Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Great Divide

The Europeans took five races on the B.C. card including two on the "dirt." While we have come to expect the "world" contingent of horses to do well on the turf we have more or less owned the dirt from the inception of the Breeder's Cup. This year the two biggest changes in B.C. rules (ever) seem to have shot a few holes in our illusions of dominance: no steroids and the Pro-Ride, synthetic surface.

One has to wonder if as many European horses would have shown up had the B.C. been held at Churchill or Belmont? Certainly the turf horses would have shown up - perhaps even more of them - but I don't think the dirt invaders would have been as numerous, though numerous may not be the best adjective to describe eight. Of course if you consider Ventura, Cocoa Beach, Cedar Mountain, Rebellion, Well Armed, Square Eddie and Champs Elysees as European that number swells to 15. All of those had started their careers overseas. Most of them have raced at least half of their careers elsewhere and all of them have only run on turf or synthetic surfaces since arriving in the U.S. By now I'm sure you can see where I am going with this post; arguing against the synthetic surface.

We would probably all agree that having as many foreign horses as possible at the Breeder's Cup should be one of the goals because it adds interest, credibility (for the claim of World Championships) competition and wagering value. But it has become obvious to all that the synthetics run much more like turf than dirt. If that's what we're looking for why not just run everything on the grass? That could eliminate a few races like the Dirt Mile, Sprint, Marathon, etc.. And we can fit it all into one day again! That's obviously not what is desired. So why the synthetics?

The argument has been made that synthetics are much safer. Perhaps that may prove to be true but let's consider some other factors that may not have been taken into account regarding "real" dirt injuries. The very first of these considerations should be steroids. We know that in humans and animals steroids add muscle mass and therefor weight to those that use them. How much has this added, unnatural weight, contributed to injury? And - though some will continue to argue the point - steroids also enhance performance. With the superior strength of added muscle mass how can that not result in better performance? Taking those two factors together and the result is a bigger, stronger, heavier horse that is able to outperform the frame they were born with. What would anyone guess may be the result?- Disaster. Coincidentally the upturn in synthetic steroids (a relatively recent phenomenon) seems to have taken place during the era in which many feel like the breed has gotten more fragile. Coincidence? I don't think so. Now I may be ranting without bothering to bolster my argument with scientific numbers but it also seems to me, in human athletes anyway, that when steroid use ends performance diminishes and injury rates again rise. I believe we will end up seeing that supposition playing out in racing as well. I think we will see a lot more horses just disappearing from the track or retiring due to less than catastrophic injuries. Hopefully the new crops, being steroid free will prove more durable. Only time will tell.

Another variable that may have added to injuries is the amount of racing days and the plenitude of options to run horses. As a horses ability wanes and they are claimed they can quickly move downward to the lower ranks of tracks and find a place where they can compete. More and more syndicates vying for horses, that usually start at the lower claiming levels, (we can't all afford The Legends Fund or the IEAH's of the world) puts more pressure on horses to run. No one wants to pay for a horse that just eats hay and burns money (except perhaps for Old Friends), so if it can't compete it is probably sold and moved on down. I can think of one horse recently that is a good example: Mike's Classic. He is a record holder at Belmont. He competed and won at the highest level and last I saw him (recently) he was running up at Finger Lakes, for $4,000, I believe! And he lost big! That's just plain wrong! He not only was a very good race horse he was a very nice, likable horse ( I had the pleasure of walking him many times). What is going to happen to him? Will they run him until he breaks down? How much do these situations add to the breakdown statistics? There are too many races and horses are over raced or race hurt. That is probably the biggest factor in injury in both humans and equines. Perhaps without the steroids they won't be able to run hurt anymore and that will help the situation.

I guess I have become a bit jaded in that I don't always believe the reasons I hear for change. I do believe in change, but I also believe there should a reason behind every decision. And that reason ought not be a supposition. I question if the synthetics are really that much safer than the dirt tracks or that dirt tracks can not be made as safe. I wonder if all considerations that led to injuries were taken into consideration. Or is the move for tracks to "go synthetic" more a fiscal/logistic decision. If it is I could accept that a lot easier as a reason for the switch. I have to wonder if the change in the drug rules, and more specifically the steroid rules, will not help to pad illusory results. I hope that the dirt tracks don't disappear. At least until there is a certainty of superiority based on substantial enough evidence not to be coincidence.

