American Pharoah attracted many casual fans by ending horse racing's 37-year run without a Triple Crown winner. While many of them were undoubtedly impressed to see history in the making, they were also puzzled about why the horse's winning time was actually slower than those of earlier generations. In short: If man keeps on running faster, why don't horses?
The answer boils down largely to technology (lighter shoes and springier tracks make it more favorable for man to run faster) and anatomy (the legs of thoroughbred horses are inherently limited how much force they can handle). For a more detailed explanation, check out this article by Eric Adelson from a few years ago.
Consider that American Pharoah's time in the Belmont Stakes, which he won Sunday to complete the Triple Crown, was sixth best in history at 2 minutes, 26.65 seconds. Fifth on the list of fastest Belmont times was Gallant Man, who covered the 1.5 miles in 2:26.60 -- in 1957.
To put this in perspective, that would be like Usain Bolt, the reigning Olympic champion in the 100 meters, posting a slower time than the 1956 gold medalist. Bolt had a time of 9.63 seconds at the 2012 Games in London. Bobby Morrow won in 1956 with a time of 10.5 seconds. The winning time in the 100 meters has gotten faster in nine of the past 10 Olympics. Here are the five fastest times in the Belmont, and there is no sequential pattern:
1. Secretariat, 1973 (2:24.00)
2. Easy Goer, 1989 (2:26.00)
3. A.P. Indy, 1992 (2:26.13)
4. Risen Star, 1988 (2:26.40)
5. Gallant Man, 1957 (2:26.60)
Secretariat remains an outlier at 2:24. It's a time that is even more absurd considering he had no horse pushing him at the end, winning by 31 lengths. To illustrate this point, the Wall Street Journal produced a video with side-by-side footage of Secretariat and American Pharoah in their respective runs at the Belmont: