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Looking Forward by Looking Back: Breeders’ Cup Marathon

Black MariaThis post also appears on

At first glance, the Breeders’ Cup Marathon might seem as though it was designed to attract the European horses bred for longer distances; but while the Marathon is relatively new to the American racing scene, having only been added to the schedule last year, its new 1 3/4 distance is one that would have been familiar to American horses in the past – and is still quite relevant to modern breeders looking to demonstrate the stamina in their bloodlines.

American Eclipse
(1814-1847) was one of the first nationally-famous racehorses; like his British namesake, he retired undefeated. His specialty was winning races comprised of 3-4 mile heats – and he passed on that enthusiasm for distance to his offspring. His 1826 filly, Black Maria (out of his former rival, Lady Lightfoot), was renowned in her day for having won the Jockey Club purse over Long Island’s Union Course in 1832, after running five 4-mile heats (yes, that’s right – twenty miles in total). We quote from Charles E. Trevathan’s The American Thoroughbred, 1905:

“We wonder if there is a horse on the turf to-day that could stand up under such a performance as this? We fear not, for unfortunately, the English dash system of racing has become too popular on this side of the Atlantic for the good of our stock. We have learned to look too much for speed and to pay too little attention to the more valuable quality of endurance…[i]t is a sad commentary upon our system of racing that a purse for a contest of four miles – a four-mile dash, not heats, please bear in mind – fails to secure a run worthy of the name of race.”

But such long-distance contests were not confined entirely to the 1820s and 1830s; 3-mile heats continued through the 1850s, even as single-heat ‘dashes’ were becoming more popular; later, during the Civil War, the Jersey Derby was a 1 1/2 mile ‘dash,’ although elsewhere on the card were 2-mile heats. The 1870s and 1880s saw distances gradually normalizing to those more familiar to the modern eye, and by the early 20th century, longer races had been consigned largely to history.

However, interest in distance races has been bubbling under the surface in recent years. The Brooklyn Handicap is a longer race again (after many changes over the years), and the 13-furlong Gallant Man Handicap was inaugurated last year at Hollywood Park. Keeneland got in on the act in 2008 as well (thanks, in large part, to the presence of the Marathon on the Breeders’ Cup card) with the Fort Harrod Stakes. These races, as well as the few 1 1/2 mile races scattered throughout the country that are Not The Belmont Stakes, may not make up a huge division at present, but there’s time for growth – and anything that encourages breeders worldwide to remember the long-distance horse as a goal is a worthy endeavor.

And it’s not as though that stamina is missing from American bloodlines – modern distance greats like Ireland’s Yeats and Australia’s Makybe Diva both benefit from surprisingly ‘American’ pedigrees. It’s high time we got to see those stamina influence at work here in the States – and that’s why I’m a Breeders’ Cup Marathon fan.

1 comment to Looking Forward by Looking Back: Breeders’ Cup Marathon

  • Steve Munday

    I'm generally in favor of the BC Marathon for the reasons you stated although a mile and three-quarters hardly seems like a "marathon." It would also be nice to see more races run at longer distances because race cards dominated by 6 and 7 furlong sprints is just plain boring. It's chicken and the egg I guess; the racing secretaries card races that attract the most entries.

    However, the fact that few if any major races are run at 1 and 3/4 miles makes bestowing a BC division somewhat suspect. It's another sign of "Breeder's Cup creep" in which every imaginable condition gets it own BC division. I'm sure the 4 furlong "mini-sprint" division (sponsored by Mini Cooper) is coming soon.

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