Part of my defense of the dirt is based on the horses. We have always had a great divide between U.S. horses and world horses, based on surface preference, but now with the introduction of synthetics, we are creating a divide in our own country. Just when we were finally moving towards more uniform drug laws that would promote more competition between jurisdictions we are, perhaps, creating a divide that will prove wider than the old ones. Are we creating a situation where we will have the dirt runners and the synthesizers and never the twain will meet? I think so. That is just plain bad for business; very bad for business. We have to have the best meet the best. There has always been a difference in tracks. Santa Anita ran nothing like Belmont. Nor did either run like Bay Meadows (R.I.P) or Oaklawn. The differences were enough to make the races interesting and often had an effect on the outcome of a race. But they were similar enough that a dirt horse could go, run and reasonably assume they could handle the track. Are we headed toward the day when we will never see another West Coast horse come to the Classics or to Saratoga? I know that is a little dramatic but the synthetics will definitely slow the exodus East in the spring, probably to a trickle. It was already a big issue this year. The California breeding industry is now headed in a completely different direction. Every Stallion station and breeding farm has to be reevaluating their stock. I would. Without any dirt opportunities in California the "American Breed" will be gone in the foreseeable future.

When a horse of Curlin's abilities ends up 'up the track' the difference is great enough to impact the breed. Sure, he could have had an off day. And Raven's Pass should not have been let off anywhere near $13.50-1! Curlin has been at it for two long years and perhaps the time and the miles had finally caught up with him, but I think he just got bogged down in the wax. It is his first finish out of the money in 16 attempts and he's been in against -at least in my opinion- a lot tougher fields. This is not sour grapes. I'm disappointed he lost but not angry about it. My argument is that he lost to the track not to another horse. That is not to say Raven's Pass or HenrytheNavigator may not have beaten him on the dirt. But if it was run on the dirt I don't think they would have been in the race.

I hope the industry is making the right decisions to improve the sport for the future. Unfortunately I think the future or the breed may end up running "up the track," as a result of the synthetics. I vote to keep the difference in racing.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Saratoga Sire awards for Breeder's Cup # 25

I think the best thing to do is just jot down my initial impressions of the 25th running of the B.C. in the moments following the final race as I want the immediacy of the moment to blaze my trail.

My Favorite Moment: Mig winning the Turf Sprint. One of my all-time favorite riders executing an amazing trip. Good for Him!

Best Performance: Goldikova!!!! AWESOME!!!!! Nothing more needs to be said.

Best Improvement: No Drugs!

Biggest Disappointment: Curlin losing.

Most Surprising Event: Iavorone stating that his family received death threats in the event something happened to Big Brown during the Belmont Stakes.

Biggest Question: Did Desormeaux receive death threats in the event something didn't happen to Big Brown during the Belmont?

Worst Change: The synthetic surface.

Biggest Disappointment: (I've changed my mind) Not being involved!

Worst oversight in handicapping: (The list is very long! but...) Donativum in The Juvenile Turf.

Best Horse: ZENYATTA!


Biggest Disappointment: (changed my mind again) The Synthetic surface!

Best Human Performance: Trevor Denmon. I may be a New York guy, but he's just the best! No offense Tom it's just a matter of preference, you're terrific too!

Best Training performance: Bob Baffert for Midnight Lute. WOW!

Favorite Occurrence: More World entries.

Best Ride: Garret Gomez, Midnight Lute.

Best Celebrity Appearance: Kurt Russell.

ABC/ESPN coverage C+

Get rid of Hank and get Jerry Brown for God's sake! No offense Hank it's business!

Biggest Disappointment: (I was right the first time) Curlin losing.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Breeder's Cup Sentiments

