There's an emerging theme on this trip, and the U.S racing business might want to pay attention to it.
Our group with the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program set off for the Curragh Sunday to take in a day of racing featuring the Irish Derby. Before plowing into the Racing Post, we had a chat with a prominent Irish bloodstock agent, who wished to remain nameless for fear of sabotaging his business. After his talk, I understood why he was concerned.
“It's a huge problem,” the agent said as we asked about the issue of medication in America. The product is still good in the U.S, he said, but it doesn't matter. Perception rules. People here in Ireland and in other countries simply don't respect American-bred horses anymore for two reasons. One is the focus on dirt and speed when the rest of the world mostly races on turf. The other issue – the biggest one – is medication. “No one takes (American-breds) seriously,” he said. There was a time when we would look to Kentucky to learn, he said, but nowadays, racing is growing in so many other countries that “we don't even look at America” when buying horses.
The agent spoke of another theme that keeps cropping up. Australia has it right, with Asia poised to be the center of the racing universe in the medium-range future. “Australia is the role model,” the agent said. “They've been stealing our bloodlines with great success.”
Australia produces a lot of sprinters because a majority of the races are less than a mile, but the industry has also lured a host of classic distance sires to breed during the Northern Hemisphere's off-season. Therefore, Australia is quietly producing more and more world-class horses. Plus, the Australians have developed strong ties with the Asian racing world, which means they're set to pounce when Asian racing – China in particular – takes off.
The Australians have it right in another way as well. The agent said there's good reason why horse racing gets a centerpiece in the major newspapers in Australia. It's not just because Australians love racing. The Australian racing associations pay the newspapers a significant sum of money for prominent placement. The agent said that during the Melbourne Cup, in one paper, there's a seven-page spread. “In the U.S., even on big days, you'd be lucky to get seven lines in a newspaper,” our agent said.
So true. Is anyone paying attention to this??
We asked him if, as a bloodstock agent, he had any advice for American breeders. “Think globally,” he said. He mentioned Libya as one of several unknown emerging markets where racing is starting to catch on. But he said racing is on turf or synthetics in every one of those places. No dirt.
We briefly discussed the Irish Thoroughbred Marketing group, which promotes Ireland-breds to foreign buyers, and our agent couldn't believe there wasn't a similar organization in the U.S. “That's crazy,” he said. Exporting to Asia and other emerging markets is the future of the breeding industry, he said, and the U.S. – intentionally or not – is creating an unwanted island for itself.
After our discussion, it was time to get serious about Sunday's race card, which featured the Irish Derby and a horse shipped in by the Queen herself. I thought I was smitten with Royal Ascot, but by the end of Sunday, the Curragh had won me over.
To be fair, Ascot and the Curragh are completely different types of race courses. Ascot is enormous and designed for record crowds while the Curragh's race course is fairly small. It has a country fair feel to it – in a good way. The food was fantastic, the crowd friendly, and the racing beautiful.
Where else can you go to a country's biggest flat race and literally stand on the rail and at the finish line?? Okay, so my Derby photo turned out blurry, but I was there, by god. And it didn't take much effort either.
Half the Irish Derby field was trained by Aidan O'Brien, so he was apparently giving himself something of a 50-50 chance to repeat for the sixth straight time, and not only did he do that, but he finished one-two-three. I don't know what his magic is here in Ireland, but one discussion I had with a local racing expert suggested that O'Brien thinks globally and acts locally. His travel record (look up the Breeders' Cup finishes) isn't that great, but here at the Curragh, where the training yard isn't far away, O'Brien is deadly. You can try to bet against him, as I did, but you'll be pulling the threads out of your pockets in the end.
The other thing that drove me nuts was trying to bet an exacta. The Tote accepts exacta bets but clearly not very often. I bet four exactas Sunday, and every single one of them involved a thorough discussion.
“Exacta box 1-3-7? That's 60 Euro,” the first woman said. “No,” I said. “I want a 10 Euro exacta: 1 and the 3 OVER the 7. WITH the 7. IN FRONT OF the 7, however you say it here.”
“I got it. An exacta box, yes?” she replied, as if we were speaking a different language.
“No,” I tried as patiently as possible. “I think the 7 has no chance to win. I think the 7 sucks. I hate the 7. But I don't hate him that much. My prediction is that he'll finish second. Do you understand?”
“Does it look like this?”
She held up a trifecta ticket.
I give up.
Eventually, I did figure out a way to phrase it so that the tellers could punch it in properly, although that doesn't mean my bets came in. I tried to beat the Queen's horse in the Derby , but I picked the wrong O'Brien horse to win. My horses came in second and third, and to the best of my knowledge, there was no second-third exacta offered at the Curragh. And if there was, I would never want to try to figure out how to place that bet.
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