Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Horse of the Year or Horse of the Decade

Is Zenyatta the Horse of the Year, the Horse of the Decade? Or both?

To this observer that is the only remaining question in the ongoing debate between Blame and Zenyatta proponents for 2010 Horse of the Year. Think about it....no, seriously. Project yourself, say 10 years into the future, and ask yourself who will be remembered as Horse of the Decade for the first ten years of the 2000s.

I'm certain there are readers who will disagree, but I cannot see how it can be any horse but Zenyatta for Horse of the Decade. She will be the only significant horse to lose only one race, the only winner of 19 straight, the only mythic equine figure of the decade, the only horse the public remembers from the "naughty noughts".

The other possible candidates? Maybe Tiznow, who did become a two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner in the first year of the decade. Curlin was Horse of the Year twice, but tailed off rather markedly after his return from Dubai. Ghostzapper made the speed boys shiver but did not race very often, and his apparent belly flop at stud will hurt him in the past's rear-view mirror, justified or not. How can any of that compare to winning the first 19 of 20 starts and the mythic status that streak acquired? What other American-based horse really did much worth remembering for more than one season? What other horse evoked comparisons to the all-time greats of the sport?

I'm sure I'm missing someone and you readers will remind me, but I can't come up with any other really deserving candidates. The classic 3-year-olds all flubbed their lines at one time or the other. Rachel Alexandra was brilliant for one season against a bad crop of 3-year-old colts and an almost non-existent older male division. The American grass horses have become a joke. Azeri also won three consecutive older mare titles, but no one except possibly Michael Paulson really thinks she should be compared to Ruffian.

So how can a horse clearly be the Horse of the Decade and not be voted Horse of the Year even one of those years? Well, it could happen. The speed figure believers have never liked her, the anti-synthetic crowd doesn't like her (despite the fact that she ran probably her three best races in her only starts on dirt), and there is still a strong Eastern bias to the voting base. I suspect, though, that the strongest opposition comes from the folks who are saying the award should go to the horse who won the biggest race of the year against the best field of the year. Of course, many of those are the same folks who voted for Rachel Alexandra last year, ignoring the obvious fact that it was Zenyatta who won the biggest race against the best field last year. Go figure.

Intelligent, honorable people can certainly disagree, and I cast no aspersions on anyone else's opinion. But for me, Zenyatta cannot be Horse of the Decade and not be Horse of the Year. She's earned it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dr. Binns and Mr. Morris

Just finished reading Matt Binns's and Tony Morris's Thoroughbbred Breeding: Pedigree theories and the science of genetics, and for all my friends who asked, yes, it is worth the time and money. (You can order it at http://www.amazon.com/Thoroughbred-Breeding-Pedigree-Theories-Genetics/dp/0851319351/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1287774548&sr=8-1)

The first half of the book is Tony's and serves as a brief history of the development of the Thoroughbred and the concomitant development of documentation and commentary on the breed. I've tried to cover some of this same ground in various articles and, to a lesser extent, my book Foundation Mares, but Tony has a better library and better sources available and does a much better job than I ever could. Tony has never had much time for pedigree theories that are not backed by science--appropriately so--so his dismissal of such things as Bruce Lowe and dosage are no surprise.

One of the surprising revelations of Tony's exposition, though is how little development there was--at least in print--of anything that could reasonably be called a breeding theory before the appearance of the work of Bruce Lowe in Australia and England (via William Allison) and Hermann Goos and J.P. Frentzel in Germany in the 1890s. It certainly appears that Allison was really the first commentator to push a particular mating method in print (Lowe's crackpot theories) and, since he was a bloodstock agent, doubtless advise breeders on matings (He was also part owner of a stud). Parenthetically, Allison was the man who helped choose the English broodmares bought as the basis for the studs of seminal American breeders James R. Keene, August Belmont II and Samuel D. Riddle/Walter Jeffords. It is pretty clear, however, from looking at Keene's pedigrees that his manager/brother-in-law Maj. Foxhall Daingerfield, paid no attention to Allison's/Lowe's breeding theories. Furthermore, the success of Belmont and Riddle/Jeffords was dependent almost entirely on Fair Play and his son Man o' War.

The most interesting bit of new knowledge for me in Tony's chapters is the fact that research on coat color through the pages of the General Stud Book actually played an important role in the early 1900s in verifying and popularizing Mendel's work.

Tony's repeated theme, though, is that, up until very recently indeed, none of the theories promoted to aid breeders in producing better racehorses had any real scientific basis, and precious few even attempted to establish some kind of statistical validity.

Professor Binns, a molecular biologist by training who has since started his own equine genetic testing service in partnership with David Lambert, DVM, takes over for the second half of the book. Necessarily, he begins by covering the much-trod ground of basic Mendelian genetics, but his chapters get much more interesting when he moves on to more complex variations on the basic Mendelian themes.

Matt is actually quite gentle in deconstructing theories such as the X-factor and the broodmare sire effect. In addition to pointing out that there is no basis in current scientific knowledge for such simplistic theories, he allows the possibility that future research might salvage some vestige of those and other ideas. That's what a true scientist does--lay out what is known about a subject and point out the probable verdict on a current theory, according to that research, but acknowledge that not enough is known to say precisely what the truth might be (unless, of course, there is sufficient knowledge!).

Matt's half of the book raises several questions in my mind that I plan to discuss with him, once I've followed those loose ends as far as my limited knowledge allows, but I learned a lot from his chapters, and was reminded of other bits of genetic fact that had slipped away over the years.

Matt's half does suffer somewhat from what has become the bane of the equine author--the almost two-year gap between the time he finished writing and the actual appearance of the book in the shop window. (The same thing happened with the publication of Foundation Mares.) On the last page of the book, obviously at the last possible second before publication, he inserted a brief reference to Emmeline Hill, et.al.'s publication of their work on the Myostatin gene related to distance preferences in racehorses. Much else, including Matt's own research and the launching of his testing service, has happened in equine genetics since he wrote his chapters. There are now at least five different companies offering genetic tests of various descriptions, and other than the reference to Hill's paper, none of that appears in Thoroughbred Breeding: Pedigree theories and the science of genetics.

I know that many pedigree pundits and advisors have been anxious that Tony's and Matt's book would be essentially a dismissal of all pedigree theories and research except genetics. Though some may read it that way, that clearly is not the purpose. Matt in particular clearly sees his science as an adjunct to knowledge of pedigree and conformation, not a replacement.

Read it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Best ever racemares

Frank Mitchell has started an interesting debate over on his Bloodstock in the Bluegrass blog at http://fmitchell07.wordpress.com/ by asking his readers who were the greatest racemares of the last 100 years. Naturally most of the responses suffer from the recency effect. Only curmudgeons seem to remember, or be very much interested in, the achievements of what to others is the distant past.

It's an interesting question, though, worth some thought, and a quick look back through the records to remind even this old head of the glories of the past. In truth though, it is almost certainly entirely just to discount the achievements of virtually all of the fillies and mares that raced before World War II. American racehorses were quite simply better after the importation of European stallions and mares reached critical mass in the aftermath of the war. It seems pretty clear that the American racehorse reached something of an apotheosis in the 1960s and '70s, and everything since then must be compared to those horses. The fact that those decades happen to coincide with this old curmudgeon's impressionable teens and 20s has absolutely nothing to do with it.

So what does your list look like? Here's mine, with some semi-credible attempts at justification.

1. Ruffian....Ran too fast too many times not to be at or near the top.
2. Zenyatta....19 for 19....What else is there to say? (Yeah I know, there are plenty who quibble)
3. Dark Mirage...800 pound monster won 10 straight @3 and 4, many by huge margins
4. Gallant Bloom....Beat Shuvee 5 out of 6, 11 straight wins, vastly underrated even in her era
5. Allez France...Raced only once in U.S. when past her best, but beat Dahlia 5 for 5, beat colts 8 times in Europe
6. Personal Ensign...13 for 13, but had to be carefully handled because of soundness and thus difficult to evaluate fairly
7. Dahlia....only 15 for 48, but raced on when well past her best...Beat top colts silly in Europe 5 times, and 4 times in America.
8. Desert Vixen....9 for 11 at 3 in '73...admittedly a sentimental favorite. Led Dahlia a merry chase in D.C. International over distance way too far and almost held on. Great filly.
9. Rachel Alexandra....Sorry folks, generally overrated. Beat a bad bunch of colts, just like any of the fillies rated above her here would have.
10. Tosmah...17 for 22 at 2 and 3, beat colts in Arlington Classic
11. (why stop at 10?) Go for Wand...Another sentimental choice, but 10 for 12 before dying on the lead is pretty damned good.
12. Shuvee...Couldn't beat Gallant Bloom, but beat everything else after GB retired.
13. Bayakoa...16 for 21 and absolutely lethal at 5 and 6 when at her best.

That's my lucky 13. Have at it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Natural beauty

Nature, in her carefree way, has cast aside her most colorful autumnal cloak over the hills of north central Tennessee and south central Kentucky. That made the drive north from my haven on the banks of the Caney Fork to Lexington last Sunday for the Pedigree and Genetics Symposium on Monday more pleasurable than usual.

