Friday, July 18, 2008

High Speed at Breeze-Up Sales Overrated

Saratoga Springs, NY, July 17, 2008--Should anyone be surprised that the results of an informal study conducted by members of the California Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association to measure the success of the Barretts preview sales from 1999 to 2006, featuring “warp speed” workouts, showed a very poor relationship between youthful zip and racetrack success?

I wasn’t and neither should you. Horses of all ages seldom win anything important after running an opening furlong in 10 seconds, that’s if they win anything at all, or even make it to the races.

The study attempted to measure the success rate of Barretts March Sale graduates over an eight-year period. The 2007 class, this year’s two-year-olds, were not included. Most of those youngsters have yet to race.

Critics of the report will claim the data is skewed, or incomplete, even just plain wrong. I’m willing to concede that some criticisms might be justified. But an overwhelming preponderance of evidence shows a clear trend, an alarming one to say the least, but not uncommon.

The research was conducted and is verifiable by visiting the Barretts and Pedigree Query websites, whose data was used to compile the following results. The samples included only the fastest best-of-preview workouts at one, two and three furlongs.

Some terrific race horses were Barretts Sales graduates, among them, Officer, Brother Derek, Queenie Belle, Dubai Escapade, Henny Hughes, River’s Prayer, Habibti and Notional, an impressive group indeed.

But the study was meant to correlate the “fastest” workers with racetrack profitability. By that criterion Dubai Escapade hasn’t justified his $2 million price tag on the racetrack. He’s won six of eight starts according to the data, but earned $427,000.

Henny Hughes and River’s Prayer made money, but not really. They weren’t sold. They were “buy-backs” a.k.a. “RNAs,” horses whose reserve price--the value placed on them by their breeder(s), was not attained.

Actually, most results were counter-intuitive: The higher the sales price, the lower the earnings. After working a quarter mile in :21.6 seconds, Morocco was sold in 1999 for $2-million, and earned $134,000 at the races, winning four of 16 starts.

After working an eighth of a mile in :10-flat the following year, Gotham City sold for $2-million but came $1,998,000 short of winning back his purchase price, going winless in two lifetime starts.

Atlantic Ocean, a 2002 Barretts graduate, had a decent racetrack career, earning $680,000 on five wins from 19 career starts, but well short of his $1.9 million purchase price. Diamond Fury sold for $2.7 million the following year, but won back only $128,000, going 3-for-15.

Even a successful career--if short lived--is no guarantor of racetrack profitability. In addition to the Dubai Escapade example, What A Song, who “zipped a quarter mile in :20.6” in 2005 and undefeated in three starts, came up short of his purchase price by $1,720,000.

In all, 28 of the fastest two-year-olds in America sold at auction over eight years for a grand total of $26,675,000 collectively earned back $3,878,000. This is not an easy game.

But things like this are bound to happen when $2 billion worth of speed and pedigreed bloodstock race for a total of $1 billion in purses over the course of the racing year. It probably easier to make money by leasing them for one minute, 11 seconds at a time.

One suitably quirky result of the study shows that consignors were a better judge of earning talent than the buyers, but not by much. Ten horses that failed to reach their reserves earned more than the value their breeders or pinhookers placed on them.

In addition to River’s Prayer and Henny Hughes, other big winners were Water League ($190K) earned over $800,000 in Japan and Buffythecenterfold ($70K) more than $530,000. And Wild Fit is doing well, too. A three-year-old this year his reserve of $240K was not met and thus far has earned over $555,000.

But 35 proved unworthy of their consignor’s assessment and some really hurt. Miz Pickens was reserved for $290,000; earned $450. Count Midnight was expected to bring over $385,000. He never made it to the races. Neither did In Style Again; same reserve price, same result.

Many people disagree with Frank Stronach, but he gets it as a horseman. His under-tack sales place an emphasis on athleticism and attitude, not speed. So when only 49 of 301 very fast two-year-olds can win themselves out, and that’s not considered unusual, what’s the point of subjecting youngsters to this kind of stress, anyway?

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Without Action Racing Might Not Survive Latest Firestorm

First, it was Jess Jackson, owner of 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin, that pleaded for help. Now it’s my turn, a former ink-stained wretch who traded in an old Underwood for a new Toshiba laptop. Congress, please help.

No, I’m not crazy. I fully understand the possible pitfalls here. Like Bill Burbas, a 64-year-old flat-bed driver who rescued me on the New York Thruway after a throttle position sensor, whatever that is, rendered my 2007 Subaru powerless, I, too, have lost faith in the system.