I wanted to write something for the Breeder's Cup but didn't want it to be the same old pro or con analysis of the new, expanded program format (already done that). But what then, race analysis? Nah. Perhaps another time. So I decided to just let it be (there's always a Beatles song that applies somewhere). That is until I read Mary Rampellini's piece on Cash and Steve Asmussen on the DRF site. The Asmussen's are only one of hundreds of great stories in horse racing. I think that most fans are just as intrigued by the people in the industry as they are by the horses. And, almost all of these stories evoke some emotion. They often tell more like the tall yarns spun in folklore than slices of someone's reality. So there I had it, my subject, emotion. Even to those whom find fault with the Breeder's Cup they are passionate about how it can be improved. I am no different.
This year I have been feeling a little ambivalence leading up to the B.C. for many of the reasons I and others have voiced. However, as the day(s!) draw closer (T minus 1) I can feel the usual excited anticipation. Reading about the Asmussen brothers and how they have made their dreams come true prompted me to access old dreams of my own to one day be a trainer competing right there where they are now. For anyone who has shared such dreams you know the imagined campaign of your horse. You know that no equine ailment will occur to ruin this imaginary dream (sorry Red Giant, Indyanne). And if something does occur your skills or your horses superiority will somehow win the day. That's the dream they are all dreaming now. That's the dream we are all unconsciously involved in with them. That's the Breeder's Cup!
I have a tangential association with the Asmussens having briefly worked for them down in Laredo. To me they are a family that is bigger than life, characters of folklore, "carved out of wood" my friend would rightly say, while being so human at the same time. Several weeks ago after Curlin broke the earnings record at Belmont I went and congratulated Mr. Asmussen (Keith) on another family accomplishment. While I believe I saw the wheels of recognition turning in his head I knew that even if he did remember me it would be memory of a face, not a name, not of another carved of wood. But I had expected this as it was a long time ago and thousands of faces later for him. And it doesn't take away my memories, just adds to them. Also I think most of us think that those 'at the top' are somehow islands. But I think that no matter who you are it has to be a joyful experience to know others share in your joy. I know with absolute certainty how much Keith Asmussen enjoys the accomplishments of his family. And I know that the top is not where the family began. Keith and Marilyn got the family in the gate and class prevailed.
I know it is a business just like show business but for almost all of us that love the game it is much, much more than that. It is emotion more than all else. The Breeder's Cup, for me, has become a cathartic event. I relish and experience the joys of all the winners and feel the depths of the momentary despair of the losers. These feelings are the same toward all regardless of if the connections are my favorites or my least favorite; at least for the day(s). There is only one other event when this phenomenon of good will toward all holds sway and that is the Kentucky Derby. For me perhaps the most poignantly emotional moment of the year is when My Old Kentucky Home is played before the Derby. Just thinking about it fills one with what I think the English refer to as the brown study.
Horseracing is a state of mind and it's personal. We all take it personally when it gets slighted as it often does. Even the Breeder's Cup, it seems, has to play second fiddle to an infinitely less important telecast (see Left at the Gate). Now my intention is not to upset the NASCAR fans out there but even you must admit that a lead in show to some qualifying races does not have the same gravity as a Championship day. Speaking of gravity comparing NASCAR and Horseracing is a little like comparing Bud and Miller to a Gueuze or Framboise. Okay that was a little bit of a shot but not like having your chosen sport rescheduled!
The Breeder's Cup is not just another day(s). It is truly a spectacle of sport at it's highest level. In U.S. sport it is also the closest thing we have to a true World Championship of anything. It deserves to share the spotlight with any sport. Here's to hoping that all the emotions we experience over the next two days will be positive ones. But in the event something unwanted happens I know that is unwanted. I know that everything that could be done to prevent anything bad from happening was done. And even when such sad situations do occur and we all are feeling the pain I am reminded so much of why I love racing. In the end racing is a microcosm of life. We can never avoid the pain of loss in our lives, and our greatest moments of joy can't be held onto forever. Welcome to horseracing, life as it should be! Real! Enjoy the B.C.

In the event you did want B.C. picks go to http://thoroughbredbloggersalliance.blogspot.com/ to see many of the TBA member's B.C. choices.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A New Standard

As an added bit of fun and interest, fellow TBA blogger, and our intrepid leaded (and founding father I think) has posted a response arguing against my post. I have included a link to his response at the bottom of the post. (I've got to try to get you all to read it!) My thanks to Patrick. This is a previous entry that was reworked for the TBA blogspot space on The Blood-Horse site and ran 10/19/2008. After the previous three entries I thought it apropos to re-post it today.

I know that trying to change something in racing is like trying to stop the tides. But if I could there is one regulation I would like to see the industry impose upon itself: No horse can stand until he is a horse (5 year old). I think this would have a positive ripple effect throughout the industry and here's how.

It would have the positive effect of horses having longer campaigns. This in turn will have several positive consequences. First, a horse will have to prove his durability and superiority on the track for more than a season or a season and a half. It will nurture new fans because they will be able to follow and root for a horse for several years. It would also create rivalries, so rare these days outside of the triple crown events, further nurturing fan interest.

What about a horse that is injured? Implement a standard that makes the horse sit out one year after it's mishap before standing. So, for example, a horse that is injured at 2 would have to wait until its' fourth year to stand. I think this would be a propitious standard because it would forestall the mysterious rash of injuries that would almost certainly occur for most successful three years olds! Certainly it would not benefit anyone to feign injury and sit out a year therefore taking a chance that the shine may fade from the star. It would also have the further effect of allowing time to impose its' propensity to allow clearer vision of value.