I prefer to drive early in the morning, so a gorgeous Sunday afternoon was free for first looks at some new stallions.

Desert Party is the standout on conformation among the three young horses I saw at Darley. He has grown into exactly the perfectly balanced, handsome, miler type one would have hoped when he topped the Fasig-Tipton Calder sale three years ago. There were times during his 10-6-1-0 racing career when the Street Cry colt looked like a G1 caliber horse, but he never stayed good enough or sound enough long enough to prove it. But he looks the part.

Street Boss looks exactly like what he was, a high-class sprinter. He's more heavily muscled than Desert Party, which he should be, and, aside from his chestnut coat, looks more like his sire. Thankfully he's more correct than Street Cry, but most of his sire's good ones are, of course. That's the way it works.

Midshipman is still in the process of letting down. He's a big, attractive horse, with the size and shoulder that Unbridled's Song passes on so consistently, but also managed only the brief racing career that has become all too frequent with sons of his sire. I loved Unbridled's Song from the time I saw him stroll from his stall in the Derry Meeting barn at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale, but too many of his good offspring do not last past the spring of their three-year-old year. Midshipman might be a little light boned for his size, but otherwise has no obvious flaws. He just needs to fill out into a stallion.

From Darley I motored down to Nicholasville to Taylor Made.

I had discovered I didn't have a good picture of Unbridled's Song, so I snapped him, as well as his son Old Fashioned. The latter is probably the best-looking son of Unbridled's Song I've seen. Pretty correct, luckily not as big as his sire, and beautifully balanced. He was better than I expected. Old Fashioned raced even fewer times than Midshipman, but he is pretty clearly a Grade 1 talent for a Grade 2 price.

Eskendereya has a similar 6-4-1-0 record to Old Fashioned, and has a terrific body. Big shoulder, long barrel, nice long hip, but he's nowhere near as correct. He's offset and rotates both front legs, and it's easy to see why he had tendon problems. He's a very attractive horse, but you'd have to be careful what you breed to him.

Which, come to think of it, is true for just about any stallion you look at.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Afternoon session Pedigree and Genetics Symposium

2:50 pm
Matthew Binns will finish off the presentations

Begins by saying pedigree is genetics. Matthew theme is going to be very similar to his recent book with Tony Morris, which attempts to debunk most pedigree theories.

Matthew veered more toward his own research that the Genetic Edge sells...here's a brief summary:

Whole genome study looked at racing performance, distance, surface and height. Developed a scoring system of grades ABCD for racing performance and established the incidence of the grades at sales. Markers include a female-specific SNP. They also found a marker that is specific to Mr. Prospector horses, a SNP that's only present in the good Mr. P horses, and not in the non elite horses.

Data predicts that you can eliminate 50% of individuals on a short list at sales and retain 75% of the GSWs. Blind test found the 6 GSWs hidden among 55 moderate horses. Population is10% As, 40% Bs 40% Cs 10% Ds

Tested 27 G1 sprinters and all were homozygous for sprint genotype. But several horses who won the Kentucky Derby were homozygous sprinters. Race pace is crucial in American racing.

There are multiple SNPs strongly associated with different surfaces, some associated with muscle enzymes.

Matthew ends with perhaps the most appropriate comment of the day:

This is real and it's coming, and we hope that you will embrace it.

1:50 pm

Emmeline Hill of Equinome up next.

Heritability of racing ability is somewhere between 35% and 55%, but heritability of best racing distance is much more heritable, according to an Australian study, about 94%.

Myostatin is a negative regulator of muscle mass....it controls the development of muscles. Mutation in myostatin leads to massive muscling. Knowledge of that fact led to looking for polymorphisms in the horse myostatin gene. Found a polymorphism represented by the base pairs C and T. Found no differences in class of horses carrying the three possible combinations (CT, CC, TT), but differences in best winning distance were found.

Basically Emmeline is going over her original study that was published in January.

Almost all quarter horses are CCs, almost all Egyptian Arabians are TTs. Thoroughbreds, elite graded stakes winning horses, show what you would expect, more CTs than anything else, your basic normal distribution, slightly skewed in favor of CCs. National hunt (steeplechase) winners on the other hand are heavily skewed toward TTs, but no CCs at all.

New Equinome research published today, new study indicates that the myostatin gene is the most powerful indicator of best race distance. Says Equinome's marker performs 15 times better than any other marker in predicting best racing distance.

What genes are responding to exercise. Certain genes activity are significantly enhanced after exercise. The response increases over time as a result of training. It prepares the system to be able to be better able to respond to exercise.

Over 5k genes present in skeletal muscle. After year of training 16 genes increased activity and 58 decreased, The gene that changed the most was myostatin. Decreased its activity over 4 times.

1:10 pm

Bob Fierro of Datatrack International up next. Bob is threatening to use me as an illustration of one of his points. I dread to think what it might be. Should I run? Knowing Bob, yes.

I got to be Alydar (a long legged stride horse), Jay Kilgore was Danzig (power), Alan Porter (light weight long distance runner), and Byron Rogers (the balanced athlete, in his case a triathlete). Who knew.

Bob shows that the distribution of phenotypes of classic winners and leading sires has changed drastically since 1970s. Breed has gotten larger, lighter, more powerful, and not as balanced as they used to be and much less consistent. 2000s starting to be a little more consistent.

Secretariat turns out to be a critical horse in terms of biomechanics....His phenotype helps pull the breed back toward balance, through horses like A.P. Indy, Storm Cat, and Gone West.

Live blogging the Pedigree and Genetics Symposium

Lunch Break....I'll start a new blog entry for the afternoon.

11:40 a.m.

Tamariello discusses epistasis and epigenetics, both of which complicate the simple DNA approach. Just because you have a particular gene, it doesn't necessarily drive the phenotype. The control of the expression of genes into proteins that actually govern the body. Just by looking at the gene sequence alone, you can't predict everything.

Tamariello's company screens for:

Two muscle-related genes

Two behavior genes

Two bone development genes and

One energy-related gene

plus Whole genome screening and other higher-level screening.

11:20 a.m.

Tamariello is going over basic genetic biology that everybody in the crowd should already know. Apologetic for perhaps talking down to the audience, but still that's what he's doing. Good refresher course for those too far removed from Biology 101 I suppose.

Once through with the basics, he moves on to more specific stuff related to the Thoroughbred.

Muscle Gene 1, a gene linked to muscle function. Two alleles, racing and non-racing. Thoroughbred breeders have bred over centuries to have 2 copies of the racing allele, but there is a sub-population that is not homozygous. Heterozygous can be successful, but homozygous recessive (non-racing) are too slow to even make it to the track. This is the genotype found in most draft horses. Having 2 copies of the racing alleles, however, does not make it a fast horse.

11:00 a.m.
Prof. Steve Tamariello up next, hopefully will relate Jamie MacLeod's work more directly to the Thoroughbreds.

10:40 a.m.
Jamie's final comments may ease the worries of certain individuals in the industry:

"Equine genomics will enhance and enable good horsemanship, not compete with it Genomics in no way threatens the importance and artistry of horsemanship."

10:30 a.m.
Jamie gave a detailed explanation of how SNPs (Single Nucelotide Polymorphisms) work, which is much too complicated to try to explain on the fly. Look it up. But here's a summary of how they're used.

"What we're tyring to do is localize what region in the genome has an association with the trait you're studying. We know where in the genome where each SNP is located, know the frequency of each allele in the population. Then we compare the frequency of alleles in the population as a whole to the population with the trait you're studying.

When you find differences, that shows theres' something of interest on that particular chromosome at that particular position. Then look back at the genome map and see what genes are in that region.

10:00 a.m.

Dr. Jamie MacLeod of UK and the Gluck up next on the Equine Genome project. His brief is to give context and background for the geneticists coming up later.

Highlights of the development of the current technology for genetic research include:

The horse was added to the USDA Animal Genome Mapping project in 1996. The Human Genome project extended from 1990—2003. That gave all of animal sciences a blueprint for the genome but also provided new technology for the sequencing of other genomes, including the horse.

NIH decided they could learn additional information by sequincing the genomes of other species to compare the human genome to that of other species. The horse community convinced the NIH to select the horse to sequence among equids, because of the community of scientists working on horse genetics, there were already several well-developed genome maps; there are many biomedical aspects of horse that relate to human health, for example at the elite athlete level; veterinary medical applications; and the existence of deep pedigrees to study the inheritance of traits.

The proposal was submited to NHGRI in 2005. Sent samples to the Broad Institute in November 2005. NIH looked for a highly inbred horse, because of the way DNA is sequenced. With a highly inbred individual, the two halves are more similar, so easier for the computer program to put it together. A Thoroughbred mare named Twilight was chosen. Sequencing started in 2006 and completed fall 2007.