Burbas, salt of the earth life-long Democrat, worries that Barack Obama will be another Jimmy Carter--well meaning but ineffectual--and believes America never again will be the country he grew up in. Technology can’t save it; things have gone too far.

What was the old slogan; better living through chemistry? Well, it’s that kind of technology that’s gotten racing into a mess from which many of the well meaning-- inside and outside the industry--believe it can never recover.

I’m being an alarmist? The game is bigger than us all? It was once. But it’s not bigger than public perception. Racing’s approval rating is somewhere around that of Congress or even the lame duck, lame brain in the White House.

But, for better or worse, it's the only system we have.

I’m not naïve enough to believe it was ever strictly hay, oats and water. In a game of big, fast money, people will take an edge. It’s human nature.

Longing for the good old days?

Under the tutelage of Tom Smith, inducted into Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2000 via the Historic Review Committee, the legendary Seabiscuit went on to win 33 of the 89 races, setting 16 track records in the process.

But a year after leaving the employ of C.S. Howard, he received a lengthy suspension for drug violations. So, in retrospect, does that somehow make Seabiscuit something less than? Isn’t it too bad that question needed begging?

Clichés are true, of course. Racing is a microcosm of what happens in life. But in no small measure is it ironic that, despite it’s excesses, this country remains puritanical in so many ways? You need not be a zealot to be a person that cares for the ethical treatment of animals, especially those that helped make America great.

Once a major pastime, racing now exists on the sports periphery. It has become a victim of its own success vis a vis its most visible prize, the one steeped in Americana. That prize is the Kentucky Derby, first leg of America’s Triple Crown.

Breeding a Derby champion no longer is about durability and longevity. It’s about speed and power. Everybody knows that, even in Washington D.C.

By now, the most casual of sports fans know what’s wrong with the racing industry, and therein lies its problem. That perception is out there. The problem for the industry is that perception in this case is built on facts.

Even racing’s harshest critics can accept that accidents can and do happen. But not when there’s so much evidence that man is causing the predisposition that leads to so many of these accidents. We breed a faster, more powerful race horse, pump it up with chemical additives, and keep it racing on therapeutic medication.

What was it that one owner-breeder said in last week’s House subcommittee hearing: The body of Schwarzenegger on the legs of Don Knotts?

In the dictionary, look up the word: “ther-a-peu-tic, adj. 1. used in treating disease: relating to, involving, or used in the treatment of disease and disorders 2. maintaining health: working or done to maintain health.”

Nowhere in the definition are the words “to perform at optimum level pain free while infirm.”

Many horsemen and horsewomen I know take better care of their animals than they do themselves. Trainers understand the argument that horses cannot decide for themselves whether or not they want to perform through artificial means, but they also hide behind racing’s permissive rules. But there are pressures.

When livelihoods include factors over which those responsible have no control; the pressure of the racetracks and, by extension, owners to run, and the pressure to win, not only for owners but for the stable help, most horseman will abide by the rules but some will choose to legally win by any means necessary.

Since the House subcommittee hearing, three prominent trainers, Rick Dutrow, Steve Asmussen and Larry Jones, have been cited for drug positives. And jockey Jeremy Rose was suspended an excessive six months for striking his mount in the face with a whip.

In Rose’s case, he claims it was accidental and inadvertent, trying to straighten out his lugging-in mount by hitting her on the shoulder, at once consistent with taking a standard safety precaution while trying to win a race.

Rose is one of the game’s top riders, the regular partner of dual classics winner Afleet Alex, the feel good story of 2005. The horse’s trainer, Howard Wolfendale, accepted Rose’s explanation and apology, and is still using Rose on his horses.

These suspensions can be viewed as the game getting tough while in the spotlight‘s glare, proving that it can police itself. But it also is an industry known for making examples of people before going back to business as usual.

I hope the powers that be--whoever they are--realize that this approach will no longer stand, that the problem won’t be buried in the short memories of the American people, that they can’t afford to wait this thing out.

I’m not sure when it became fashionable in this country to say “I’m sorry, but now it’s time to move on.” It probably was around the same time that people stopped being accountable for their actions. What will the industry say when the next accident occurs?

Animals deserve and require respectful care. As stated, the overwhelming majority of people tethered to the thoroughbred are excellent caretakers. But racing needs to ensure that behavior by imposing meaningful standards and sanctions on a national scale. The best interests of the industry will be served by taking care of the best interests of the horse.

