Four Questions is an occasional feature in which UANews asks experts from the UA for their perspective on current events or pop culture.
In December, the Race Track Industry Program will host the 44th Global Symposium on Racing, the largest racing conference in North America, drawing attendees from more than 15 foreign countries annually.
As the running of the 143rd Kentucky Derby approaches on Saturday, a University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program alumnus is training horses for the big event — and soon-to-be graduates are preparing to embark on their own careers in the horse racing industry.
The Kentucky Derby is the race that captures the nation's attention. This year, alumnus Todd Pletcher, who graduated from the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Race Track Industry Program, has several horses — Always Dreaming, Tapwrit and Patch — eligible for the run for the roses. Eligible horses are determined by their successes in designated races earlier in the year, and all of the horses are 3-year-olds.
Although Bob Baffert, also an graduate of the UA program, will not have a contestant in this year's running, his Kentucky Derby triumph and subsequent Triple Crown victory came in 2015 with American Pharoah. The current star in Baffert's care is 4-year-old Arrogate, currently ranked as the No. 1 horse in the world. Arrogate won the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March, the $12 million Pegasus Cup in January and the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic last November.
For the last 20 years, Pletcher and Baffert have dominated racing's record books. The Eclipse Award, racing's year-end award for outstanding trainer, has gone to Pletcher seven times and to Baffert four. For the last seven years, both have been in the top five when calculating the year-end earnings of the horses in their care. As of May 1, Baffert is No. 1 on that list, Pletcher No. 2.
As the UA's Commencement ceremony approaches, new alumni will be starting their careers and taking positions at tracks and racing organizations around the country, including Indiana Grand Race Course, the New York Racing Association (Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course), The Jockey Club and Juddmonte Farm (owner of Arrogate), said Wendy Davis, director of the Race Track Industry Program, who also graduated from the program.
Elizabeth "Betsy" Greene, the UA Cooperative Extension equine specialist and a School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences professor, answered questions about the Kentucky Derby.
Q: What can you tell us about the Kentucky Derby?
A: The Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the American Triple Crown for Thoroughbreds, and it always takes place on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville. These 3-year olds are bred and built to run longer distances. The Derby is 1 1/4 miles in length, lasts about 2 minutes and is worth around $2 million in winnings.
The second leg of the Triple Crown is two weeks later in Maryland (the Preakness Stakes) and three weeks later the action moves to New York for the Belmont Stakes, which is the final and longest leg at 1 1/2 miles. It is really hard to win the Kentucky Derby — never mind the Triple Crown. But the last winning trainer was from our own UA Race Track Industry Program: Bob Baffert, a Nogales, Arizona, native. He trained American Pharoah, the first horse to win all three races since Affirmed won in 1978. Many folks may remember Secretariat or have seen the 2010 Disney movie. He won the Triple Crown in 1973 and before that it was Citation all the way back in 1948.
Q: What type of horse races the Kentucky Derby, and what characteristics make these horses good for racing?
A: These horses were literally bred to race. The Thoroughbred breed traces back to three foundation sires (Goldolphin Arabian, Byerly Turk and Darley Arabian), and breeders have selectively bred for speed over distance for over 200 years. The "Sport of Kings," the nickname for horse racing, came about because it was favorite entertainment of the English aristocracy. Today, there are tracks all over the world, and folks from all walks of life enjoy placing bets on the horses.
In a race, the horses are running around 40 miles an hour. Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, was said to have a very large heart, thus moving more blood to the muscles. And he ran the last leg of the Triple Crown so fast that he won by 31 lengths, or 248 feet.
Q: Are these horses in Arizona? Do you work with people who own these types of horses?
A: We have several Thoroughbred breeding farms and two race tracks in Arizona, so many go for racing. But Thoroughbreds are used for much more than racing. They are very versatile, whether it is dressage, trail riding, jumping or even ranch work.
Q: Tell us about your work as an equine Extension specialist.
A: I work with folks in the equine industry of Arizona building programs and educational opportunities for youth and adults. I work with our county agents in 4-H and agriculture to identify the needs of their horse clientele and build programs and partnerships to meet those needs. Currently, several of us are working on a pilot program to help youth learn about disaster preparedness in their community related to both their family and their animals, such as horses and livestock and other pets. We run our hands-on pilot program in Graham and Coconino Counties in June and are hoping to spread it throughout Arizona in the future. I'll also be headed up to make horse supplement and nutrition presentations at the Navajo Nation Equine Expo in Window Rock in mid-May and up to Page for some horse care and safety and body condition score training in July.