9:40 a.m.
Alan concludes with a look forward:

"We're anticipating that genetic research will reinforce and validate much of the analysis that we see in Thoroughbred pedigrees."

"Relying solely on pedigree is foolhardy, but likewise so is dismissal of pedigree as unimportant. Pedigree will continue to be an important eliminating criteria.Maybe 5-10 years away we're going to see a change in what pedigree actually means. What we're seeing with genetics is that though a mare might be an Easy Goer mare, she has very little of Easy Goer's good genes. Genetics can tell us what has actually been passed on instead of just a theoretical assumption and we might breed two mares by the same sire entirely differently."

Question time!
9:30 a.m.

Alan is basically attempting to cover both the historical background of Thoroughbred research and provide a frame for the other speakers later in the day. Very appropriate way to begin the symposium.

In relating his own personal history, Alan had the good grace to acknowledge the contributions of his late rival Jack Werk, though he noted that they had "philosophical differences." That was something of an understatement!

The heart of his talk can be summed up by this approximate quote (hey I can only type so fast!):

"In terms of pedigree research in my time in the industry we've gone from split pedigree books and doing everything by hand to computer programs that access every horse in the population. Now everybody can have access to the data. What is now important is how to interpret the data."

Of course what came next was basically a sales pitch for Alan's and Byron's True Nicks program, but hey, that's why all the speakers are here. It's a capitalist country!

9:05 a.m.

Alan Porter will frame the day with a talk on the history of technology use in the Thoroughbred industry. Alan has been recommending matings for many prominent breeders for more than 25 years.


I will be live-blogging (more or less) the Pedigree and Genetics Symposium in Lexington today, so if you want to check in occasionally to see what's going on, this is the place. Don't know what my frequency will be, but it should be an interesting day with dueling geneticists!

Byron Rogers and Alan Porter at Pedigree Consultants expect a full room of 175 people. The scheduled speakers, in order, will be:

Alan Porter, Pedigree Consultants
Dr. James MacCleod, University of Kentucky, discussing the Equine Genome Project
Steve Tammariello, Thoroughgen LLC, SUNY Binghampton geneticist
Gary Falter, Jockey Club Informations Systems
Bob Fierro, Datatrack International, on the intersection of pedigree, biomechanics, and genetics
Prof. Emmeline Hill, Equinome, University College Dublin, on the Myostatin gene
Dr. Matthew Binns, Equigen LLC, the Genetic Edge, on breeding theories and modern genetics

See ya later!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Flood of Books

I have been inundated by horse books lately....horse books I actually want to read. But I haven't had time to read any of them. Tony Morris's and Matt Binns's Thoroughbred Breeding: Pedigree Theories and the Science of Genetics arrived this week. I have shelved it neatly on my (wholly metaphorical) bookshelf, right next to Edwin Anthony's The American Thoroughbred and Maryjean Wall's How Kentucky Became Southern.

There is so much to read these days. I read dozens of websites every day, some several times a day, just like everyone else--but I have this blog thingy, so I get to bitch about it. And then there's always a novel or two on my nightstand.

All that takes a rumble seat to writing three days a week, since that's what pays the bills....sorta. But Mim Bower et.al.'s recent paper on the ethnicity, as it were, of the female foundation stock of the Thoroughbred has taken precedence the last couple of days.

The subject has long been one of my pet historical questions. Everybody from Lady Beaverbrook to C.M. Prior has argued that most if not all of the original foundation mares--the mares at the head of modern tail-female lines, were mostly if not all Arabians. That there has been practically no documentary evidence to support that contention seemed to matter not at all.

Bower et.al.'s study uses mtDNA haplotyping to answer the question, at least as accurately as it can at a span of time of roughly 300 years. And, no, most of the 75 or so original mares in the GSB were NOT Arabians. Roughly 8% probably were. The rest were native English and Irish breeds, and a much larger portion were Barbs than previously imagined. That makes sense if one takes into account the Moorish conquest of Spain. Their Barb stock mixed heavily with native Spanish stock, and then spread throughout the continent. And I seem to recall that there are documented importations of mares from Spain and Italy in the records of the Royal Studs, but few if any directly from the Middle East, and much of the assertions about Arabian origin of female lines were based on assumptions that the "Royal mares" at the head of several families were Arabians. Nope, not according to modern genetics.

The publication of the study provides a wonderful lead-in to Monday's Pedigree and Genetics Symposium in Lexington. I'll be there. Will you?

I promise I'll put down my sci-fi novel.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cinnamon wisdom

Sitting in the press box at the third session of the Keeneland September yearling sale, and it's fair to say that Keeneland's format changes appear to have been pretty effective. Compared to recent years, there was quite a buzz in the arena Sunday night--but of course selling a $4.2-million horse within the first half hour of the sale is a pretty good substitute for lithium for a horseman.

The horse in question, John and Jerry Amerman's first foal by A.P. Indy out of Balance, by Thunder Gulch, looks remarkably athletic for a horse whose exceptional size bothered no one because of the presence of his giantess "aunt" Zenyatta on the page. A.P. Indys rarely possess the rhythmic, swinging walk and dramatic overstep that is a prerequisite for many European buyers, but this colt does, which is why Demi O'Byrne was the underbidder. Rags to Riches, which O'Byrne bought for $1.9-million had it, and O'Byrne doesn't buy horses that don't. His philosophy is why buy a horse to run that can't walk.

Day three is also going better than expected so far. George Bolton arrived from San Francisco by private plane just in time to buy a Smart Strike colt in partnership with Jess Jackson for $1-million. Bolton was Jackson's partner in Curlin, by Smart Strike, during his three-year-old season. There have been seven other horses for $400,000 or more so far today, which is still a hell of a lot of money for a horse that has never had a saddle on his back.

Breeders as a whole will not really be making any money this year because of the massive investment they made in stud fees in 2008, so perhaps it would be good for them--heck for all of us--to remember the wisdom of late Calumet Farm manager Melvin Cinnamon, as related by Dan Rosenberg.

"On my last day at Calumet," Dan says, "Melvin told me, son, in this business when you guess right you're a smart son of a bitch. When you guess wrong you're a stupid son of a bitch. But the thing you have to remember is that you're always guessing and you're always a son of a bitch."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen

England's champion older filly Sariska refused to leave the starting gate today in the Yorkshire Oaks. Despite jockey Jamie Spencer's frantic urging, the magnificently made four-year-old daughter of Pivotal out of Maycocks Bay, by Muhtarram, stood almost motionless in her stall as the rest of the field raced away across the Knavesmire.

Refusal to race has become a rarity since mechanical starting gates became universal virtually the world over in the 1960s. The most recent comparable incident I can think of in a major race is, of course, Quality Road's refusal to enter the starting gate before the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic. Refusal to enter the gate and refusal to leave it are, of course, quite different problems for a trainer. Todd Pletcher has done a wonderful job helping Quality Road get over the panic attacks that caused him to lash out dangerously before the Breeders' Cup and then refuse to get on a plane a few days later.

Sariska's trainer Michael Bell speculated that his filly might have refused at York because the gate to the stable area is right next to the 1 1/2 mile start point, implying that the filly just wanted to go back to her box. She didn't get to immediately. Once Spencer and the gate attendants extricated her from the stalls, he had to canter her down the course to unsaddle and weigh in. A very large horse, though not as big as Quality Road or Zenyatta, Sariska has had issues about going into the stalls--which are notably smaller in Europe than in America--but had never before shown any inclination to stay in them any longer than necessary.

When a horse reveals temperamental quirks, racing folk are always quick to look to the pedigree to find reasons for such behavior, but none are readily apparent in Sariska's case. The only horse close up in her pedigree with any sort of temperament issues that I know of is Alleged, sire of her broodmare sire Muhtarram, and Alleged was a totally honest racehorse who only became a difficult, somewhat dangerous animal after several years at stud.

One cannot help but be reminded, however, of other famously temperamental racehorses of the last century, most notably Nasrullah and some of his sons. Unlike his brilliant sprinting son Grey Sovereign (who appears in Sariska's pedigree) Nasrullah himself never completely refused to race, but Phil Bull's acerbically humorous description of his behavior before his first start at three says all too much about his temperament:

"He refused to leave the paddock; he refused to break into a trot; he refused to respond to the blandishments of the friendly hack sent out on the course to kid him; he refused to do anything except behave like a spoiled child. ....Could the catcalls and cries of derision which greeted this unthoroughbred-like behavior have been heard by [his sire] Nearco across at Beech House stud...it might have had a serious effect on his fertility."

That comical description in Bull's Best Horses of 1943 sits adjacent to the accompanying photo of Nasrullah (above) , which includes the best caption I have ever read for a racing photo. A few pages further on, Bull included a photo of Nasrullah lunging sideways with another contender for best caption--"Nasrullah impersonating a mule".

Nasrullah appears three times in Sariska's pedigree, a rather lower dosage than average actually, but it would be worse than foolish to attribute Sariska's behavior to such a distant ancestor. Some behavior traits are certainly heritable, but, even with the rapidly emerging genetic screening techniques now available, it is impossible to attribute them to specific ancestors--at least so far.

