Brown disagrees with those who say thorougbreds haven't benefited as much as human athletes from advances in medicine, nutrition and training. He notes that harness racers, who run on surfaces that have hardly changed over the generations, are much faster as measured by raw times. Thus he believes that if Orb — owned by Baltimore County resident Stuart Janney III — could be magically transported to a 1970s track, the colt would likely be 8-10 lengths faster than Triple Crown competitors from that era.
"Basically, all athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than they've ever been," Brown said. "And that includes horses."
He is hardly alone in his defense of the modern horse.
"Horse racing is based on who gets to the wire first under the circumstances, and the circumstances vary so much from race to race, track to track, and year to year, that it's hard to compare one year from the next based on race times," said Anne Peters, a longtime Kentucky breeder.
Josh Pons notes that like champions of the 1970s and 1980s, Orb was bred to run at longer distances from some of the stoutest bloodlines in American racing. Pons can't see any logical reason why the horse would be weaker or slower than champions of other eras, though he says differences in track surfaces make the comparison difficult.
"All you can do is show up and beat the best they put against you," said Pons, who, along with his brother Mike, stood Orb's sire, Malibu Moon, at their Country Life Farm in Bel Air.
"It's the same question you ask in any sport. You know, how would the current guys in the NBA do against Bill Russell?" he added. "But if you take [Orb] back to one of those 1970s races and pop the gate, I think he's right there."
Those who question the quality of contemporary champions, however, say there's simply too much evidence of decreased speed over too many Triple Crown races.
"I don't know if it's a permanent condition or a historical blip," said Beyer, a longtime racing writer for The Washington Post and Daily Racing Form. "But I don't know many people who know the business who would argue that nothing has changed."
He places the peak of the American thoroughbred in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when the breed experienced genetic payoff from an influx of European stallions brought to the U.S. in the years after World War II.
Since then, he and others say, American breeders have sought to produce horses that mature young and run fastest over shorter distances. Some old-school horsemen see this as a byproduct of a wider instant-gratification culture.
"There's no question that the mind-set of the American breeder is to like sprinters or milers," said Geoffrey Russell, director of sales at Keeneland in Kentucky, which holds the sport's most popular yearling auctions. "Our horses are fast, but a majority of our races are not run at 11/4 or 11/2 miles. So you get into a chicken-or-egg question: Has the breed changed because of the shorter distances, or have we made the races shorter because the breed has changed? The answer is somewhere in the middle."
At 1 3/16 miles, the Preakness is the shortest Triple Crown race and is considered the most comfortable run for today's sprinters.
Russell doesn't believe times are terribly important, given the sharp differences in race conditions, but he says racing fans may have seen the limits of thoroughbred performance. "It gets to a point where I don't see how you go any faster," he said, reflecting on freakish talents such as Secretariat.
The pedigree problems are real, says William Nack, one of horse racing's greatest chroniclers. But Nack is just as bothered by the state of throughbred training.
Nack followed Secretariat step by step through his Triple Crown run and remembers how often the great champion ran as a 2-year-old, how hard he trained in the weeks leading up to his biggest races.
"He was really a racehorse," Nack said. "He had the bone density and the body development. And the only way to build that is by running. Why are some of these trainers only starting their Derby horses two or three times as 2-year-olds?"
The human factor
Few have a more interesting perspective on the issue than Bob Bowman.