To do this would not curtail business one iota. I'm certain bidding for future stallions would be just as heated as ever. However, I think it would have some positive effects. One being somewhat reduced prices paid for a future stallions -with a ripple down effect through the industry - because to buy a colt at three would now carry more risk. The risks are manifold. The most obvious risk is that a colt does not continue to be as dominating a runner as it matures. There is also the risk that a colt from the next year's crop may become the shiny new gem outshining the previous year's model. And of course with every start that proves durability comes risk of injury. It will also result in something that we rarely see in racing anymore, it would oblige the best horses from different crops to compete against each other to prove superiority. So if the connections of a colt risk racing a horse into his fourth year before selling its' rights and it does prove to be dominant that huge payday will still be there. But the difference would be that we could be more certain a horse is worth the price. This year we would have had an example of how this would play out if Big Brown and Curlin met in the B.C. Classic. If Big Brown did win the race he would, in my mind, be absolutely the best horse running. If he lost to Curlin but ran well it would hardly diminish his value (of course this is assuming Curlin wins). However, next year we would be able to see if BB would maintain his dominance when he ran against the best of the next crop at year's end as well as maturing horses of his own crop. We would also get to see if his negative traits would be his undoing or not. This year, such a regulation would also have had the effect of assuring fans that they would get to see BB run again, as his injury is not career ending. In turn the answers to these questions would truly inform us of his value as a stallion to promote the well being of the breed. This last point may be the best result of this scenario: it would have a long term positive effect on the durability of the breed. And added durability is something that almost everyone would have to agree is desirable.
Perhaps one other positive is that it would prompt more discussion of which horses are superior through time as there would be the much more tangible thread of competition between crops. It would not be out of the realm of possibility that the best representatives of three crops may meet. Though unlikely it wouldn't be nearly as impossible as it is now. This would provide kindling - and results - for the flames of opinion. Any time there is disagreement of opinion among fans it's good for the sport.

Admittedly there are some negatives to this plan also. One of the most obvious is that it may result in a later start for some horses because there would be less need to get horses to the track at two. I happen to think that is a positive but I know many – especially owners – will see it as a negative. I know we have recently heard from Dr. Bramlage about the positive effect racing at two has on the longevity of a horses career. But I for one don’t believe it to be true. And in a letter printed in the October 11 issue of the Blood-Horse, Dr. Mark A. Rothstein (BH4890) points out one of the most obvious reasons; (paraphrasing) there’s usually a good reason a horse doesn’t start at two and that reason is more likely the reason that those that start later don’t last as long. In short they were flawed from the beginning.

Another negative might be a lighter schedule for many horses. Again, I would look at this as a positive. I'd sacrifice a few races per season for the benefit of following a horse through a longer career. Especially when it would result in the type "inter-crop" competition I have already mentioned. While I’m certain other’s will have a longer list of negatives I think the positives are far more plentiful.

This could all be accomplished without anyone ever missing a beat in the industry. It would not cause one problem if the next crop of new stars of the breeding industry had to wait an extra year to start their service. There are enough stars in that universe already, no void would occur. This idea limits and possibly eliminates the need for anyone to lose. It would just cause a one year delay in reaping rewards.

And now to the rebuttal at Handride .

Monday, October 20, 2008

Opus Part III, The Final Act: Racing

This post is obviously tardy in arriving. The reasons are manifold. The idea I had in mind as part of the Opus was that I had many reservations about Graded Stakes. So I began by going over the stakes races; make up of the fields, field size, quality etc. But this was an arduous task and if I was to go through them all I would never get to the post. Next I started to research how the powers that be actually determine the grades etc. (I think the best explanation can be found on the TOBA site). But like most explanations in the industry it all seemed like quicksand as in the end the determination can still be subjective. That's not to say I don't agree with much of what's there because I do. However, I still have some ideas that I think would improve the system. So I've decided to just voice my objections (some of which are addressed by the committee(s). After all that is what blogging is about - voicing one's opinion - isn't it?

One thing that most of will agree on is that when all is said and done and the dust has settled back to the track it is the results of these races that actually has the greatest effect on the industry. The results have the consequence of determining, for the most part, the health of what we consider to be the best of the breed. In truth the races should be the determining factor. And one can surmise that in the old standard saying of the breeding industry, "breed the best to the best and hope for the best" 'racehorses' can be substituted for "best." If it's accepted that results of the races are the most important determinant for the industry as a whole then action should be taken to insure that the races deemed best actually are the best races. Here then are some of my objections and possible resolutions.

