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 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' 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.