The Yorkshire Oaks was only her fouth loss in nine starts in a career that includes victories in the 2009 Epsom and Irish Oaks, and she had beaten today's winner Midday on all three of their previous meetings. Hopefully Bell will be able to convince Sariska that it is still worthwhile to come out of the stalls when they open, and she will be able to pursue her fall objective, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Saratoga conundrum

Sheikh Mohammed bought eight horses for $3,155,000 at the opening session of the Saratoga select sale last night. That was more than three times as many horses and three times as much money as any other buyer spent on the sale's opening night.

The Sheikh did not buy every expensive horse, however, nor every horse he bid on. Although it is true that his representative John Ferguson signed for the session's top-priced horse, a beautiful $800,000 colt by Sheikh Mohammed's homebred champion and top sire Street Cry, the next most expensive horse he purchased, a $400,000 Smart Strike filly, ranked only eighth on the list of high prices.

Early in the session I commended Ferguson for letting someone else win after he stopped bidding at $425,000 on a gorgeous Rock Hard Ten colt bought by Charlotte Weber's Live Oak Plantation. He responded tellingly, "This sale has to succeed."

Ferguson, and no doubt the Sheikh as well, is always aware of Darley's dominant position in the market for racing prospects and of both the good and the harm that dominance can do. For the market to thrive, it needs Sheikh Mohammed to compete for what are perceived as the most desirable prospects. And the man is a competitor. He wants to win every time.

If he wins every time, however, other competitors who, however wealthy, do not possess Sheikh Mohammed's bottomless pockets, will decide that it is useless to even try to buy horses they think he might bid on. That inevitably leads to nice horses who would otherwise sell well being led out unsold.

That conundrum is especially acute at Saratoga for three reasons. The sale is so small--less than 200 horses--that it would be all too easy for buyers to decide that it is useless to make the trip for such a small number of horses when Sheikh Mohammed is going to buy all the good ones anyway. They would, of course, be wrong (good ones ALWAYS escape the big buyers' attention...you just have to find them), but perception is everything.

Secondly, fair or not, true or not, Sheikh Mohammed is widely believed to be Fasig-Tipton's principal owner. Abdulla al Habbai, principal of the firm's nominal owner, Synergy Investments, is described as a "close associate" of Sheikh Mohammed. It is all too facile for cynical observers to leap to snide assumptions about what that really means. In the age of Faux News, the truth doesn't seem to matter as much as it once did.

Finally, both the management of Fasig-Tipton and, one hopes, Ferguson and the Sheikh, are aware of Fasig-Tipton's history. In the late 1980s Peter Brant and partners, including J.T. Lundy of Calumet Farm bought Fasig-Tipton. They came close to destroying it by running their own horses through the sale and creating bogus sales of those horses at inflated prices. Legitimate buyers and other consignors began deserting the sale and only John Hettinger's intervention to buy out Brant, plus years of gut-wrenching work by the management team led by D.G. van Clief, saved the company.

Sheikh Mohammed is not a commercial breeder and does not sell yearlings at Saratoga, but if buyers begin to feel that they are competing against "house money" at Saratoga, many of them will decide to buy elsewhere.

And that is why John Ferguson will stop bidding more often than you might think.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

New life for an old lady

It would be facile and sentimental to say "Saratoga never changes." It would also be a lie.

I'm as guilty as anyone of settling for the easy lie sometimes, but, no, not at Saratoga. The town, the track, the sales grounds, the horses retain their charm, but the world around them has changed too much for any place, no matter how determinedly charming, to remain unchanged.

I first came to Saratoga in 1974 and have returned most years since. Most things about the track itself are better now than they were then, but the impossibly cramped boxes are still just as uncomfortable, but otherwise, the facility has improved. Even in these recessionary times, crowds are bigger than they were then.

Tonight, Fasig-Tipton removed the veil, almost literally from the Grande Dame of Thoroughbred sales facilities, the Humphrey S. Finney pavilion at the corner of East and Madison in Saratoga Springs. Built in 1968, the Finney was then state of the art, but for the last 20 years or so has felt cramped and outdated. Not any more.

As with their redesign of the common areas behind the pavilion last year, Fasig-Tipton has done the old girl justice. Anyone who has been inside a modern corporate board room will be familiar with the decor--classy, elegant and simple. Lots of wood and stone, appropriate for a horse auction facility.

The redesign of the Finney resulted in 35% fewer seats, but expansion in critical spaces resulted in lots more room for buyers to mingle, and, without doubt, trade. The old building no longer feels cramped.

Fasig threw a very nice party for the occasion, complete with a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Doc Scantlin orchestra, and catered hors d'oeuvres and buffet. Now let's see if the sale can match the party.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Distance is supposed to give one perspective.....and I suppose it does. But my conclusions about the Fasig-Tipton July sale are no different today from the banks of the Caney Fork in Tennessee than they were yesterday from the banks of Elkhorn Creek in Kentucky.

The market for Thoroughbred racing prospects still appears to be bouncing along at the bottom of a deep valley. There does not appear to be any significant prospect of climbing out of that valley anytime soon. At the moment, on the other hand, there does not appear to be any likelihood of it dropping off another cliff either. Cliffs, however, have a disturbing propensity to appear out of nowhere in the cartoon universe in which we now live, courtesy of....well, don't get me started.

As a result of the economic uncertainty with which we all live, buyers appear to have finally figured out that it is really stupid to pay a premium for the progeny of first-year stallions. Ironically, this burst of intelligence arrived in a year graced by perhaps the most promising group of first-year stallions of the last five years, most of them owned by Darley.

One or more of Darley's stellar group of firsters--Any Given Saturday, Discreet Cat, Hard Spun, and Street Sense--is virtually certain to develop into a first-rate stallion. Opinions vary on which is the most likely to light the lights, but Hard Spun was the horse to whom breeders were most eager to send a mare two years ago, and he led first-year sires at the sale with three or more sold. All four of the Darley horses had their moments, though, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out when some real numbers are added to the statistics in September.

This is likely to be the toughest year for commercial breeders in this cycle. Stud fees were at their highest in 2008 when these yearlings were conceived and prices are (hopefully) at their lowest point in the cycle. That is like buying at retail and selling at wholesale--not a formula for making money.

The underlying question, though, is have stud fees come down enough even now? At the end of the sales season it will be interesting to compare the stud fee ratios based on stud fee at conception versus current year stud fee. It may not be pretty.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The object of the game

Like most horse sales these days--and for the foreseeable future--the first session of the Fasig-Tipton July sale was a mixed bag. Yes, average and median both increased, but, with a significantly smaller catalog, total proceeds to breeders declined by $1.2-million compared to the same session in 2009.

The killing statistic for commercial breeders, though, is the actual clearance rate. 107 of the 170 horses through the ring were listed as sold, which leaves a 37.1% buy back rate, which is bad enough, but not disastrous on the surface. When you consider the fact, however, that 203 horses were cataloged for the first session, that means that only 52.7% of the horses breeders planned to sell at the first session found apparent buyers--and there are always a percentage of reported sales that remain the property of their owners.

The only reason that the final buy back rate was not over 40%--where it hovered throughout the day--was that Fasig-Tipton now (correctly) includes after market private sales that are reported to them in their statistics. A dozen yearlings were listed in the final results with "PS" for private sale beside the price.

Everybody in the business knows that this crop of yearlings was bred on stud fees that reflected the inflated market that existed before the economic crash of October 2008, and that it is going to be very difficult to make money overall this year. That's why it was so disappointing--shocking really--to see so many yearlings listed as not sold for substantial multiples of their stud fees.

Consignors and breeders always have excuses (they're called "reasons" in their minds), but it is difficult for a disinterested observer to understand why anyone would not accept $70,000 for a yearling by Sun King, $75,000 for a Bob and John, $74,000 for a Flashy Bull, or $100,000 for a Rockport Harbor. All of those hammer prices represent more than four times the stud fee presumably invested, and, regardless of how promising the yearling is or how much the breeder paid for the mare, that should be an acceptable return on investment in a severely depressed market.

I don't mean to pick on any breeder or any consignor by mentioning those particular failed transactions, but it should be clear to everyone by now that we live in a changed environment. If the object of the exercise is to sell the horse, then sell the damned horse when offered a reasonable profit.

Fasig-Tipton removed the second-year horses from their young sire showcase (the first 144 hips) since they'd been getting killed on those horses the last couple of years. That is, in fact the main reason the average was up slightly. Take a big chunk of the least desirable horses out of the sale, if your average doesn't go up then you're really in trouble.

But buyers clearly are no longer paying the same kind of premium they once did for first-year sires. If they were, the average would have been substantially higher. This is a good thing. Paying more for progeny of first year sires just because they were by first year sires never made any sense. It was a fantasy cleverly exploited by breeders and pinhookers that has severely distorted the stallion market.

