The Art of Pinhooking

by | 02.28.2011 | 6:32am

(The major 2-year-old auction season begins at 11 a.m. Thursday with Fasig-Tipton's Florida Sale, held for the first time at the Palm Meadows Training Center in Palm Beach County. The under tack show kicks off at 10 a.m. Monday.)

Some people think there's nothing to it. Go to a yearling sale, buy a few horses, take them to Florida and put a saddle on 'em.  Teach them to run counterclockwise, run an eighth of a mile real fast, then count your money.

Steve Venosa has heard it all before. “A lot of people think it's easy,” said the Ocala, Fla.-based Venosa, who operates SGV Thoroughbreds. “All I say is, 'Come join us.'”

Venosa is one of many highly skilled horsemen and women operating out of the Ocala area, buying yearlings at public auction they think fit the profile of what end users are looking for, putting them into training—slowly at first and then picking up steam as the 2-year-old sale season approaches—and trying to get the horses in peak form in time for each auction's public breeze show.

Then, just like the yearling consignors these pinhookers bought their horses from, they keep their fingers crossed when the youngsters enter the auction ring.

“I look at myself like I'm a coach, and I'm managing my players,” said Murray Smith, who operates Murray Smith Training Stables. “These horses are athletes.”

In a business where speed is king, Smith—who made her first pinhook in 1988–has managed to set the standard for fast breezes prior to sales, and her graduates include the 2001 Kentucky Derby winner, Monarchos. But it's not just about whose horse works the fastest in the breeze show.

“Once upon a time you could look at the time trials and know who the sale topper is,” said Eddie Woods, a former steeplechase rider from Ireland who came to Ocala in the 1990s. “But the buyers have become much more sophisticated.”

“Times got faster and faster,” said David Scanlon, the son of the late Robert Scanlon, who started the Scanlon Training Center in Williston in 1989 that David now oversees. “People got so good at getting their horses to go fast, it's made buyers work harder. Finding the good horse is not as obvious.”

“It hasn't gotten easier,” said Nick DeMeric, a native of England who has been pinhooking horses for nearly 30 years. “There are few secrets at the sale these days, with video of the workouts, stride analysis, heart measuring, and bone density. As these 2-year-old buyers have gotten more sophisticated, we've had to become better at what we do.”

“The buyers are less forgiving—on everything,” said Venosa.

Every 2-year-old consignor the Paulick Report interviewed spoke about the importance of building a foundation and taking it slow with their horses, despite the compressed schedule between the time of the summer or fall yearling sales and the 2-year-old auction season. Most of the consignors also prepare horses for the track on behalf of private clients, giving them the luxury of more time.

Eddie Woods says it's gotten easier in recent years to begin training the horses when they arrive from the yearling sales. “For all intents and purposes, they are broken when they arrive,” he said. “Sale yearlings are so much better prepared today.

Woods' sale horses (he has others he is preparing for the racetrack) get a week off upon arrival, then are handled in their stall with tack for a week. After that, they are led under the shedrow with riders aboard for a couple of days, then jog the shed for a couple more. After that, they are ridden for a week in an oval pen,  four to five days in a paddock, and 10 days in a breaking field. “It's about a month before they'll step onto the track,” he said. “You have to learn when to say go and when to say whoa.”

Woods said he tries to decide around Jan. 1 which sale best fits each of his horses. “It takes common sense,” he said. “There's too many horses that end up in boutique sales that don't belong there.”

Nick De Meric's September yearling purchases usually start off right away with a resistance free training method in the style of Ray Hunt, Martin Black and Tom Dorrance. “The horses will be jogging patterns in a field within a week,” De Meric said, “doing figure 8s and teardrops. Then we introduce them to the track and watch closely to help decide which sales to point them to. After that decision's been made, I tailor training to that destination.”

David Scanlon, who has about 50 sale horses in his stable of 140 2-year-olds, said it's a three-week process to get his youngsters prepared for the training track, starting in September. Riders go in the stalls, put on the tack and get in the saddle. “It's rare to find young horses that resist breaking,” he said.

After that, it's into a round pen, where the horses learn turns from their riders and jog in pairs. They are then taken to a large field, do figure 8s, and learn to go into a full canter with a rider up. “The process takes about three weeks,” Scanlon said.

Steve Venosa, who went out on his own after working for Crupi's New Castle Farm for nine years, has an equal number of pinhooks and young horses to train for private clients—about 30 each. “We break and train them the same way,” he said, “except the sale horses breeze earlier. We're not trying to build a better mousetrap, but attention to detail is very important. The smallest thing can make a big difference.”

Murray Smith spent three years galloping horses for Ocala Stud and also worked for Clyde Rice before going out on her own.  “I've learned you've got to be patient,” Smith said. “Don't let them do too much too soon. The bodies of these horses are developing so fast, they want to do more than you should let them do.”

For breaking, Smith's horses are handled in their stalls for two days, walked for three days, spend another three days in a round pen, and then are ridden for 30-45 days in open fields. When they finally make it to the track, it's a three-eighths mile jog there, and they'll do half-mile jog once around the track. “I never train them more than a mile,” she said.