First, often a field for a graded stakes -and seemingly more often in G.I's- comes up light in two ways, in talent and field size. And usually those two failings come in tandem. This can be because of the presence of a "Zeyatta" in a race and other's have decided to duck her. This bothers me perhaps more than any other occurrence. I know Zenyatta beat a very good horse in Hystericallady while winning the Lady's Secret (g.I ) but a field of four does not make a race - even if all runners are of the same running style - at least in my opinion. This is so because there is often such a great discrepancy in talent even at the graded level. I would suggest that a field that does not start 6 horses should automatically be downgraded for the year. I would settle for five but I'd prefer six. One of the arguments against this I can foresee is that some may wonder where are we going to get enough horses to fill the 110 Grade I races? I'd counter that with proposing that maybe we have too many Grade I races. These races should coerce competition between the top tier not enable easy spots for horse to get black-type. Even the best horse running in an aggressive campaign will enter what five maybe six? And that's really being optimistic. Let's be honest the quality of horses drops off dramatically after the creme de la creme. It seems the system is just a vehicle to get undeserving horses black-type for breeding purposes! It's a good thing this isn't going to the BH as there's not a shot of it getting in! While quality and size of the field is taken into consideration by the committee(s) I think that unless there is a combination (total) of three Grade I or Grade II runners in a field a Grade I should automatically be downgraded. I also think this should hold for every grade e.g. a Grade II should have a minimum of a combination of three G.II and GIII winners. And for a GradeIII at least a combination of three GIII or overnight winners. For fields with more than six entries perhaps these minimums should be upgraded. This would assure that the grade is more reflective of the quality of the race.

Graded Stakes, especially GI's are traditional, often they have been around for decades or more and it seems to me that it is their history that is being graded more than the history of their recent entrants. And this brings me to an idea that will probably be met with a collective Bronx cheer but here it is. With the exception of the three Classics (K.D. Preakness, Belmont) races and the Breeder's Cup races I don't think any grade should necessarily hold it's rank. All other races should be run with the grade from the year before, that is if they meet the minimums I mentioned above. However, in November when the committee(s) meet to review and set the grades for the next year they should regrade all the races run. As we all know "key races " tend to produce much more quality than other races. And key stakes races do the same thing. So if at the end of the year a grade II ended up meeting the criteria of a grade I then the race should be upgraded. Likewise a grade I or II that at the end of the year doesn't meet the criteria for those designations they should be downgraded. In other words it would work like this: a grade II race is run in March with horses that at the time would only have the race meet Grade II criteria. In November (after the B.C) when that race is evaluated it is found that four horses had gone on to win G.I's then the race would carry a G.I designation for the year. In this way the years race grades will be much more reflective of the true grade of the field that ran in them. But in no case would a race lose a graded status (nor could it) at worst (g.III) This would also, presumably,have a positive effect in the breeding shed. I think this would be especially helpful for the two year olds. Though I love to watch them often a graded stakes for two year olds come up with several maidens or lightly raced horses. It's not any one's fault it's the nature of the beast. But more often than not the precocious horses will fade by years end, often by summers end. I think that the grades should more represent the crop over all than the time of year they are able to be ready to run. All this can be easily sorted out to the advantage of the industry as a whole because at the end of each year the best horses will have secured the best grades. It is a sliding scale, so to speak, with historical precedent determining a races starting conditions and grade. The only negative I can see is in advertising a new stallion. In some cases those claims of Grade I winner of... would have to be postponed. But let's be honest, everyone in the business knows what's going on. In the end I doubt it would have any negative effect on business. I would hope it would only have positive effects. And of course until the end of the year they could actually advertise as having run and won a Grade I. I don't think it would upset too many apple carts or change too many results but the ones it does probably should be changed, for the good of the sport and the breed.

In the end I just want there to be enough races so every horse gets it's chance. So few that they are not able to duck each other. And rated according to a true evaluation of the horses that actually ran. It's not the grade that brings the people it's the horse(s) as was proved by the Monmouth Stakes (ungraded). Any track would take that race and that field any day. It's the horses stupid! should be the industry motto. The grades are useful and add interest but they are more an industry tool than a true predictor of fan interest. It truly is the horses!

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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

An Opus of Problems in Three Parts, Part I : Drugs.

