Thursday, October 16, 2008

Opus Part II: Breeding

I always felt that the breeding end of thoroughbred racing was where the industry drew it's strength from. After all hundreds of millions of dollars are generated each year through stud fees and sales. So much money is wrapped up in the "horses" that I had always thought that it would protect the breed and the sport. I'm not so sure any longer. Though the relationship is symbiotic it may more resemble that of the lamprey and the salmon than shark and remora. The breeding industry looks more and more like Wall Street these days where quick profits and fast deals are, I will argue, threatening the health of the industry.

The first way in which breeding harms the sport is in pilfering racing of its best runners. Or, to be more exact its best three year old runners; the very runners that are showcased in the sports biggest races. These are our stars. And because of the pressure exerted by breeding money they quickly fade from sight. To the neophyte or fledgling fan this loss of recognizable runners, almost as quickly as they appeared, may be a major reason they seek other pastures for entertainment.

I would further argue that three is not the best age to determine the horses that are the best of the breed. For some reason three is the age the industry has determined to use as its standard of excellence. I don't think I would encounter much disagreement in saying that a horse has not reached its prime until their fourth or fifth year. So it would make more sense to wait until at least four and maybe five before casting a final ballot on superiority. It seems a bit like women's gymnastics where teenagers (barely) are the force of the sport. A grown (young) woman would have a difficult time competing let alone excelling against the mini-mights because her body has matured. I don't see how that is a true representation of excellence.

Perhaps the reason that three year-olds were decided upon is a bit more simple. And I see a parallel to blistering. I have often wondered about the efficacy or wisdom of blistering a horse. Anytime I had the chance to ask someone why they blistered a horse the reasons never seemed all that good to me, nor did the explanation of how it works. That is until I once got a response that did make sense to me. It was along the lines of, 'It probably just forces you to give a horse time that patience alone won't allow.' I did believe that and I think that's why the industry settled on three year-olds, they ran out of patience. After all it takes a long time from the breeding shed to the racetrack even when they start at two! But the breeding industry may be threatening the industry by breeding to horses that may in fact not be the best of the breed. The most precocious yes, and in many cases they probably are the best, but in many others I would like to see more evidence. I offer one way that we can change things in an earlier post: The Year of the Five Year Old.

Another way breeding is hurting the industry is by the inflated stud fees of new stallions. These fees put an ever increasing negative pressure on industry players. In the long run I feel the result will be a consolidation of the breeding industry to only the supremely wealthy. We all know the basic scheme. Pay a truckload for the new kid on the block and rake breeders and purchasers over the coals for the first three years, recouping all you paid and usually then some, before the first runners of the new sires crop hit the track. If his runners pan out, great! If they don't adjust fee down. But the amount of money being thrown around to buy these colts makes it impossible to risk continuing to race a prospect. That's all backwards! Superiority should be demonstrated on the track and not just in six or seven races. A top new sire will probably always demand more than all but the best sires because a) they are the unknown quantity and the best new hope so true value is speculative and b) they are the fashion of the moment. This in turn makes it likely that their get will be a highly sought after commodity at the sales, further inflating industry costs. This regardless of the fact that the odds are still poor that one will get a good or great runner and they are still an unproven commodity. At the moment I can't think of any other business or industry where you pay more for the unknown than the known. While there may be every indication that success can be expected one can never know until success is attained. The end result of this is that many a breeder and pinhooker stand to lose more than if they took the safer route of breeding to a less expensive but proven sire or buying it's get. Of course they also stand to win bigger too. But that is a dangerous game to play. And if losses do occur it makes it even more important to offset those losses and future expenses with a big hit next time. So the risk of breeding to the next new flavor of the month becomes more necessity than choice. It would only take a few disappointments to put a small commercial breeder out of business. In a perfect world an escalating limit would be put on first second and third year sires. This would not limit the price someone could get for their horse just how quickly someone can recoup their investment in the stallion. After year three they would be free to charge as much as they wanted for a fee. This makes more sense for the breed as well because it makes the stallion a long term investment. And it predicates that success be built on success. Buyers of a new stallion prospect would have to feel very confident that they are making the right decision before paying tens of millions of dollars. They would also likely be more selective in choosing the mares to be bred because success in the long run will be based on success at the track. That is how all good business is done with forethought, investment hard work and a little luck. These considerations would help insure the health of the breed.

As an aside my feeling about mares is probably a bit different than most. I prefer a lightly raced or unraced mare with complementary traits and pedigree over a black-type mare. I feel a great race mare leaves too much on the track and that her effort on the track more often than not compromises her chances of delivering a superior foal. I know it happens I just don't think the odds are as good. I don't feel racing harms a colts ability to produce.

Another way (and the last I will deal with) the breeding industry harms the sport has been implied throughout this post: fashion. The breeding of fashionable pedigrees is not the same as making wise breeding choices to enhance the breed. For those that have read my blog I will start sounding like an old record here but the ideal thoroughbred is a horse that can carry weight, quickly, over of a distance of ground. And I think that result ought to be the goal of every mating. As I've also said before, even with this intention we will not run out of sprinters or mid-distance horses. But one day we may breed an even better thoroughbred than anyone has yet seen. And that is what I want to see.

In the end the health of the industry is dependant upon the health of the product on the track; that means we need good horses for good competition. And further we need those horses to be physically able to remain on the track longer and put that ability into practice. We need the stars in the sport to campaign longer. In my mind the breeding industry has veered off course having been wooed too much by quick heady profits. I have read many comparisons over the years of the thoroughbred industry (especially sales) and Wall Street. We are seeing the result of unregulated greed on world markets now. Let's take away some lessons from the disaster we are witnessing and apply good fundamental logic to our industry before it too has to recover from the ravages of too much greed and not enough well placed care.

1 comment:

Winston...not really said...

It seems silly to me that anyone had an issue with this post.

Then again, making sense has never been in fashion.

Nice job.