Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cultural bias

If they both retired to stud tomorrow, which horse would command the higher stud fee, Summer Bird or Quality Road?

The correct answer is Quality Road. Why? Well it is mostly based on industry biases and seemingly permanent, almost willful misconceptions about what is important in determining the stud potential of top colts.

Remember five years ago when Smarty Jones and Birdstone retired to stud? Smarty had won a minor stakes at two, the Kentucky Derby-G1 on a bad track that blatantly favored runners near the front of the pack, and the Preakness-G1 at three. Birdstone had won a G1 (the Champagne) at two, beaten Smarty Jones in the Belmont-G1 and won the Travers-G1 at three. Smarty Jones began his stud career at a stud fee of $100,000. Birdstone started off at $10,000.

Both were rather small, unimpressive individuals, correct enough, but not physical specimens who would have brought high prices at yearling or juvenile sales, regardless of their pedigrees. Three Chimneys had a waiting list for Smarty Jones, despite his high stud fee, but Gainesway struggled to fill Birdstone's book. Eighty-five foals resulted for Smarty's first crop versus only 70 for Birdstone.

True, part of the reason for the discrepancy in stud fee and book size was Smarty Jones's popularity with the racing public. The main reason, though, was pedigree. Smarty was from Elusive Quality's first crop, and the latter was a beautifully bred horse who had made himself a salable entity, mainly because of Smarty. Birdstone was by Grindstone, a better racehorse than Elusive Quality, but a proven failure at stud, Birdstone excepted. Birdstone possessed the better female family, but breeders did not care. Though not everyone was sold on Smarty's potential, breeders were willing to take a chance, banking on his presumed commercial appeal.

The results, of course, speak for themselves. Smarty's first crop includes, to date, only two minor stakes winners. Birdstone's first crop features five stakes winners, including two of the three best 3yo colts of the year, Summer Bird and Mine That Bird. In retrospect, Birdstone had everything breeders should require--except an impressive physique--in a stallion prospect...mainly his race record. He was a Grade 1 winner at two and a classic winner and Travers winner at 3. What more should one want? (Full disclosure--the author turned down Birdstone for a client's mare, despite an excellent pedigree match because of his size and unimpressive physique. He has since come to his senses).

Since then, of course, Elusive Quality has sired Raven's Pass and other top runners, confirming his quality as a stallion. Quality Road is a big, impressive individual from a very high-class family, and he has established track records at both 6 1/2 and 9 furlongs. Summer Bird is a good-looking, medium-sized horse, unraced at two, who has won two of the four most important races for three-year-olds and is from the same family as top sires Relaunch and Tapit. Either of these colts may yet go on to secure the 3yo male championship and earn a more lucrative stud career, but right now, Quality Road would be the choice of most breeders because he is perceived as the horse with superior speed.

Life just is not fair, whether one speaks of racehorses or of men. But which horse will have the higher stud fee in 2010, Smarty Jones or Birdstone?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Let's be honest about it

It has been a difficult month.

The cliché about death and taxes has been too true of late. We've had too much of the former and face too much of the latter on receivables that haven't even been collected yet due to the economic recession, presumably. Time to move on.

Let's see....several recent events that deserve comment.

Yes, the Saratoga select sale was up, but the results were a bit deceiving...though happily so. The catalog—meaning both the pedigrees and the individuals—were at least 30% better than in 2008, but average price rose only 10%. Does that mean that the level of the market was actually down 20%?

Well, that's probably not fair. In a sense it's not even fair to compare the two sales. Fasig-Tipton's new ownership made a new beginning at Saratoga with their renovations to the area behind the pavilion and recruitment of a more international catalog and buyers bench. Consignors sensed something positive was happening and sent better horses with better pedigrees, and more of them.

Saratoga 2009 proved that in a shrinking market a boutique sale could work once again. The line for entries to the 2010 sale is already forming. The danger for Fasig-Tipton will be the temptation to take too many horses too soon. Give it time. Give it room to breathe and grow naturally.

One small incident on the last day of the sale bothered me a bit. Fasig-Tipton put Man o' War on the cover and used his image and reputation in their advertising. There is only one small problem with that. Man o' War was sold at Saratoga, but not by Fasig-Tipton. I knew that at least some FT officials knew that to be true, and when I mentioned the fact to Dan Pride, the company's new chief operating officer, he agreed and pointed out that nowhere in the advertising, etc., did it say that the horse was sold by Fasig-Tipton. He implied that any misconception was in the eye of the beholder and was not the fault of the company.

I like Dan Pride, a fellow Tennessean, a lot. His presence has added a lot of energy and a focus on classy presentation to the company's sales.....but misleading advertising is not classy. Sorry my friend Dan, but I do not believe that kind of advertising is as classy as the product the company aspires to sell.

I like Rachel Alexandra a lot too, and she is obviously a very classy filly. Her time figures and margins of victory have proven that she might be a truly great filly. But the emphasis at this point should be on “might”. The rest of this crop of three-year-old fillies is clearly far short of inspiring. None of the top three-year-old colts have yet faced their elders, so it is impossible to say with any certainty at this point just how much credit she should get for a six-length beating of Summer Bird.

The rush by much of the racing press to crown her as an all-time great, therefore, is a bit embarrassing. Is racing so desperate for heroes that we have to over-hype every good horse that comes along? (For example....Curlin—truly not picking on Jess Jackson here, pure happenstance of ownership) Unrealistic, excessive press is just as bad as no press at all. It sets up the public for one more huge disappointment if Rachel Alexandra ever falls short of those unrealistic expectations.

But if comparisons to Ruffian or even Dark Mirage and Desert Vixen are premature, it is clear she is a very good filly. Racing should certainly take advantage, as best we can, of her brilliance, but, I would offer the same advice to racing's promoters I'd offer Dan Pride (equally unsolicited).

Let's be honest about it.