When I try to interest my non-fan friends in a day at the races the very first objection is that they believe that racing is fixed, that cheating is rampant. I tell them that while there will probably always be some amount of cheating going on I believe that the better tracks and the more high profile the race the less likely that there is any cheating going on. I explain why I think that's so; basically telling them that there is too much money in the horses and the breeding end of the business. And that successful commercial breeding is very much tied to a horses success on the track. A horse that does not accrue black type is not really worth anything. This is less so for the distaff runners but still applies. But at this point they usually have two retorts a) If they need to win to be valuable isn't that more a reason to cheat? and b) they point out, rightfully, that most horses don't run at the highest levels. So I am put in the position of defending the sport as best I can. I try to point out the folly of a jockey or trainer for risking an entire career for a race here and there. But, it's hard to clean up a negative image. They have all heard of the drug problems even if they have not heard of any specific example. This year they have all heard of Big Brown and the steroids. I am then amidst a conundrum. Do I defend the fact that steroids are (were) not illegal? - but this never feels right. Or, I can shrug my shoulders and acquiesce to their accusations and lose a chance to nurture another fan. Not all horses run on them and that has got to be a disadvantage. I have always felt as though it is cheating, legal though it may have been. So it's hard to convince them that the game is on the up and up; after all it's not based on this reason alone. To be certain I don't know that there is not a lot of cheating going on. In my time at the track I didn't see any cheating, and I truly don't think that it's rampant or even a big problem. I believe most horsemen and their employees properly and truly care for their horses. I also want to believe that this is true and I'm sure I fall into the category of seeing what I want to see, at least to some extent. But, obviously if someone is going to cheat they aren't going to make it obvious. Undoubtedly many trainers, usually the most successful ones, have been suspected of juicing their horses. I don't know if any of those suspicions have been true either. I imagine that at the B and C league tracks cheating is more likely to occur. After all there is little or no money in the horses at that level and the day money is probably lower, so I imagine the tote becomes all the more important for survival as a result - especially when the purses at those tracks are so much less than the big leagues. That is why I and so many fans are relieved and excited that new drug rules are going into effect across the county. Yes, the jurisdictions were coerced by the graded stakes and B.C. committees but it doesn't matter how it occurred just that it did. Like many of us I have lost money because a horse we felt had no chance, let alone a right to be in a certain race, suddenly ran a race like a champion. It is those times when I have had that sinking feeling about my own beliefs and desires. But with the new drug rules going into effect I'll feel much better about when encountering such a performance. I'll feel much better about looking through those rose colored glasses. NY is the latest jurisdiction to announce that they will be implementing the new drug rules. It was inevitable, we all knew that, but it's good to hear it anyway. And it will give me a little more ammunition in defence of a sport I am passionate about. Who knows maybe my arguments will hold a little more sway and prove to get a few more friends to the track. And even though this step will not erase all types of cheating I do know that it is a step that is years late in arriving.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Off The Fence and into the Dirt

I'm certain that when Breeder's Cup weekend comes around it will feel as exciting and festive as ever. But this year I feel something insidious has cast a pall over The Breeders Cup. I may be the only one feeling this way. And at first I didn't discount the possibility that this feeling is somehow a result of a juxtaposition of racing and the national and world financial woes of the day. However, after ferreting out the culprit I am sure it is solely the result of an industry that runs before it walks. I am referring to the synthetic track on which this years races will be contested. I also believe that there have been many small decisions made since last years event that had already started to dull the shine and I'll start with some of those.

For me, Filly Friday is a negative. I won't be alone in trying to juggle a schedule so that I may be able to watch the races. And if I am unable to watch the Friday races I'm sure I won't be alone in that unfortunate circumstance. Of course if the worst does occur we'll miss all the distaff decisions; that's foresight for you! Sure one can access replays but replays, while a helpful tool, are passe` by definition. All the attributes that make the sport of horse racing so great- the visual of the horses body language in the paddock, anticipation, the excitement of the race itself, those few fleeting seconds that make up each race that are the penultimate moments and can only truly be experienced live, are all gone with the running. To watch Zenyatta or any of the hopeful runners on replay, after the fact, does not nearly hold the same drama or urgency as the live event. Horse racing is about being live and alive. It's a celebration of physicality. I would still vote for one long day. But if it has to be two days I'd prefer to see Juvenile Friday. As I've stated before, I believe Saturday and Sunday is the way to go. This after all is the 'Big Leagues'. Does the brain trust of racing really believe they will lose more handle going against baseball and football than running on a day when the only race fans that will definitely be able to enjoy are industry workers? Horse fans are HORSE fans.

Getting to my main area of contention - the synthetic track - I have to admit I had not thought about it as a negative until trying to figure out why I was feeling as I was about the B.C. I can trace the seed of the sentiment to mid summer when Jess Jackson laid out plans for Curlin's turf experiment with an eye toward running in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr.-I). The proposition was exciting and one that I was hopeful of seeing. In hindsight I would have preferred to see Curlin run in l'Arc - especially in light of Zarkava's historic performance. I would have liked to see it because it hasn't been done before. And I would have liked to see it because it would have Curlin, our best, meet Europe's best on their turf, literally. At the time I imagine most (myself included) believed that Curlin would go on to win his turf debut in the Grade I Man O' War, even though he was challenging two previous B.C. champions. So how does this impact the Breeder's Cup? One of the major concerns - if not the reason - Curlin was to skip the B.C. (aside from the chance to make history) was the Pro-Ride synthetic surface that was in the process of being installed at Santa Anita. One might reason that now that we can reasonably assume we'll see Curlin and Big Brown in the Classic the shine would be restored, but there is more fallout to a synthetic B.C. Zito won't be sending any horses and he has a few that should be attending. One of those is Commentator. I am not as big a believer in him as many but he should be there in the dirt mile, maybe even the classic. Bobby Frankel also expressed some ambivalence about the surface. And though that may not be the reason Vineyard Haven isn't going (as of this writing) it was a consideration. I imagine it was a large consideration since they ran in the Champagne last Saturday. Being only three weeks from B.C. boy's day it's doubtful he was considering running Vineyard Haven in both. And these won't be the only defections due to the surface. And let's keep in mind that if both Big Brown and Curlin did not have pedigrees that suggested turf one or both may not be running.