The reversal of that 15-year trend is the best thing that happened today.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The big dogs are loose

It's got to be a good sign when you walk into the barn area at a horse sale and the first thing you see is John Ferguson of Darley looking at a horse on one side of a show ring and Paul Shanahan of Coolmore looking at another one on the other side of the ring. And it can't be bad when they then switch positions and horses.

Who knows what it really means at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July sale, though. Historically neither Darley nor Coolmore buys large numbers of horses on Newtown Pike, but consignors always have a bit more hope when the big dogs are on the loose.

But mostly, FTK July is not that kind of sale. Pinhookers are everywhere, if for no other reason than the sales company caters specifically to them in the horses they select. A horse chosen for a yearling sale in July, by definition, has to be precociously mature, which, historically, is exactly what pinhookers have to have, even among their two-turn horses.

One veteran, highly successful pinhooker told me that he thought this is the best collection of horses he has seen at FTK July. I'm sure if I'd asked around I could have found another pinhooker who thinks it's the most useless collection of manes and tails in history, but, from my own somewhat casual observations, there are plenty of attractive racehorses here.

The one horse that tickled my fancy the most has absolutely no chance of topping the sale. From the late '70s through the 1980s and early '90s, maybe 25% or more of select yearling sales would be small to medium-sized, muscular, typey, elegant, refined horses with tremendously athletic walks, horses that looked like their sire (or grandsire), the immortal Northern Dancer. Although the Northern Dancer male line remains powerfully prominent, that physical type has all but disappeared from yearling sales.

The shift began with the bloodstock crash of the late '80s, when Sheikh Mohammed, Coolmore, Stavros Niarchos, and other big European-based buyers cut back their buying severely at American auctions. American commercial breeders shifted their focus to American dirt sires, away from the European-raced champions who had dominated the sales rings in the '70s and '80s. Yearling sales--or at least American yearling sales--are now dominated by big, powerful horses who are likely to be suited to dirt racing. That may change over the next few years because of synthetics, but that has certainly been the trend for most of the last 20 years.

Four Star Sales's High Cotton colt out of Echo Bluff, by Pine Bluff, is a throwback. He would have fit right in at a mid-1980s yearling sale. He bears the mark of Northern Dancer proudly. High Cotton was a good, honest racehorse, and his sire, Dixie Union also resembles his grandsire Northern Dancer, but High Cotton is not on anyone's list of prospective sires of sale toppers.

His son at FTK July is inbred 4x6x4 to Northern Dancer, but the percentage of horses in the breed inbred to Northern Dancer is rapidly approaching 50%, so that is no real explanation.

The new DNA testing services are useful aids in selecting horses, but they have little to say so far about such genetic mysteries. Some day that may change, but, thankfully, atavistic wonders can still delight us and inspire a stroll into nostalgia-land.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Where are Cuz and Tom when we need them?

Blogging is a very odd--in my case--hobby....or at least that's the best label I can come up with at the moment for what I do here. Certainly not a job, since the only income is psychic.

When you get into a rhythm of posting--once a week, twice a month, every day...whatever--posts flow fairly easily and steadily. When real life intervenes in the form of hernia surgery followed by a series of (welcome) guests, excuses not to post proliferate, as natural as breathing.

But life goes on and yearling sales season is here. July nowadays is not very much like July in Lexington from 1945 through 2002, the year the Keeneland July sale of selected yearlings died a rather ignominious death. For much of that period, Keeneland July was the social event of the Lexington summer, as well as being the most important and expensive horse sale in the world.

My first Keeneland July sale was 1970, when Majestic Prince's brother Crowned Prince sold for a then-record $510,000. Those two sons of Raise a Native (comprising two-thirds of the only set of three brothers to set world record yearling prices) were bred at Spendthrift Farm and sold by the inimitable Leslie Combs II.

Cousin Leslie set the tone at Keeneland July, and motivated other consignors like Tom Gentry to stage ever more lavish parties to lubricate buyers and loosen their grip on their wallets. Sheikh Mohammed's Dubai World Cup parties have nothing on the Tom Gentry parties of the 1980s.

That all came to an end with the bloodstock recession of the late '80s. Spendthrift and Gentry both imploded in different ways, and once Keeneland inaugurated select sessions at the September sale in 1989, the July sale was doomed.

Fasig-Tipton's new, Dubai-based ownership is making an effort to return a hint of glamor to July. That is surely one of the things that Thoroughbred racing in general and the auction scene in particular, needs.

Once one reaches a certain age, the contemporary world never seems as glamorous, as exciting, somehow as real, as the world of our youth. We could use more than a few Cousin Leslies and Tom Gentrys about now.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Colin's Ghost

Any of my intrepid readers who have not yet found Colin's Ghost should surf on over and read Kevin Martin's excellent history of the original Monmouth Parks (yes there were two). Terrific piece sourced to original newspaper articles and maps that shows, among other things, where the 19th century facilities were compared to the modern racecourse.


Monday, May 24, 2010


I've been spending most of my time on the couch this week recovering from minor hernia surgery, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the world has been just as supine. No, the blogosphere has been aTwitter, as it were, about subjects we've been curmudgeoning about lately.

Stephen P. Harrison, founder of England's Thoroughbred Genetics company, filed a US Patent application on processes for DNA testing in general and mtDNA testing specifically....or at least I think that's what this is about. And there's no information on filing date that I can find on that web page, so it's impossible to tell how recent it is. We discussed Harrison's Irish competitors here, here, and here a few months ago, and I've since learned a lot more about some other competitors, which, unfortunately, I'm not yet at liberty to discuss.

The bottom line for all four of the genetic testing companies I know about so far is that the genetic tests currently available certainly have some utility. Just how much utility, and just how much better they might be than a really competent expert opinion is a matter for each breeder to decide. There are currently at least three different kinds of tests on offer at wildly varying prices, so the sensible thing for the thoughtful breeder to do is investigate what is available for themselves and make an informed decision.

Then today, Frank Mitchell led me to Bill Finley's excellent article on ESPN.com about Lasix. I had my say about that a couple of months ago as well, but Bill says it better. If you read the comments, Bill got a lot of the same kind of quasi abusive response some of my gentle readers hurled my way a few months ago. Not that I'm still pouting about that or anything. I'm the curmudgeon, dammit, not you! (Must be the medication.)

Well, they're wrong and Bill is absolutely right. We simply cannot continue to destroy racehorses and horse racing with drugs, and that is exactly what is happening. Banning Lasix, Bute and everything else from the Triple Crown races is a very modest start....way too modest in my not so humble opinion. How about banning any horse who has run on Lasix or Bute or Kentucky's infamous "adjunct medications" during the calendar year from running in a Breeders' Cup race?

Is there anyone with any guts left over at the Breeders' Cup?

I'm still resting on the couch, but I'm not holding my breath on that one.

Hook me back up to the feel-good juice please!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Time travel

My first trip to the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico was hardly as amusing as my first trip to the Kentucky Derby.

In the fall of 1968 I moved to Baltimore to attend graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. I made my first trip to Pimlico that November to witness the Pimlico Futurity. In that era, the Pimlico Futurity ranked behind only the Champagne and perhaps the Belmont Futurity in prestige among juvenile races, and the 1968 edition attracted a field for the ages. With the exception of eventual champion two-year-old Top Knight and the then unraced Majestic Prince, it included what turned out to be the best members of the 1966 generation, but I was primarily interested in one horse: Paul Mellon's Arts and Letters. A beautiful, perfectly conformed liver chestnut, he was from the fifth American crop of my all-time hero *Ribot and had shown enormous promise in his first five races. Arts and Letters was a bit unlucky in the Futurity, getting caught inside in the stretch with no room, but finished a close fourth to King Emperor, by Bold Ruler (2nd only to Top Knight that year and winner of 6 of 8 2yo starts), the leggy, lightly made Dike, by *Herbager, and the dour Mr. Leader, by Hail to Reason.

By the time the Preakness rolled around the next spring, Top Knight had disappointed in the Kentucky Derby, King Emperor was running in shorter races, Mr. Leader was getting ready to run on grass, and Arts and Letters and Dike had just run a close second and third to Majestic Prince in a thrilling Kentucky Derby. Naturally, the unbeaten Majestic Prince was favored to win the Preakness, but, needless to say, my $2 was squarely on the nose of Arts and Letters.

I should have collected too. Arts and Letters' jockey Braulio Baeza had let Bill Hartack on Majestic Prince get the jump on him at Churchill Downs, and he was determined to take position to the Prince's outside and at his saddle girth at Pimlico. That plan went awry at the break, when Al Hattab, drawn to his outside, bumped Arts and Letters solidly. Al Hattab was a good horse, but something must have been bothering him that day, because he laid on Arts and Letters all the way down the stretch the first time by the stands, making it impossible for Baeza to place his *Ribot colt where he wanted to be. That allowed Majestic Prince to take perfect position once again, just off the pacesetter's flanks with no pressure on him from the outside.

