Three-year-old retirements: Tough choices, sleepless nights

by | 08.22.2012 | 1:05pm

There is a simplistic, sometimes angry – and usually mistaken – assumption among many racing fans that when someone is fortunate enough to breed or purchase the type of Thoroughbred capable of winning at the sport's very highest level, these horse owners see nothing but dollar signs behind the webbing of their trainer's favorite stall. That they don't notice the fiery eyes, the rippling muscles, or the competitive spirit these unique creatures possess.

As soon as these supercharged horses achieve something worthy of note, the theory goes, those money-grubbing owners hustle their steeds off to the breeding shed where they can produce, not more flesh and blood, but mountains of dollars.

If you believe that, if you believe that people become horse owners to make money…well, I have a horse I'd like to sell you.

I dare say that Paul Reddam, Phyllis Wyeth, and Ahmed Zayat do not own horses because they think it's an easy path to riches. Au contraire.

They like to watch their horses run, just as much – no, probably more so – as the most devoted racing fan does. This year, all three of them have experienced indescribable thrills.

I'll Have Another carried Reddam's colors to glorious victories in three consecutive Grade 1 races – the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness. Wyeth won the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth with her homebred Union Rags last winter, then watched in bitter disappointment as the colt suffered terrible racing luck in the Kentucky Derby before bouncing back with a hard-fought victory in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. Zayat, having finished second twice previously in the Kentucky Derby, wound up the bridesmaid again in 2012, this time with Bodemeister, the betting favorite and smashing winner of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby who was overtaken by I'll Have Another in the shadow of the finish line in both the Derby and Preakness.

But with those incredible highs came some terrible lows…and agonizing decisions. With Tuesday's announcement that Bodemeister would not race again, all three horses are now retired, and all three owners have been subjected to name-calling and second-guessing by people who have never been in their shoes – not for a second.

The retirements were the result of three different kinds of injuries – all of which occurred in training and are the types of maladies that time and patience may have overcome. But I'll Have Another's tendonitis, Union Rags' suspensory ligament lesion, and Bodemeister's nerve condition also could return in a more gruesome way, during the height of competition. Simply put, their risk of further injury is increased. And there is no guarantee that, even with abundant time and patience, any one of the three horses could have been brought back to the level of performance they exhibited previously.

All three owners were confronted with the same choice, and I suspect all three ultimately based their decisions on two things: first and foremost, doing what is right for the horse; and second, managing the significant asset that their prized Thoroughbred had become.

There, I said it. Money is a factor, and it has sent more than a few perfectly healthy and sound horses to the breeding shed after their 3-year-old seasons. In these three cases, however, I am convinced money was not the primary, driving reason the horses had their careers cut short.

Each of these Grade 1 winners is worth millions of dollars. Reddam sold the Flower Alley colt I'll Have Another to Shigeyuki Okada for $10 million to stand at Big Red Farm on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Bodemeister, according to various sources, is valued at close to $13 million, based on the amount Kenny Troutt's WinStar Farm is believed to have paid for a significant share in the son of Empire Maker in late June. The stud deal to stand Union Rags at William Farish's Lane's End Farm, I have been led to believe, is somewhat north of $13 million.

To bring those horses back in 2013 would have been expensive. The mortality and fertility insurance would cost in the vicinity of 8-10% of their value. That's about $1 million for each horse, no small sum. But the real financial risk would be in bringing these horses back, only to discover that the recovery from injury was not sufficient for them to return to their previous level of performance. Each of the horse's perceived value would likely plummet.

Yes, it is an asset management issue, but it's more a matter of treating the horse right. No one wants to see a top-class Thoroughbred struggle to beat opponents he previously toyed with. That would open the owners to a whole different level of criticism.

“I don't want to hurt the horse,” Wyeth told her friend and bloodstock adviser Russell Jones when making her decision to retire Union Rags. She wasn't referring to the financial portfolio Union Rags had contributed to.

“I am completely depressed about this,” Ahmed Zayat told me yesterday after Bodemeister was retired, “and I am not talking about the economics of this. I am talking as a fan and a guy who loved this horse from day one. It was never a question about anything other than this: take care of the horse first. Everyone involved said this was the right thing to do.

“I have total trust in Elliott Walden (president and CEO of WinStar),” Zayat added. “He had sleepless nights in talking to all the vets about the horse. We did all the diagnostics, and we found out there was nerve damage and muscle atrophy in the shoulder. That is very serious. Yes, perhaps he could be sound again someday, but it would take a long time for him to ever hope to compete at that level again. You don't do that with horses.”

When Reddam got a telephone call from trainer Doug O'Neill one day before the Belmont Stakes that I'll Have Another had been injured, he was numb. “When I hung up the phone I sat in a chair stunned and trying not to cry,” he wrote in a blog for Bloodhorse.com. “My little brother appeared, took one look at me, and asked me if our dad had died.  … He gave me an experience that I would have never dreamed possible, this unbelievable horse with the athleticism, mind, and heart of a creature that few of us ever have touch us face to face. “

And yet, despite the comments from veterinary experts that the likelihood for a complete recovery and return to the same level of competition was questionable, Reddam was subjected to charges of greed. The connections of Union Rags and Bodemeister were attacked in the same – unfair, in my opinion – manner.

In the case of Bodemeister, veterinary surgeon Larry Bramlage who treated the Empire Maker colt at Rood and Riddle said, “Some horses can totally overcome this. If the nerve regenerates and the muscle comes back, they can be normal. But it takes quite a while for that to happen. It's not certain that he recovers. We expect him to resolve this, but there is the possibility he would be left with some diminished muscle function.”

Twitter Twitter
Paulick Report on Instagram