I had actually liked the synthetic surfaces. I'm merely trying to highlight reasons why I believe the B.C. is going to be less than definitive this year. I became a big fan of Hollywood Park because of its' synthetic track. But I see a problem looming on the horizon because of synthetics. Just when it seemed we may get uniform drug rules in most racing jurisdictions, creating a more even racing flat, resulting in more crossover competition nationwide, we may be faced with a dichotomy in racing based on track surfaces. Will we have horses refusing to meet each other unless it's on their preferred surface? We already do. I have to think that some of the connections of horses that will run in The Breeder's Cup have reservations because of the surface. How will this play itself out in the industry? I think some ought to start thinking about this.

There has always been posturing and differences in tracks, circuits and their respective horses. There has always been East vs. West. But, eventually the twain would meet somewhere to have it out, to settle the score, at least once. This year it appears we will be lucky as all signs point to Curlin and Big Brown running in the Classic (they may have some 'Navigation' problems but I'll save the analysis for another time). But in the future 'showdowns' may be the exception rather than the rule. We saw the beginnings of this trend this year when the connections of Colonel John and other West Coast colts had to decide whether to come East to run on dirt. The more the synthetics are ran on the more an undeniable bias toward horses with some turf pedigree becomes evident. I fear a scenario where dirt runners and 'synthesizers' will never meet. That will be nothing but bad for racing. The synthetics ( I had believed) were meant to simulate (replace) dirt, not grass. After all if it were grass that was being simulated we would be eliminating turf courses not dirt tracks. Are we just unknowingly creating another division in racing? To me it seems so.

I had always been on the fence but leaning pro on synthetics, but I have changed my mind. Obviously there is something very different between running on synthetics and running on dirt. There is something not so very different between running on synthetics and grass. Do we really want to breed the ability of our race horses to run on dirt out of the thoroughbred? I think we need to embrace the difference in the two abilities not eliminate one. I think it would be a disservice to the breed and to the fans if that were to become the trend.

As I have been writing this The Blood Horse has reported news that Churchill plans a "major" announcement on Wednesday. It is presumably about CD hosting the 2010 Breeders Cup. I only hope that is all of the news. I hope we are not about to hear about the first Synthetic Derby!

I have jumped off the fence and have landed in dirt! If some tracks stop trying to speed up the surface so that it resembles a tarmac for big races that would probably go a long way toward solving the breakdown problem. I have to believe that they can make dirt tracks as safe as synthetics. In any case I think that 'going synthetic' should be thought out a little more before steamrolling ahead without a thought toward how it may impact the future of the sport or the breed.

addendum: (added Tue. morning) Apparently Zito would have considered sending Commentator but he's not 100% [DRF]. Regardless, it doesn't change my thinking.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Horse of the Year...further discussion

The response I received from Dana concerning my last post got me to thinking a bit about how we weigh the different aspects of racing when rating our choice(s) for Horse of the Year.

Dana is admittedly in Zenyatta's corner, at this point in time, for Horse of the Year. In my last post I sided with Big Brown (at this point), but have Zenyatta rated second with Curlin rounding out the top three and having to race and win the B.C. Classic to win HOY in my mind.

Is this just a case of weighing the males with more importance than the distaff? I don't think so but as I stated in my last post it is self evident that the races run predominantly by males are weighted with much more importance. To my thinking this is not wrong. The entire industry revolves around the results of these races, especially the three year old Classics. The entire breed is built upon the genetics of those that dominate these races. This, too, may be a slight to the distaffers but it is a design of nature not of choice. A stallion can cover over a hundred mares (too many) but a mare can only have one foal a year. However, I believe the best racing stock is determined through female lines. Give me a good producer over a unproven well bred yearling every time. It's undeniable all the successful old private racing barns were built around their broodmares. It can be argued heatedly who was worth more to the breed Ballade or Halo. Obviously the argument is ridiculous as we need both but based just on success a good mare will produce better quality more often (percentage wise) than a stallion can ever hope to. I'm also not sure that basing the health of the breed on three year old horses is such a great idea -they're not even fully matured yet - (see my Year of the Five Year Old) but, nonetheless, that's the way it is.

