Friday, September 26, 2008

The Larry Jones' Precedent

The news that Larry Jones has decided to call it a career by the 2009 Breeder's Cup is lamentable. As far as I'm concerned Jones is one of racing's very greatest assets. He is a singular and recognizable personality that has the ability to transcend the sport to attract new fans. Admittedly this observation is only based on personal experience but it is uncanny how often I am surprised by my 'non-fan' friends' ability to identify him as the trainer with the' white hat' even when he is not wearing it. I chalk this up to the ability of his countenance to transmit the obvious love he has for his horses and the joy that he takes in his work. After reading the BH article one doesn't have to read between the lines to realize that some of the joy is gone. It did not dissipate on it's own but as a result of the changing landscape of the business and his role in it. The Eight Belles tragedy certainly precipitated these feelings even if he was unaware of their influence at the time. It's unfair that many (non-industry members) had placed responsibility of the tragic event of Eight Belles breakdown at his doorstep. Anything that can happen will, especially with horses, and sometimes those events are tragic. It was no ones fault, it was simply a tragic event. But the point of this entry is not to reopen an unneeded discussion to defend or rehash that event. I want to address another issue that I was reminded of by some of Jones' statements:

“I have to become a manager rather than being a trainer. That’s what I want to do, is train the horse. Of course, we’re on a different level now. We’re strung out with divisions in several locations. And no matter where I am on a Saturday afternoon, the other owner thinks I should be there (where their horse is running). I like to be the guy who puts that saddle on the horse. But I can’t do it all. It has a price to pay.”

This statement addresses one of my pet peeves with the industry: the mega-barns. Obviously I am talking barns like Pletcher's, Asmussen's, Frankel's etc., the Google's, You Tube's and IBM's of the industry. Of course these days even the smaller quality barns often have more than one division. It is my position that they are bad for the business.

It was probably Jack VanBerg that first trained at the 'mega' level and certainly others like D.W. Lukas followed him with great success, however, I see the practice as being contradictory to the essence of the business and to the ability for the industry to use its greatest attribute -mythicism - to promote itself. I use the word contradictory because the image of training horses is intimately tied to an extremely close bond between horse and man. If you are able to train horses over the phone it distorts the image and reality more than a little.

For any trainer the secret to success is to have good horses. Certainly they need to be good horsemen but it's likely any competent horseman would win with Curlin or Secretariat or Big Brown. But when all the best horses go to a handful of barns where is the opportunity or interest in that? Anyone trying to break in is left to scramble for what crumbs have fallen. Certainly this does not mean that 'diamonds in the rough' are not discovered and turn up in unexpected barns. But even when this occurs most often crazy money is thrown at an owner who can not turn down a once in a lifetime opportunity and the horse will end up in one of the mega barns. In fact IEAH prides themselves on the ability to recognize early quality that has fallen through the cracks of sales and private breeding industry to purchase these very diamonds. I don't see any way or need to limit how many or how much someone can pay for horses but it is possible to limit the amount of horses in a barn. But why would we do that?

First for legitimacy. To make certain that the trainer of record is the person responsible for the horse and that it is their skills not just their program that is the cause of success. Obviously in the mega barns there is great talent in the assistants ranks. I would argue that often that talent is at least equal to that of the trainer themselves. We have to look no farther than Van Berg and Lukas to see the evidence of this. As a matter of fact I would argue that Lukas' greatest gift to racing is his ability to produce great trainers, not great horses. I do not in any way mean to impugn the skill or ability of the mega trainers. They are certainly terrific horsemen and also absolutely wonderful managers.

Second for the image of the sport. One of the most interesting, if not the most interesting aspect of the sport is the image of the mythical trainer. The person that can transcend the man/beast threshold and communicate with the animal. Would Seabiscut still be Seabiscuit without the attached story of the cantankerous, secretive Tom Smith? Would he really have done what he did without Tom Smith? We'll never know. How about Charlie Whittingham? H. Allen Jerkens? And the list can go on and on. Somehow it's just not the same when a trainer flies into town to saddle a horse for a big race when it's obvious his assistant has taken on the daily duties (the most important duties) . Again, I don't question for a moment that a trainer is in daily contact with their assistants, but, I don't think that [m]any of the 'critical' decisions are made by the assistant's - but they could be.

As another reason I would list is for the health of the industry. Not unlike the situation our nation is in at the moment where too few have had the ability to ruin an entirety the same can be argued for the racing industry. If too few trainers are taking the lions share that leaves less and less for the nuts and bolts of the industry - the small barns- with which to make ends meet. More and more will be forced to close shop because there is simply not enough left to make it feasible to continue the struggle. When one considers the amount of time and effort that is required to train it is amazing that so many barns persist. However, more and more frequently the choice becomes the same one Larry Jones is making. It forces one to either go for the big time -for those few that can even seriously entertain this, based on financing or clients - or become a manager. In short order racing may return to being the 'Sport of Kings' where there are only a dozen or so owners with their personal trainer.

Another reason is the future of the industry. Not all but very many of those with an aspiration to train are very competitive. But, if luck is the only opportunity to get good horses so that they can compete at the highest level many will look elsewhere for a vocation. And if the structure is such that even making ends meet is going to be a struggle how do we expect to attract the next generations of horsemen to the industry?

I think there should be a limit on the horses one is allowed to train. I would like to see a limit of around forty but I know that is unrealistic. Perhaps sixty? I don't have an answer. I do think that the number should reflect a number that is reasonable to assume a person can 'personally' oversee. Perhaps, also the definition of 'trained' should be tied to attendance. To have a limit of 80-100 horses at five different circuits does nothing to address this issue. Perhaps in order for a horse to be considered 'trained by' a trainer must be present at that track for 12 days a month (during training hours) or some such number that will effectively limit the number of horses and locales they can be credited with being trainer of record. All these offerings are obviously problematic. For instance a trainer travelling with a horse for a distant stakes would probably have to be able to have those days counted as being at their base barn. This would be especially necessary with a barn made up of many stakes caliber horses. Of course this arrangement would likely result in those barns being at the "A" tracks anyway.

The result would be more opportunity for the many able people that seek opportunity. It would also result in a more egalitarian distribution of purse money - because there would be more trainers and [in theory] those trainers would have access to more horses - in the sport adding to the health of the industry overall. I believe it would also have the effect of keeping more money at the locality of the tracks as it would cut down on the mega barns shipping in just to swipe a big purse and then leaving. It would do this because more barns would have to decide where they are going to be based in effect spreading out the quality horses. It would certainly result in a much more diverse and interesting industry.

The day Larry Jones hangs up his hat for the last time is going to be a sad day. Unfortunately I think because the way the industry is structured in the near future we will be losing more and more really quality people in the sport. And we will likely lose would-be greats that may go elsewhere for lack of opportunity.

1 comment:

Handride said...

On the money with the image of the mega-trainers, guys like smith and van berg, and jerkins everyone figures they talk to their horses, while dutrow, pletcher, and assmussen talk to their veteranarians. ;-D We've got to do more I wrote about it too, hope you like it