Mint condition

Stamina is more important than speed or pedigree -- and it's cheaper

Updated: June 4, 2012, 2:44 PM ET
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine
I'll Have AnotherAP Photo/Patrick SemanskyA new wave of equine science shows that conditioning may be more important than breeding.

WHATEVER HAPPENS at the Belmont Stakes, I'll Have Another might accomplish something more amazing than a Triple Crown. He might drag horse racing into the Moneyball era -- if horsemen heed his lessons.

Thoroughbred racing is an industry that desperately needs some, um, horse sense. Seeking genetic advantages, owners have bid up stud fees to the point that star horses head for payday after just a few turns at the track: Thoroughbreds in North America made an average of only 6.2 starts in 2011, down from 11.3 in 1960. Unfortunately, racing skills aren't as inheritable as many investors believe. Modern breeding is producing horses that aren't much faster but are more fragile and that typically have a hard time earning back what their owners paid for them. "Breed the best to the best and hope for the best" is a common phrase around racing. Here's another: "The best way to end up a millionaire in the horse business is to start out as a billionaire!" It's a sad commentary that the two concepts coexist.

But a handful of pioneers are now placing their bets on conditioning rather than on breeding, and a new wave of equine exercise science has begun to show impressive results. The key is to build stamina in horses, while the rest of the world chases speed. "Two-year-olds that sprint one furlong in 10 seconds bring hundreds of thousands of dollars [at sale], but they'll never in their lives be asked to run that fast again," says Bill Pressey, founder of ThoroEdge, a company that seeks to optimize equine performance. "The Kentucky Derby lasts over 120 seconds. Stamina wins that kind of race -- the ability to hold 95 percent of top speed for long periods of time."

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.