Arts and Letters finally shook free coming off the final bend, but by that time, Majestic Prince had accelerated to a comfortable lead. Arts and Letters closed steadily all the way to the wire. One jump past the finish he was in front and going away, but at the wire, Hartack, riding at his powerful best, still had Majestic Prince's head in front.

That was the end of Majestic Prince. He had given everything he had to give and trainer Johnny Longden knew it. He announced that Majestic Prince would return to California and not run in the Belmont, but, with a Triple Crown on the line, owner Frank McMahon overruled him, as indeed he had to do. Arts and Letters ran right past Majestic Prince at the top of the stretch in the Belmont, and never lost again until his final start, when he pulled a suspensory ligament. Majestic Prince never ran again.

Pimlico, regrettably, hasn't changed much since 1969. It's still the same old ugly, ramshackle building, and still the same working-class neighborhood, the same shabby backstretch. That's why attending the Preakness is a little like time travel.

Look closely this Saturday.....Perhaps you'll see the shades of Majestic Prince and Arts and Letters illustrating for their literal and metaphorical descendants what it means to be a Thoroughbred.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Once you get to the bottom of the well...

As a reporter at the 1994 Belmont Stakes, I rushed down to the track after the race to greet the connections of the winner, Tabasco Cat, but I was immediately struck by the condition of the second place finisher, Go for Gin. I, of course, had a special interest in Gin, having helped buy his dam, Never Knock, for Pam du Pont and having arranged the mating with Cormorant that produced Go for Gin.

Go for Gin had tried to lead all the way in the Belmont, setting honest fractions of 23.80, 47.53, 1:11.36 and 1:35.48, but Tabasco Cat simply had a better turn of foot than Gin did and ran by him in the stretch. In fact, Go for Gin had been on the pace or battling for the lead throughout each of the Triple Crown races of 1994, winning the Kentucky Derby (with Tabasco Cat sixth) and grudgingly conceding a 3/4 margin to the same horse in the Preakness.

Go for Gin did not go very far past the finish line in the Belmont before he pulled up, and when he returned to the scales, he stopped and stood for a very long time, every muscle trembling, the very image of a totally exhausted racehorse. Go for Gin had given every last ounce he had to give in his Triple Crown efforts, and he was never the same horse after that. Nick Zito brought him back at Saratoga, where he ran well enough to finish third in the Forego, but he showed none of the old spark in the Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup or Breeders' Cup Classic. Zito tried him three times at four, with two seconds and a third over distances short of his best.

The point of the story is that once you get absolutely to the bottom of a gutsy, genuine, generous racehorse, it takes a very long time for them to get over it--if ever.

Watching the last furlong of the 2009 Woodward Stakes, and watching the winner Rachel Alexandra come back to the stands after the race, I was immediately reminded of that day at Belmont in 1994. I thought Rachel was absolutely all in at the finish, without another ounce of energy to give.

I applauded Jess Jackson's and Steve Asmussen's decision not to race her any more in 2009, because I was convinced it would ruin her as a racehorse if they did.

It also follows that I'm not at all surprised that Rachel has not been quite herself in her two starts this spring. Asmussen himself has referred to a "hangover" from her hard season in 2009, so he pretty clearly understands the potential problem.

Once a horse has felt as much pain as Rachel is bound to have felt at the end of the Woodward, it is doubtful they will ever be willing to put themselves through that much pain again. Maybe she'll make it back. Maybe she'll become once again that beautiful girl who skips along so joyously in front of the pack and then fights to the death when somebody tries to pass her.

Maybe not.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Power and privilege

My favorite political blogger, Andrew Sullivan, led me to this wonderfully insightful and true paragraph from another blogger, Rod Dreher, whom I do not read regularly:

"What a terrible thing power and privilege can be. Those who live with it come to think of themselves as entitled, and in some sense specially gifted with insight. That's when the trouble begins and the corruption sets in. The thing is, most of us in some way have power and privilege in our own spheres. It is in our nature to lie to ourselves--and when we are entrusted with the care of great institutions (the presidency, the church, banks), the cost of our blindness and hubris can be devastating."

Dreher, in turn, is pivoting off an op-ed piece by conservative Washington Post writer Peggy Noonan (a former Bush speechwriter who should know plenty about power, privilege, and hubris) on the Catholic church's current sexual abuse scandal. But Dreher's paragraph succinctly describes one of Thoroughbred racing's biggest problems. The people in charge are gifted with power and privilege and their blindness and hubris has been pretty devastating over the years.

It began, perhaps, with the late George Widener and his Jockey Club/NYRA (pretty much the same organization at the time) cohorts in the 1960s when Off Track Betting legislation loomed in New York. A product of Victorian paternalism, Widener and his peers believed that the unwashed masses should not be tempted to lose their rent money by being able to bet at the corner drugstore, so they adamantly opposed OTB and refused opportunities to participate and to control the final product.

Most of New York racing's current problems stem from, if not that decision, then certainly that attitude from racing's stewards. They think they know better than we do.

In the 1990s when the movers and shakers managed to co-opt Fred Pope's original, brilliant concept of the National Racing Association and turned it into the NTRA, I was still hopeful that it might work....up until the moment when the philosophical descendants of George Widener killed the inaugural "Go Baby Go" commercial, reportedly because they thought actress Lori Petty looked like a lesbian. That made it obvious that nothing had changed. It didn't matter that audience tests showed that the commercial worked, that it appealed to the audience for which it was designed. Lori Petty's tomboy appearance offended those with power and privilege, and that was more important.

The problem presented by the blindness and hubris of privilege is ultimately more serious for Thoroughbred racing than it is for the church, the nation, or the financial system. If the church, the politicians, and bankers do not mend past errors and set more realistic courses, they lose (at least in theory, though one never knows in the current toxic political climate) their followers, their jobs, their money--which is to say their power and their privilege. If Thoroughbred racing's powers that be continue their long, painful stumble toward oblivion, they may kill the sport they love, but they will still have their money, their power, their privilege in every other sphere of their lives. They will regret the loss, but you can be sure they will not think it was their fault.

Once upon a time the fact that Thoroughbred racing was run as a rich man's hobby was seen as an advantage. That meant that their motives were pure and they made decisions for the good of the sport (of course it was never really that simple and pure, but that was the theory and the sport thrived that way for 300 years).

That era ended around the time that George Widener and friends said no to OTB, but the oligarchy that runs Thoroughbred racing didn't notice for the next 30 years. When they did, when Fred Pope produced his revolutionary proposal, their response was not dissimilar to the response of the Catholic church to the sex abuse scandal--denial followed by self-serving attempts at moderate changes while maintaining power and privilege.

It hasn't worked for the Catholic church, and it hasn't worked for Thoroughbred racing.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Timeform Sees the Stars

Regular readers of The Pedigree Curmudgeon will remember the lively discussion that ensued last October after this post and this follow up post about the victory of Sea The Stars in the 2009 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Some readers, particularly our good friend Sid Fernando, disagreed somewhat with my rating of Sea The Stars at about 140 on the Timeform scale, believing he should be rated higher.

At the time my personal Timeform-scale ratings of the Arc principals plus Rip Van Winkle, the second best horse in Europe last year, read like this (some of these ratings were explicitly mentioned in the discussion, some not):

Sea The Stars 140
Rip Van Winkle 134
Fame And Glory 132
Youmzain 132
Conduit 130
Dar Re Mi 128

With Timeform's Racehorses of 2009 arriving this week, I thought it would be interesting to post their final ratings on those same horses, so here they are:

Sea The Stars 140
Rip Van Winkle 134
Fame And Glory 133
Youmzain 130
Conduit 130
Dar Re Mi 124

Obviously I'm pleased that my own ratings are so close to Timeform's, but then I possess the considerable advantage of owning every Timeform annual since 1943 in my library. I have read them all cover to cover (some biographies many times over) so I have a pretty good idea of how they go about compiling their ratings.

As I suspected, Timeform does not consider Sea The Stars's Arc performance to be his best. Correctly, in my view, they rate his length score over Rip Van Winkle in the Eclipse Stakes and his 2 1/2 length demolition of Fame And Glory in the Irish Champion as his two best performances. Here's the key paragraph from their 16-page writeup:

"What established Sea The Stars as a great horse was not just the fact of his winning six Group 1 races in a row, but rather his performances in some of those races. His Eclipse performance was that of a true champion, but his performance at Leopardstown was even better, probably the best on turf in Europe since Dancing Brave in the 1986 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe."

Timeform notes that Sea The Stars's superiority could not be measured simply by his margins of victory, "...his racing style and general demeanour often contributing to his winning with something in reserve, while he wasn't usually made to race right through to the end and demonstate his superiority to the full."

Timeform's comments on the Arc are equally apt and revealing: "The prestige of the Arc and the attention focused on Sea The Stars--who was cheered when he came into the paddock--led to the victory being lauded as the finest of his career though, judged solely on the quality of performance, it wasn't on a par with his Eclipse and Irish Champion efforts. ...The impression that Sea The Stars had plenty left was confirmed when Sea The Stars took off again as Stacelita came alongside after the leaders had crossed the line."