Smith said proper feed of young horses is vital. “The key is a low-starch diet that's easy on their stomachs and is highly digestible,” she said. “I give them a pelleted feed, and I'm very particular about my hay,” saying she gives her horses a mix of 70% orchard and 30% alfalfa.

That good nutritional foundation is critical when young horses start galloping every day. Smith builds them up gradually, and by January they are galloping seven-eighths of a mile. At that point they begin to breeze a furlong at the end of their gallop.

“In January, they'll do an eighth in 15 seconds or so,” she said. “I'll back up four weeks from a sale's breeze date, and try to gradually put a little more speed into each eighth, going from the 15s that first breeze, to 14s for the next, then 13s, 12s and finally 11s.

“But putting those miles jogging and galloping under them in the beginning really helps.”

De Meric agrees. “There's no substitute for long, slow miles,” he said. “I believe in building in small increments. That way, if we see a red light, we see it five blocks away. We start jogging them three-quarters of a mile and then a mile. They'll gallop three-eighths, then a half, then five-eighths. Six weeks before they ship to the sale we'll start open gallops. My horses only breeze once or twice before they leave.

Venosa, like Smith and many other 2-year-old consignors, counts back from the breeze show in hopes of having his horses peak that day. “The breeze show is our one big shot,” he said. “We always hope to make the best sales, but with some horses you have to say that the light hasn't come on yet. That's why we go to every 2-year-old sale.”

Scanlon begins his breezing program six weeks out from the breeze show. “I don't want them to peak too early,” he said.  “Once they go to the track, we pair them up in twos and threes, jogging a couple of weeks and letting them gallop the last three-eighths. We gradually work them up to mile and half gallops before they start to breeze.

“We'll start having them do a two-minute lick (mile in roughly 2:00), and that's when the cream starts to rise to the top. Some horses, like Unbridled's Song, show their talent immediately, while with others, like Afleet Alex, it's not easy to detect their ability.” Both horses were graduates of Scanlon Training Center.

Woods backs up his horses' training six weeks from the time they ship to the sale. “They do a two-minute lick, with an eighth of a mile breeze at the end,” he said. “But if you don't have the foundation when you begin to do the speed work, they can't handle it. That's why we go so slow at the beginning.”

Young horses are not immune from injuries, and bucked shins (inflammation of the front of the cannon bone) are often the biggest problem. Cold, wet weather can contribute to that. Several of the consignors scrape shins to improve circulation and healing, but some horses ultimately need time off and will get pushed back to a later sale or miss the auction season altogether.

Several consignors said their attrition rate is small, saying the biggest side-effect is that horses don't make the sales they'd hope to get them into.

Over the years, said Smith, she counts on roughly 20% of her 2-year-olds not making it to the sale.

“If I've got 25 head,” she said. “I'm hoping for five home runs, five will be somewhere in the middle, five I have to write off as losses, five don't make it, and five I have to give away because of injuries. You know pretty early on which ones aren't going to make it.”

Smith estimates her average cost is $30,000 per horse in expenses, on top of an average yearling purchase price of $50,000-$75,000.  She employs three exercise riders and six grooms. Overall, it's a considerable investment, and Smith, like several others quoted here, has investors in many of the pinhooks. “I've been doing this a while, and I'm convinced I can make money for people,” she said.

Most of the consignors quoted in this article have cut back in the number of 2-year-olds they are preparing for the sales.

“We were the biggest in the game, but have really downsized the last five years,” said De Meric, whose 23-year-old son, Tristan, is now working with him. “He's rekindled my interest in this,” De Meric said.

De Meric has seen the 2-year-old sales evolve from low-end auctions to a marketplace where pedigrees often match the high quality of the athletes being sold. “Nobody was pinhooking horses for more than $50,000 back in the early '80s,” De Meric said. “We bought a Danzig at Saratoga for $200,000, and most people thought we were half crazy. But then we sold it the next year for $350,000, and that proved it could be done. “

De Meric said breezing for speed and going solo in the under tack shows—instead of in pairs—had a big impact on the sales. “Fast horses started selling for a lot of money.  That changed the game.”

Not everyone is enamored with 2-year-old sales. Complaints of drugged horses and overuse of the whip in breeze shows led to changes. The National Association of Two-Year-Old Consignors (NATC), formed in 2000, has worked with auction companies to raise the integrity of sales, which now feature drug testing of horses and restricted use of the whip.

De Meric, NATC co-chairman with consignor Mike Mulligan, said the organization has made a positive change in several areas, which has improved the image of 2-year-old in training sales.

“To those who criticize 2-year-old consignors, come spend a day with us,” said Smith.

“We went through a stage where there was too much whipping,” said Scanlon, “but videos helped change that.”

Woods said there may still be a few bad apples at the 2-year-old auctions. “Like any business, there are rogues,” he said. “But what really helps us attain greater credibility is that we sell a good product.”

Two things contribute to that product: raw talent and good horsemanship.

“You make your money when you buy them at the yearling sales,” said Venosa.

But that doesn't mean all horses are treated the same.

“There's a misperception that every horse is on one fast track,” said Scanlon. “Some people don't understand the finesse and individual attention each horse gets.”

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