View From The Eighth Pole: The Race To The Breeding Shed

by | 06.12.2017 | 2:29pm
Jose Ortiz and Tapwrit appear in victory lane following the Belmont Stakes

There was a time, not so long ago, that sporting men and women would breed Thoroughbreds to race them. Today, it seems, we have more business people who race to breed.

With the 2017 Triple Crown in the books – and three different horses winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont for the ninth time since 2000 – we can look ahead to Grade 1 races for 3-year-olds like the Haskell Invitational, the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby to help settle the pecking order in year-end Eclipse Award voting for champion 3-year-old male. We might even get to see Always Dreaming, Clouding Computing and Tapwrit – the winners of this year's Triple Crown races – take on older rivals in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar on Nov. 4.

But what are the chances these three horses will compete as 4-year-olds in 2018?

Unlikely, based on the recent past.

Since 2000, only six of 17 Kentucky Derby winners raced as 4-year-olds, and two of those winners – Funny Cide and Mine That Bird – were geldings. Monarchos, the 2001 winner raced once at 4, 2005 winner Giacomo raced a full season, and 2011 winner Animal Kingdom raced at 4 and 5, including stops in Dubai and Royal Ascot in England. California Chrome, the 2014 winner, didn't retire until after this year's inaugural Pegasus World Cup in January, when he was 6.

Barbaro, the 2006 winner, never recovered from injuries sustained in the Preakness and died. But the other 10 all went to stud the following year.

By contrast, in Japan, where the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) is that country's biggest race for 3-year-olds, all but three of the 17 winners since 2000 continued to race at 4 (and many had 5- or 6-year-old campaigns as well) before retiring to stud. The sport is extremely popular in Japan, with great emphasis placed on races for older runners. Breeders there put more stock in horses that have proven themselves over time and distance.

Recent Preakness and Belmont winners don't generally race at 4, either. Only six Preakness winners since 2000 raced beyond their sophomore season and seven Belmont winners have done so.

We've all heard the reasons for retiring a horse to stud at 3: “He suffered a minor injury that would require time or surgery and, well, he's just too valuable to risk”; “He's 100 percent sound, but he's done enough”; or “Insurance costs for a horse of his value are prohibitive.”

Oftentimes when a horse wins a race the stature of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont, his owner becomes an asset manager as much as a sportsman. Stallion deals are drawn up to be announced at an opportune time and farms that buy the breeding rights don't want to see the value of the horse decline after paying millions of dollars to stand him at stud.

What's driving this is the insatiable, and in my opinion, illogical appetite for new stallions. I don't blame the stallion farm operators; they are merely responding to market forces. Commercial breeders know that the offspring of first-year stallions – for reasons I will never fully understand – are in high demand among yearling buyers, both end users and yearling-to-2-year-old pinhookers. Stallion farms need to restock their breeding shed annually to keep up with that demand.

If this counterproductive cycle continues, the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of horse owners and their agents, who pay a premium to buy yearlings and 2-year-olds by unproven first-year studs rather than finding horses sired by proven stallions.

The sport and its fans, in the long run, are the losers.

There has been a dearth of competition in the ranks of older male horses in recent years in American racing, in large part because of the absence of Triple Crown race winners. These are the horses that are most recognizable to the casual or potential fans.

With the Breeders' Cup Classic now offering a $6-million purse and the Pegasus World Cup soaring to $16 million in 2018, owners of these Triple Crown race winners have a financial incentive to keep them in training another year. They also can do a favor to a struggling sport by giving fans what they want: enduring stars who do not disappear once the Triple Crown and 3-year-old season are over.

It's not as if the owners of many of these horses need the money a stallion deal will bring, though I understand they are business people who try to run their racing stable as a business. I would also hope they remember it is a sport that can only thrive when embraced by the public.

This race to the breeding shed for classic winners is relatively new. Of the 20 Kentucky Derby winners from 1980-99, 13 ran as 4-year-olds. From 1960-79, 12 of 20 competed at 4, including Triple Crown winners Affirmed and Seattle Slew.

Correction to Chart: Barbaro, though injured at 3, was not euthanized until January the following year.

Don't Forget The Fans

Despite the absence of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, the New York Racing Association put on a tremendous program of racing on Saturday to wrap up the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.

There will always be complaints about price gouging at any premier horse racing event, but I paid $155 for a third-floor clubhouse seat and felt it was good value (compared to other major sporting events or a Broadway show). The $20 I paid for two slices of pizza, chips and a soft drink seemed steep but no worse than prices at a movie theater or ball park. Crowd control leaving the Long Island Railroad was well managed (though security lines getting into the track were long), and there no problems getting a bet down.

The NYRA team under the leadership of CEO Chris Kay did an outstanding job.

The one major glitch I saw was just before the Belmont Stakes when horses and riders left the saddling paddock for the racetrack tunnel without once circling around the walking ring, where hundreds of fans had been waiting to see them.

When the horses turned right, there were immediate catcalls and boos from fans on the grandstand side of the walking ring. They had come to see the horses and were deprived of that pleasure.

Martin Panza, NYRA's senior vice president of racing operations, said on Monday this problem will be fixed for 2018.

This reminds me of an incident in the late 1980s or early 1990s when NYRA had a multi-breed “HorseFair” on Belmont day, with most of the on-track activities only taking place in front of the clubhouse. Alfred Vanderbilt, a former NYRA president, got wind of that and strongly urged the organizers that people on the grandstand side mattered just as much as those in the box seats and clubhouse. Racing should never forget the fans in the grandstand.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

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