Who was the greatest racehorse of all time? Was horse A better than horse B? Who is the greatest jockey? For years, like in any sport, fans of Thoroughbred racing have debated ad nauseam what constitutes greatness, and if their favorite horse, trainer, or jockey is "better than" someone else's favored choice. To back up their claims, every fan comes up with a list of qualifiers which positions their choice in a more favorable light. Further difficulties arise when comparing horses from different eras, such as Secretariat vs. Citation. In his first racing publication, The Abstract Primer of Thoroughbred Racing: Separating Myth from Fact to Identify the Genuine Gems & Dandies 1946-2003, former Louisville Courier-Journal sportswriter Richard Sowers attempts to "standardize" horse racing records to help fans more accurately compare horses and connections.
Sowers defines 1946 and onward as racing's "modern area", since prior to that year there had been numerous interruptions to racing due to gambling prohibitions and wartime travel restrictions. From 1946 to present, racing has continued uninterrupted. More importantly, the dates of the Triple Crown races have not changed since that year. To standardize the data, in Chapter 1 Sowers defines what he refers to as "major North American races", and the entire book is based solely on these races and no other. Studying the stakes races run each year in North America from 1946 to 2003, he decided on standardizing the data to just 110 "major races" per year, using a number of factors including purse, field size, and quality of the field entered that year. This serves to eliminate the issue of graded stakes wins, which are skewed because race grading did not begin in North America until 1973 and more races are graded today than in the inaugural year of the Graded Stakes Committee. This also eliminates the issue of inflated purses. For example, Citation earned less money in his Kentucky Derby than Secretariat, who earned less than Funny Cide in the final Derby included in the book. Furthermore, before 1984 there was no Breeders' Cup and before 1981 there were no million-dollar races. A complete list of the chosen "major races" is included. Sowers admits that there are limitations by restricting racing to the modern era, most notably excluding the career of Man O'War and most of jockey Eddie Arcaro's career. However, Man O'War does figure prominently in the broodmare sire and sireline statistics, and Arcaro, despite partial inclusion, still ranks high in the standings, a testament to his greatness.
Now that the races have been standardized, in the following chapters Sowers compiled statistics on horses, jockeys, trainers, owners, stallions, dams, broodmare sires, sirelines, and place of birth. In each chapter, he starts with a very useful, textual analysis of the data, explaining who the "best" is in various categories. For example, in Chapter 2, "Racehorses", he ranks horses by age, sex, race distances, versatility on both turf and dirt, weight carrying ability, "runaway victories" (margin of 4 lengths or more), consistency (major races won in 3 consecutive seasons), and horses with an affinity of one particular racetrack (the popular "horse for course" angle). On a few occasions, he uses a points-scoring system to rank horses, where a win is worth 4 points, 2 points for a runner-up finish, and 1 point for third. He continually uses the term "major races" or "major victories" to remind the reader that he is only counting those 110 races per year as described in the first chapter. Obviously, there is never a correct answer as to who is the greatest, but in each category, the numbers tell the story. Following his textual analysis, Sowers includes the data, sorted in a number of formats in order for readers to easily compare horses. For example, Cigar may have won eleven major races during his career, but this is dwarfed by the whopping 24 majors won by category leader Kelso. Using the points system, Bill Shoemaker is the runaway leader among jockeys with 2,087 points, with Laffit Pincay second at 1,555.
Sowers, after very thorough, painstaking research, has made the job of comparing horses from different years easier, and in some cases he has shown that horses and people who were denied Eclipse Award or Hall of Fame recognition may have been deserving but overlooked because the "major races" equalizer was not applied by the voters. Racing history fans will spend hours studying the reams of data Sowers has compiled for their benefit, and may soon get into agreement as to who was truly great.
Clearly, The Abstract Primer of Thoroughbred Racing belongs in every racing fan's library. It is a very unique compilation of racing data since 1946, in a format never seen before. You may have every year of the American Racing Manual or a complete library of racing weekly magazines and stakes results charts, but without Sowers' standardization of major races comparing 1946 with 2003 may well be impossible. Not all fans of racing follow just the top races or the sport's rich and colorful history, but those that do will have an even greater appreciation for racing's upper echelons after reading this book, especially "stay-at-home" fans whose exposure to racing is strictly through televised stakes races and history books. It is an outstanding work that can be referred to every time a debate about Horse A vs. Horse B comes up.
The Abstract Primer of Thoroughbred Racing has a list price of $49.95 and is available from Amazon.com with free shipping in the US.
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