First, there was the phantom knee ligament tear that caused quarterback Jay Cutler to watch on the sidelines as his Bears teammates went down to defeat against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game. (He was seen browsing the shops of Beverly Hills with his girlfriend Wednesday.)
Then, on the flip side, Chicagoans watched former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the clear front-runner in the city’s mayoral race, thrown off the ballot by the court for not being a resident, only to claw his way back into the election like a man possessed with the thought of victory. (He was shaking hands with the electorate at El stops at dawn yesterday despite no indication that the Supreme Court would hear his appeal or vote in his favor that afternoon.)
Quit in terms of the Cutler kind occurs often in horse racing. Nobody calls it “quit,” of course. But nobody calls aiming your horse away from the competition to a lesser race that you can win “unsportsmanlike” either. In today’s ever-strengthening money-oriented society the man who makes the fiscally-sound choice is admired more than the man who shows daring. It wasn’t always that way.
“There’s a big difference now in the owners who are prominent and the old owners that you’re harkening back to,” said horse owner and breeders Jim Squires, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune, in a telephone interview. “These guys are smart enough to know that this is not a business. But, strangely enough, after they get in, they have a big horse and suddenly think that it’s a business and they’re going to make money in it,” the current owner of Two Bucks Farm said.
Squires believes that the new brand of owners applies predictable business principles such as cost cutting and brand management to what is essentially a gamble. Their business approach leads to carefully managed campaigns that are designed to achieve perfection for their stallion and broodmare prospects.
A horse used to be considered a potential sire because he was well-bred, properly-conformed and durable. Proof of such attributes is no longer necessary. Prudence explains also, in part, why the best horses race infrequently, retire early and bankrupt the sport’s history.
“Today, horses will come off the track after four races and the trainer will be featured in some article saying, ‘This is the fastest two-year-old I ever trained.’ It’s amazing that people are taken in by that garbage,” Squires said. “For the last ten to 15 years, the speculators went nuts over first-year stallions, even when they didn’t do anything - they might have run a big Beyer, or they set a track record, or they won a stakes at Saratoga, and that’s all you have to do,” he said, explaining, in part, what goes on. “Well, most of them are junk,” he concluded.
“You want to send a stallion to stud at the height of its popularity and prominence,” Squires continued, underscoring that “junk” is introduced into the breed’s bloodstream because fiscal considerations overrule the sport of it all. Modern breeding and training practices have forced business-driven owners to operate on borrowed time. A permissible medication policy produces few horses that are able to last long, and even fewer horses able to compete at a peak level over several seasons, which, by the way, make the achievements of Zenyatta more astounding than casual fans of the sport realize.
Horses with Triple Crown potential and graded stakes success – the ones that offer the most commercial upside as sires - are at a much higher risk of catastrophic injury that would jeopardize their value than horses without great ability. They’re subjected to harder training, more medications and x-rays, and they most likely have a genetic disposition toward unsoundness that was passed along to them by sires of similar circumstances. The situation has the force of a perfect storm, yet it doesn’t seem to be a storm that will pass over soon.
Too often, the news of the day when it comes to horse racing is about which horses didn’t run instead of which did. Boys At Tosconova will be walking the sidelines when the gates fly open for the Holy Bull. The unpredictable nature of a two-year-old colt’s development is the cause of it – at least that’s what the owner says. Wait another 30 days, and the trainer will say, “Fastest two-year-old colt I ever trained.”