That last comment, of course, alludes to something that no one watching on television would have seen. It also makes me, at least, a little sad that trainer John Oxx adamantly resisted pressure to attempt to complete the Triple Crown with Sea The Stars because he was convinced the horse would not stay the almost 1 7/8 mile trip of the St. Leger. Obviously, Oxx knew his horse better than anyone and his opinion must be respected, but I strongly suspect that, like Nijinsky II before him, Sea The Stars was simply so superior to his contemporaries that he would have beaten any of them at any distance.

But of course if he had run in the Leger, we almost certainly would not have seen Sea The Stars burst from the pack at Longchamp, and that was something not to be missed.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Don't waste your money, son

The occasion of my first visit to Kentucky alluded to in my previous post (Setting the hook, below) was the 1967 Kentucky Derby. I had planned to go to the Derby the previous year, but when my beloved Graustark broke down in the Blue Grass Stakes, that took away my reason for going (as well as, briefly, my reason for living!).

The following spring, though, I boarded a Greyhound in Knoxville and rented a snappy red Corvair when I reached Lexington (yes, Ralph Nader, that Corvair). Since *Ribot was then (and remains now) my ideal racehorse, the first place I visited was Darby Dan Farm. When I pulled up to the stallion barn, the unbeaten Italian was out in his paddock which was surrounded by a six-foot high solid wall of white fence plank. If Ribot could see another stallion he would never stop running the fence. Whether he was still trying to outrun everything else, just as he did on the racecourse, I cannot say.

Ribot was not alone in his paddock. His groom, Floyd (sorry, cannot remember his last name) was sitting in a folding chair near a huge oak in the middle of the field, talking to the horse constantly. Ribot was standing under the tree backed up against the trunk. It took me a while to figure out that the occasional loud "THUNK" I heard was the sound of Ribot lashing out at the tree trunk with a hind leg.

Ribot, of course, was famous for his temperamental quirks, but, contrary to legend was not mean. Bored and capricious, yes, but not mean. When Floyd brought the horse back to his stall, he showed me the hoof marks Ribot had left above the beams at the top of the wall of his stall, perhaps 16 feet up, and the tooth marks where he liked to hang on that beam and chew on it. You can still see that chewed beam in the last stall on the left in the Darby Dan stallion barn, though it's been painted over many times since.

I happened to arrive just before a tour group of folks heading to the Derby in a few days arrived to see the stallions, and Olin Gentry, Darby Dan's legendarily crusty general manager came down from the office to greet the group. When Gentry had finished his spiel and the group was getting back on the bus, I dared to ask the great man's opinion of the chances of Darby Dan's Proud Clarion in the Derby two days hence.

Proud Clarion had a spotty record, nothing close to that of Derby favorite Damascus, but he had finished a closing second in the Blue Grass Stakes the previous week, and I had a powerful hunch that he was going to run big in the Derby. Gentry, who had already bred four Derby winners for E.R. Bradley and one (Chateaugay) for Darby Dan, was not impressed.

"Don't waste your money, son," the old man said, "he's a cheatin' son of a bitch."

Come Derby day, I arrived early, parked the Corvair in the enormous Churchill Downs parking lot, hoping I could find it at the end of the day, and made my way to the infield. This was long before the turf course was built, and long before the chain link fence that keeps infield fans far away from actual horseflesh. I was early enough to find a spot on the rail close to the finish line only a few feet from the track itself.

I had my own binoculars, but I wanted to see the backstretch as well, and, even at 6'3" I wasn't tall enough to see over the crowd satisfactorily, so I bought a small canvas camp stool. This was also well before the days of huge infield TV screens that allow anyone on the grounds to monitor the progress of their favorite horse.

I was a bit more agile at 20 than I am now, so I balanced on the stool and watched Barbs Delight flash to the front out of the gate. I was able to pick out Damascus's polka dot silks settling close to the pace, but Proud Clarion was lost somewhere in the pack.

As the field disappeared around the first turn I carefully got down off the camp stool, pivoted around the opposite direction and climbed back on. As I did so, however, I put my right foot down a little too close to the inside of the wooden support of the stool and felt the canvas start to rip. Determined to stay upright I balanced on the stool as best I could and managed to see that Barbs Delight was still battling for the lead going down the backstretch, with Damascus not far behind, but where the hell was Proud Clarion?

As the horses swept into the home turn that canvas stool split wide open and I crashed to the ground, much to the annoyance and amusement of the folks packed tightly around me. Undaunted, I picked myself up and leaned forward on tiptoe just in time to see the cream and brown silks of Darby Dan sweep past the toiling Damascus, run down Barbs Delight and keep right on going to win the Derby.

That $102.50 to $6 across the board bet remains the biggest longshot I've ever hit.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Setting the hook

Frank Mitchell's recent historical series prodded me into exploring my own historical wetware and software. There's enough stories in there to fill several books....but since the thought of publishing books of any sort, much less horse books, is enough to reduce strong men to crying for mommy these days, we all know that's not going to happen.

The first horse race I can remember seeing on TV is the 1955 Kentucky Derby. My family had acquired our first television earlier that year and my older sister and I had been fighting over which grainy, blurry shows to watch ever since. I don't know how I won that battle, but I remember Swaps beating Nashua.....not that it meant much to an eight-year-old.

By the time the 1957 Derby rolled around, however, I'd inhaled Walter Farley's Black Stallion series, and a naive Tennessee farm boy was in love with the glamor of horse racing. I had started following racing as well as one could in the Nashville Tennessean--in other words, considerably better than one can now in the same newspaper--and I knew who Bold Ruler and *Gallant Man were. The big, almost black Bold Ruler was surely far closer in appearance to Farley's fictional hero than the diminutive *Gallant Man, but it was the Irish colt's dramatic charge from behind that set the hook in my heart for Thoroughbred racing. *Gallant Man's 8-length Belmont victory in record time a few weeks later established a preference for come-from-behind runners that took years to eradicate.

Ten years later when I made it to Lexington for the first time, Bold Ruler was well established as the Lord of Speed, and, excellent stallion though he was, *Gallant Man was never going to catch him again. I know I took pictures of both horses with my trusty Kodak, but the shot of *Gallant Man has disappeared into the crack of time.

The picture of Bold Ruler above, taken at Claiborne in 1967, does not do him justice. He had a look about him that I have often seen in his descendants that is almost indefinable. It's something about the ears and an airy way of going that keeps showing up over and over again.

I've always been a curious sort though. What is your earliest memory of racing, and what did it mean to you?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Calder Casino

Arriving at Calder Race Course for the breeze show before the Fasig-Tipton Calder sale last week, I turned into the main entrance off Unity Blvd. and saw.....the Calder Casino. Where last year there was only parking lot CDI has thrown up a building that looks like--well, actually, it looks like a green and yellow warehouse. A gambling palace it isn't.

Sign on the top of the building says Calder Casino. If you make your way around the warehouse to the back of the racecourse grandstand, the sign says Calder Casino. Well, okay, let's drive on around to the paddock side on the eastern end of the grandstand.....Calder Casino. Wait a minute is the track still there? Yep. But you'd never know it from the signage anywhere on the racecourse buildings.

In fact, Calder does not even want horsemen entering what used to be the main entrance anymore. They have opened up what used to be a deliveries access road around the southern perimeter of the property onto Unity Blvd. and undesirables like us are supposed to head to the grandstand and stable area via that two-lane entrance as opposed to the wide, four lane expanses of the redesigned entrance to the casino.

That tells you all you need to know about the ultimate future of slot machines funding horse racing. They may be a short term necessity, but anyone who believes the companies that own "Racinos" won't kill off the race part of that neologism as soon as they dare is living in an alternate reality. All you have to do is read the signs.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Speaking truth to power

One paragraph from a letter to the editor from owner Dan Foster in the February 6 issue of Thoroughbred Times sums up Thoroughbred racing's biggest problem in two succinct, incontrovertible sentences:

"Horses in racing condition do not need medications. Horses that need medications are not in racing condition."

Foster's letter, speaking truth to power, correctly points out that owners have the power to stop the medication nightmare that has engulfed racing over the last 40 years. All they have to do is stop paying for them. You and I both--and I suspect Dan Foster as well--know how likely that is to happen.

Thoroughbred trainers are addicted to medication (for their horses, not for themselves--at least we hope not!), and most of them don't seem to understand how that addiction has changed and degraded their profession. They also do not seem to understand how it changes and degrades their horses. The overwhelming majority of them have no historical perspective on how this all came about.

In the 1970s, medications--primarily Butazolidin and Lasix--were sold (and sold hard) to the racing industry as a way to keep horses racing and increase the number of starts per horse. In the 1970s, average career starts per foal was 23. Today that number is 14. How's that working out for ya?

Number of starts per year has also declined dramatically over the same time frame.

Lasix (now marketed as Salix for some incomprehensible reason) seems particularly detrimental to the frequent racing of horses. Horses administered Lasix routinely lose around 50 pounds of water weight (that's one reason they run faster). It usually takes weeks for them to build back that lost weight and rebalance their systems. That is one of the main reasons, if not THE main reason, that trainers now insist on spacing their horses races at least three weeks, preferably four or five, apart.