I do believe the distaff division has been the most interesting, contentious and entertaining this year, but it is the older division that has created most of the excitement. And I do weigh them and the older male division with less in importance than the three year olds. Also I do rate a horse running routes more heavily than those sprinting. After all the ideal 'classic' thoroughbred is one bred to run fast carrying weight over a distance of ground. And I think this, the epitome of what the breed should be, should be omnipresent when making a decision as to which thoroughbred is HOY. Also as I mentioned in the last post the three year olds seeking Classic wins or a Triple Crown have to perform to a calender and not to races cherry picked to coincide with their best form. This is the hardest demand of all and one with which only they must contend.

So as I see it the only true discrimination against the distaffers is one that is mostly American. That being that we don't run the females against the males very often. I'm not sure why that is? Perhaps it's just a puritanically followed custom that has not been questioned. I don't think that is based on ability alone. While generally speaking it is possibly (and practically accepted) true that males may out perform females of the same age I don't know that this is true. I do know that I see no difference in the top performers in both divisions. One only has to think back to last years Belmont when Rags to Riches beat the reining horse of the year, and generally accepted best horse in the world, Curlin. I would give Zenyatta every bit as good a chance of winning the B.C. Classic as Big Brown and only slightly less a chance than Curlin. Perhaps the answer is to write some races that add incentive for more in the distaff division runners to challenge the males. Added money for a win? I don't know. I would like to see it more often. I also know that many came down hard on both Larry Jones and Todd Pletcher for running and, if I remember one particular word correctly, 'ruining' their fillies by running against the boys. I don't see how either horse was harmed by their race. Can you blame the race itself for Eight Belles tragedy or Rags to Riches precipitous decline? I don't think so.

So for the moment I will stand by my choice of Big Brown. But I will be rooting for Curlin. But I would love to see Zenyatta run against them both.

Discussion to be continued...

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Horse of the Year

To get the month off to a good start for entries I've decided for a quick entry about HOY. In the horse blogosphere there has been some discussion going on as to who is the Horse of the Year, at least up to this point. Dana over at Green But Game, has a poll in progress that as I write this has Curlin (41%) leading Zenyatta (34%) and Big Brown (26%). Dana gave her reasons for choosing Zenyatta in her 9/17 post .

Undefeated? Check. Won on multiple surfaces? Check. Beat an impressive reining champion? Check. Beat the impressive reining champion while making first start on new surface? Check.

And off course her extremely impressive win Saturday in the G.I. Lady's secret can be added to that description. That's 3 G.I wins this year and 3 G.II wins. That is an unbelievable resume no matter the year or the division. But she would not be my pick at this point.

At this stage I would have to cast my vote for Big Brown. My reasoning is based on a quirk of [American?] racing that has few competitions that have distaff division runners running against the boys. The fact that our biggest races are generally run only by colts/horses does unfairly tilt the balance of importance to their side. As unfortunate as that may be for a fillie as great as Zenyatta I still think it is right. And who knows what may have been had Eight Belles not met such a tragic end?

In any case Big Brown danced in all the big dances and won 2 of those. He has four G.I's and a winning performance on grass against a graded stake field (in my opinion). Sure one can quibble over the talent of the crop, but that's not BB's fault and perhaps they are not so poor as it seems. Let's give them time to see how they develop. Fair's fair and they were all on an even playing field. And yes one can be disgruntled over having a race created just for him, but he still had to go out and win and he did. It's a no-brainer that if he wins the Classic with Curlin running he is Horse of the Year. I don't expect that to happen but it's not unthinkable at all.

As for Curlin, everyone that reads my blog knows he is one of my favorites, ever. However, as much as I sing his praises, especially about his ability to maintain such a high level of racing, I don't think his record - this year - warrants HOY. He too has four GI's and a second place finish on the turf to Red Rocks in the G.I Man O' War. But he did have the advantage of being able to pick all of his spots. Not that I believe they ducked anyone. Actually I think it just the opposite, many ducked him, but it does make it a bit easier when compared to a Triple Crown run. He has also had a bit lighter schedule than the other two. For me the only way he can win Horse of the Year is to repeat in the Classic. I think he will.

Having said all this if both Big Brown and Curlin succumb to some other foe I would cast my vote for Zenyatta. Again, you can't blame a horse for the competition they run against, but I still have to weigh the importance of achievements in the male division higher to this point.