Lamentably, I feel the same way about the industry that flat-bed driver Bill Burbas feels about the country he grew up in. When he said he lost faith because things have gone too far, I told him I couldn’t go there. I told him that as a writer and a horseplayer, a hopeless romantic, I couldn’t let my small piece of the American dream die.

So, why not do this, industry? Instead of waiting for Congress to meddle into your affairs, let every organization and racing-states representative convene in Saratoga. Come for the Travers then lock yourselves up in the Gideon Putnam conference center and stay there until you accomplish the following:

Therapeutic medication will be permitted but controlled; nothing can be administered within 96 hours of a race. Ban all forms of steroids, from birth. What buyers see is what they get. Eliminate all race-day medication. Establish one centralized national betting platform with a takeout so low as to drive rebate shops out of business.

Earmark a minute percentage of the resultantly increased simulcast handle for equine health and designer-drug research. Technology helped create the problem, now let technology fix it.

Make every state racing commission answerable to a central authority and call it the National Thoroughbred League. Appoint a commissioner, one from the private sector, not from inside the industry. Bill Clinton needs a job. Start there and work backwards, but not too far. Get someone who is Einstein smart and loves the sport, figureheads need not apply.

Do this before the House subcommittee calls a second hearing and have the NTL Commissioner tell Congress what the industry is prepared to do, starting with some of the recommendations above, and a reasonable time frame in which to get it all done. Show Congress and the rest of America that the industry is worthy of what once was--and can again be--a great sport.

Or not. Throw up your hands and do nothing because it’s all too complicated and there are too many reasons why it can’t be done, explaining that you live in the real world and there is no such thing as enlightened self interest only cover-your-ass reality.

Then watch all your chickens come home to roost and begin to reap what you have sown since the sport‘s golden age, the 1970s. Take no action and suffer the consequences or, worse, become totally irrelevant. Then look in the mirror we’ve created and ask: How did we allow things to go this far?

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Racing Industry Goes to Washington

In the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy and amid descriptions of thoroughbred racing as “chemical warfare,” guided by powerless “fiefdoms” acting like an “Army without a general,” a dozen of the sport’s leading figures, not including no-show Derby-winning trainer Rick Dutrow, appeared before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Commerce.

With exception of the latest findings in equine research, 12 panelists spoke on many divergent themes. Little of it will come as news to industry people and serious fans of the sport, but it was an important message that racing sent to the nation: We care about the sport and we’ve made progress. But now we’re at the crossroads and we need help.

And by year's end they may get it--in the form of racing legislation.

Not all have or will agree that racing needs or wants intervention from federal regulators. But the recurring hearing theme was something is not working and that it’s been broken for decades, since the last time the industry went to Washington and promised it could get the job done on issues of serious concern to everyone tethered to a thoroughbred.

If the record doesn’t confirm that fact, yesterday’s hearing underscored that racing hasn’t lived up to its charter.

In terms of its failure to address problems successfully, all acknowledged a shared culpability, or had little problem pointing fingers. The consensus was that it’s a responsibility to be shared by owners, trainers, veterinarians, breeders and the tracks themselves, slapping the wrists of cheaters before pressuring all horsemen to fill races, using stalls as leverage.

The existence of claiming races is responsible, too, by making it possible for owners to discard their damaged goods that continue racing for someone else via the use of syringes filled with medication, legal and otherwise, that blocks pain and enables horses to run as fast as they can for as long as they can.

Certain conclusions may be drawn by examining the comments of the panelists. Some were more vociferous than others while others appeared more interested in the maintaining of the status quo, focusing on incremental progress that pales when held up to the glare of racing’s major problems.

It became clear that the first major step racing must take in correcting the problems relating to equine health and public perception is to adopt a zero tolerance policy on drugs. “It’s gotten out of hand,” said Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg. “Steroids, EPO, clenbuterol, you’ve got to keep up with the McCoys.”

“One morning I told a vet at Keeneland I don’t want my horses on anything,” said breeder and Kentucky Derby-winning owner Arthur Hancock.

“ ‘But you want to win, don’t you, Arthur?’ ”

“Time was when you saw a vet only when you needed one or had a horse in a race. Now they’re at the barn every day. They make significant profits by convincing trainers who then convince owners [that drugs are necessary]”

“A study was conducted on 22,000 horses racing on Lasix and it was learned that they raced faster, earned more money, and finished in the top three more often,” said Dr. Lawrence Soma of Pennsylvania University. “Our studies found that furosemide does not prevent Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage [bleeding] and, [like anabolic steroids], enhances performance.”

