Last night I watched “Catching Hell”, the ESPN documentary on Steve Bartman. Great film about scapegoats, great film. During the commercials were ads for the 2011 Breeders’ Cup with the replay of Mike Smith’s choke job aboard Zenyatta last year. You can hear the tears in Trevor Denman’s voice. It was enough to get the Carryover pretty darn excited for the Breeders’ Cup, but also it got me thinking about my next Band-Aid column—how can I patch up the sport when I’m commissioner of horse racing.
I have at least one idea that would make the game infinitely more interesting, if nothing else. I call it the Horse Cap. It’s simple: cap the amount of horses trainers condition. Let’s set the bar at 100.
It gets hammered on the comments of columns like mine and others that trainers Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, Bill Mott, etc., dominate the trainer standings. Pletcher has over 200 horses; Asmussen has nearly as many if not more.
There are dozens upon dozens of capable and brilliant horsemen and women in this country who don’t get a chance at Grade 1-talent unless lightening strikes their barns. Who was John Servis, Tom Albertrani, Barclay Tagg and John Sherriffs until they had big horses comes their way? Compared to the BIG BOYS, they were unknowns, but they were no less skilled.
Take those 100 extra horses that Pletcher can longer train—Graded Stakes kind of talent—and now owners have to find the Phil Schoenthals, Chris Groves, and Robin Grahams of the world: extremely capable horse people who have junior varsity horses and are thus handicapped from the perspective of horse talent.
Look at Kathy Ritvo now. It takes a big horse to elevate her heart transplant story. She’ll get better stock thanks to Mucho Macho Man. How many other Kathy Ritvos are out there? Taggs? Servises? It’s a lot.
This will bring increased notoriety to the current fringe. Those Maryland trainers aren’t going to go anywhere. All of sudden their talented strings will inject their regions with better talent and pub. Think about what Smarty Jones did for the fans of Mid-Atlantic. There’d be more competitive balance among the trainers and there’d be more characters.
It’d be like the New England Patriots getting a roster of 250 players and the Bengals get a roster of 14.
What makes Derby Week so special is that there are the select few who “don’t belong.” The Ritvos, the Breens, the Kenneallys. What if these guys, by virtue of a united body, could claim more horses and thus better talent? They’d showcase that they are, in fact, as good, if not better, than the Mega Stables.
From an owner point of view, you’ll get better attention. The Pletchers and Asmussens simply can’t talk to all their clients. Sure, they do, but it’s a quick update. They’re CEOs. Sometimes you’d get better feedback from an amoeba.
One of the more affecting scenes I witnessed was during the 2009 Saratoga meet was when Asmussen led a fractious horse into the paddock between races. This gray horse jumped, bucked, hopped, threw his head, just a real good fella. Asmussen had the shank and danced around this horse like they were coupled figure skaters. He was trying to calm it down, school it, whatever. Here was Mega Trainer on the floor using his gift. How many times have you seen that? Even in the mornings? You haven’t. Shrink the stables and they’ll still get theirs, they may even have a better relationship with their owners and horses.
There’s room for more teams out there. Cap the horses. Free up character.
Brendan O'Meara is the author of "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year." Buy it now!