown race and is considered the most comfortable run for today's sprinters.
Russell doesn't believe times are terribly important, given the sharp differences in race conditions, but he says racing fans may have seen the limits of thoroughbred performance. "It gets to a point where I don't see how you go any faster," he said, reflecting on freakish talents such as Secretariat.
The pedigree problems are real, says William Nack, one of horse racing's greatest chroniclers. But Nack is just as bothered by the state of throughbred training.
Nack followed Secretariat step by step through his Triple Crown run and remembers how often the great champion ran as a 2-year-old, how hard he trained in the weeks leading up to his biggest races.
"He was really a racehorse," Nack said. "He had the bone density and the body development. And the only way to build that is by running. Why are some of these trainers only starting their Derby horses two or three times as 2-year-olds?"
The human factor
Few have a more interesting perspective on the issue than Bob Bowman.
Bowman coached Phelps to 22 Olympic medals and dozens of world-record swims, so he knows about pushing the boundaries of human performance. The Monkton resident has also bred champion racehorses and regards them as among the most beautiful athletes in the world.
Bowman attributes the leaps in human performance to several factors, including the ability to use technology and research to make subtle improvements in technique. Humans also have the ability to work toward specific goals such as record times, he says.
For example, Phelps struggled to master his freestyle stroke in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. So Bowman reached out to a friend, Sean Flannery, who had developed a pair of video glasses that could beam a repeated loop of perfect strokes into a swimmer's eyes. Flannery uploaded video of Phelps' freestyle stroke from the 2008 Olympics, which Bowman considered his pupil's pinnacle.
A skeptical Phelps donned the video glasses for about five minutes. When he jumped back in the pool, Bowman says, the swimmer was amazed to find that his old stroke was back. The technology had helped his brain reconnect to a more perfect past.
In horse racing, Bowman says there's no way to use technology to make that kind of tweak in a thoroughbred's stride.
He adds that as brilliant as the best trainers are at understanding their horses' moods, it's hard to give motivational talks to a thoroughbred. By contrast, he spent years appealing to Phelps' athletic pride in preparation for important meets.
There are simply more tools to use with humans, Bowman says, so they will continue shaving seconds off their best times while horses remain largely unable to advance.
He said of great racehorses: "Their technique is their technique. And that's the beauty of it in a way. They're some of the most natural athletes in the world."