“Anabolic steroids are not [as bad as] corticosteroids,” said Allie Conrad of Canter Mid-Atlantic, whose life work is to re-home and re-train infirm horses. “Horses are dying every day. We get no [funding] from racing itself. Claiming races make [abuses] possible [via the use of] Lasix, Bute and corticosteroids that get injected directly into the joints.

“Racing doesn’t count the horses that die in my barn. They come to me lethargic, depressed, with weight loss, or hair loss. Caring for horses needs to be a first thought, not an afterthought.”

It has been said often that the game has been studied to death, but more study is needed in the areas of breeding, injury, and synthetic surfaces. Those issues, and especially sales practices, demand greater transparency.

“We need tests that can detect bio-markers, the presence of anti-bodies from previous injuries,” said Dr. Wayne McIlwraith of Colorado University. “We have seen that micro damage leads to catastrophic damage.”

“There have been studies indicating that synthetic surfaces have had some promising results, but more study is needed on track maintenance,” said equine orthopedist Dr. Sue Stover.

“Right now, the On-Track Injury Reporting Program is voluntary but it should be required,” said Mary Scollay, DVM. “Medication use must be studied. Data analysis on [catastrophic injury] has been [near] impossible.”

Mirroring Van Berg’s comments, Richard Shapiro, Chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, believes that unsoundness can be bred out of race horses: “If you establish a zero tolerance policy on drug use, the unsoundness issue will go away. Pharmacologicals, by masking infirmities with therapeutics, have hurt racing. Horses are making far fewer starts.”

Even if ridding the sport of drugs means that horses won’t be able to run, thereby addressing the breakdown problem, it starts at the sales where caveat emptor is the buy word. “The use of pre-sale surgery on horses who are not correct [is an issue],” said Hancock. “No one knows about the insertion of screws and wires. We talked about this in 1980 and nothing’s happened.”

“There must be documentation,” said Jess Jackson, owner of Horse of the Year Curlin. “There must be a trail of ownership, of complete medical records so that any buyer could see a horse’s complete history. The industry takes baby steps instead of giant strides. I was the only dissenter out of 40 members on an ownership panel that voted down [documentation requirements].

Watching the hearings, there was a sense that not everyone wanted drastic change or government intervention. “We’d like to see the industry police itself, if we can,” said Jockey Club CEO Alan Marzelli. “We have no power to enforce rule uniformity.”

Marzelli’s answers appeared evasive when he was asked if American breeding should be regulated like it is overseas, why there were no similar rules for sound breeding principles in this country. “Twenty-seven percent of our horses are bought by foreign interests,” was his reply.

Alex Waldrop, CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, has been extremely vocal on a sexy issue, calling for a ban on the use of anabolic steroids by 2009. His statements focused on the progress of the past.

“We’re a consensus builder. We represent 65 tracks, 40 horsemen’s groups and a million fans. The NTRA has been an important catalyst in making strides. We can act quickly and are no longer rudderless. I want to stress we don’t need another layer of regulation.”

“A public outcry has created a groundswell of support for change,” said racing commentator Randy Moss. “The NTRA has a lot of talented people but has no teeth to mandate changes. You see a lot of words like ‘we support,’ ‘we strongly urge,’ but no mandate.”

Jackson spoke clearly and cogently on racing issues. Jackson apparently prefers that an anabolic steroid ban extend beyond racing and training, “anything that alters the appearance of horses in any way.” Then he added:

“We can’t get organized because there’s no leadership. Owners invest $4 billion a year and get $1.4 billion back. I’m an eighth generation horseman. I opposed the use of Bute when it was originally proposed. Congress needs to do two things: Ban all drugs. Trainers are convinced [they need drugs] by the vets and vets must be disciplined. The problem comes from the seller.

“No steroids, enhancers, Lasix or Bute. Drugs mask other drugs and science can’t keep up with the ethics dealing with drugs. Second, we need a new draft of the Interstate Horseracing Act [permitting interstate simulcasting] eliminating two words.

“The regulation refers to owners and trainers. Eliminate ‘and trainers’. Trainers work for the owners. Why give power to the agents? Trainers are under the thumb of the tracks for stalls. Owners can unite themselves.

“We need to study breeding; we don’t need more inbreeding. I go to South America [to find stamina outcrosses]. We need a league, and that league needs a commissioner. Please, Congress help us.”

He might not have to ask twice.

Written by John Pricci

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