Just this week we witnessed another blow to racing when Jess Jackson declined to race Rachel Alexandra against Zenyatta in the Apple Blossom S.(G1), despite Oaklawn's inflation of the purse to a potential $5-million. The stated reason? The earliest trainer Steve Asmussen could envision giving Rachel a prep race was three weeks before the Apple Blossom's date, and that would not be enough time between starts for the 2009 Horse of the Year.

Why not? Everyone in racing knows why not but they don't want to admit it. It's not as if modern trainers have discovered a new, better way to train horses that requires long breaks between races. It's not because modern horses are not as resilient as Thoroughbreds of 40 years ago (or at least not mostly). It's mostly because no Thoroughbred, then or now, could recover that quickly from the damage done to their systems by the drugs they receive.

Despite the fact that everyone knows that Lasix is hard on horses, even when medication reform is discussed everyone assumes that the one drug that not only will but "should" be allowed to continue is Lasix.


How many Triple Crown winners would we have had since Affirmed without medications. Does the two week rest after running on Lasix in the Derby followed by a three week rest after running in the Preakness on Lasix put too great a strain on a horse's system? Is it simply coincidence that racing has not had a Triple Crown winner since 1978?

I'm tired of arguing over whether or not banning race-day medications is realistic. That is not the right question. The right question is what is best for the horse. Draining a horse of fluids so that it cannot race again for the next month simply cannot be the best thing for the horse.

We come back to Dan Foster speaking truth to power.

Horses in racing condition do not need medications. Horses that need medications are not in racing condition.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The human touch

As mentioned in my previous post, I interviewed Emmeline Hill, PhD, geneticist at University College Dublin and co-founder of the new equine genetic testing company Equinome last week for Thoroughbred Times. You'll have to read the interview in the February 13 issue to get that copyrighted information, but, suffice to say, Dr. Hill is personable, straightforward, and highly confident that what she has discovered is valuable information for Thoroughbred owners and breeders.

I'm not so sure. One of the questions I asked Dr. Hill was whether her test is superior to the opinion of an experienced, competent conformation and pedigree professional. Again, you'll have to read the magazine to see her answer.

One of the reasons I have doubts about Dr. Hill's research is sample size. Hill's basic sample size was 148 elite Thoroughbreds. That's pretty small for a study of a population as large as the Thoroughbred. There are certainly more than 500,000 Thoroughbreds alive in the world right now. A few years ago, the number was pushing 1-million, but that has probably declined significantly.

Hill's elite sample gets divided up further into CCs, CTs, and TTs, naturally, producing even smaller samples of horses with those genotypes. One result of that small sample size can be seen in the standard error of the average best racing distance of the three groups.
Standard error is a measure of uncertainty. I'm sure you've all seen political polls that predict that candidate A will win 51% of the vote and candidate B 49% +- 2%. That “+- 2%” is the standard error. In that case, that means that the race is actually a statistical dead heat, since the real percentages for each candidate theoretically could vary by two percentage points and they're only two percentage points apart in the poll. Another poll the next day could (and often does) give exactly the opposite result.

Hill's results show that the best racing distance for horses with the CC genotype that her “speed gene te average st” tests for is 6.2 furlongs, +- 0.8 furlongs. That's not bad. That means that it's pretty likely that the average best winning distance for those horses is going to be between 5.4 and 7 furlongs roughly 70% of the time (in a normal distribution), and 6.2 furlongs is the most likely number. You're probably not going to do much better than that with such a small sample size.

The problem appears with the CTs and TTs. The average best winning distance for CTs is 9.1 furlongs, +- 2.4 furlongs; average for TTs is 10.5 furlongs, +- 2.7 furlongs. I'm not an expert—it's been almost 40 years since my graduate level statistics courses—but those look like pretty big standard errors to me....just the kind you might get from a human expert.

I am quite confident that with the appropriate pedigree information and a good look at the physical horse that I could predict its best racing distance within about a quarter mile pretty damned consistently.

Still, people tend to want what they perceive as certainty. I strongly suspect that many of the large farms and racing stables in England and Ireland have already opted to have all of their horses tested. To a billionaire, the $1400 per horse cost of the test is pretty meaningless.

I also strongly suspect, however, that the test will have virtually no effect on employment of bloodstock agents and other advisers. Equinome's test cannot tell you if that yearling with the genotype you prefer has offset knees or a curby hock, or whether he moves like a racehorse.

That requires a human eye, human intelligence, and human experience.

P.S. It may well be true that Dr. Hill has since gathered more unpublished evidence that reduces the standard error. But the spreads in the data actually make sense in terms of the way horses actually race. There are horses that are purely sprinters. There is another group that can win at sprint distances but are better up to about 9 furlongs. Then there is another group that generally can't beat decent horses at six furlongs but can win between 7 or 8 and 12 furlongs or more. And then there are horses that don't really fit within any of those patterns but are superior at every distance. Those are rare animals indeed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Don't panic

As expected, Emmeline Hill, PhD., et.al., published her study on the relationship of specific gene alleles to maximum win distance today at the PLos1 online journal. If you prefer not to slog your way through all the scientific jargon of academe, you can read the commercial version of the results at Equinome, the website of the company founded by Hill and trainer Jim Bolger to market the test based on Hill's research. The core findings are embodied in this page from the website.

Briefly, the research shows that there are two alleles, "C" and "T", at a particular position on a gene that governs muscle mass in Thoroughbreds. This means the horse's genetic code at that particular spot must read either "CC", "CT" or "TT". The important finding from the research on populations of both elite and non-elite Thoroughbreds is that CC horses strongly prefer sprint distances and are more precocious, CTs are mostly milers and 10-furlong horses who may or may not be precocious, and TTs are mostly 10-furlong and up horses.

The distributions of the genes are about the same in the elite and non-elite groups, so Equinome does not claim to test for the class of the animal, just the distance capacity.

What does this mean for those of us who make our livings looking at horses and/or analyzing pedigrees? Not as much as you might first think...at least not if the market responds rationally (perhaps too much to hope for in an irrational business). The important point is that the test has nothing to do with class, only probable distance capacity. I don't know about you, but I think I generally have a pretty good idea of the probable distance capacity of a prospective foal from a mating I recommend. The test would give breeders more information on the prospective sire and dam and the statistical probabilities of the outcome. It is obvious from the data, that in the contemporary, commercial Thoroughbred world, the most desirable combination is CT. And if you mate two CCs or two TTs, you're not going to get any CTs.

It is also obvious, however, that the only way to guarantee you get all CTs is to breed a CC to a TT. In racing mythology, this is what is familiarly known as a "fish and fowl mating", and it is just about as far out of favor as it could get, and for good reason. For instance, if one bred a 2 1/2 mile Ascot Gold Cup winning sire (Yeats, for example) to a filly winner of the 6-furlong Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint (Informed Decision, for example), what would you expect to get? The perfect 10-furlong horse? Well, no. History and practice have shown far too often that this simply does not work well, and it is very rarely attempted these days, even taking into account the fact that Gold Cup winners get virtually no chance at stud nowadays.

If you breed CTs to CTs (the most obvious and common tactic), you're going to get 25% CCs, 50% CTs and 25% TTs. That matches up extraordinarily well with what happens in the real world when you breed an 8-10 furlong sire to an 8-10 furlong mare. You'll get a few fast horses that can't stay, a good number of middle-distance types, and a few slow ones that can gallop forever.

The market response to this test is going to be very interesting indeed. The test is a bit pricey at 1,000 euros (about $1,400 currently) per sample (according to the terms of service on the website), but then if you're pondering spending $1-million on a yearling or even $100,000 on a stud fee, what's $1400? The more interesting question for the prospective racehorse market is....exactly who is going to buy the test?

The problem for yearling or juvenile buyers is that, according to the website, the test takes three weeks, so you can't look at a horse at the yearling sale, obtain a blood sample (and of course obtaining the seller's permission to do so), get it tested, and buy the horse the next day. That means that the real market may actually be the sellers of yearlings and two-year-olds, not the buyers. And if you were selling ten yearlings, would you really want to tell buyers that five of them are CTs, three CCs, and two TTs? I doubt many will, though I can envision an environment where all essentially are forced to do so should a prestigious breeder begin the practice, just as they are now forced to put damning radiographs in repositories. On the American market at least, those two TTs would be just about guaranteed to be no bids, no matter how handsome they might be. Once the horse is bought, of course, then the buyer has plenty of time to find out just what type of horse he has acquired. It seems to me the likelihood of both buyers and sellers utilizing the test is higher in the juvenile market, where horses are breezing well ahead of the sale and both sides have more time to consider their options.

I plan on interviewing Emmeline Hill on behalf of Thoroughbred Times on Thursday, so check into Thoroughbred Times Today and the Thoroughbred Times website for excerpts and into the weekly print issue for the full interview.