Monday, June 27, 2011

Compete or die

I did not attend the International Summit on Race Day Medication, EIPH, and the Racehorse held on June 13-14 at Belmont Park. Therefore I cannot speak from first-hand knowledge of everything that transpired over those two days among the reported 72 conferees, but I am sad to say that press reports so far leave me somewhat less than inspired and hopeful.

The principal achievement of the summit was....wait for agree to have another meeting. As Peggy Lee sang too long ago for younger readers to remember, “is that all there is?”

Eric Wing, the NTRA's media director said, “No specific recommendations were announced but areas of broad interest were identified.” Perhaps I am being too cynical, but to me that means exactly the same thing it means when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she had “frank discussions” with her foreign counterparts—nobody could agree on anything. That is what happens when you get parties in a room with diametrically opposed agendas and self interests.

The principal problem American racing faces is finding a way to phase out race-day furosemide (Lasix or Salix). Trainers and veterinarians tend strongly to be on one side of the issue—in favor of race-day Lasix—and racing's administrators, owners, breeders, and international observers tend to be on the other.

One issue that was at least brought out into the open for the first time was the definition of “bleeding”. Prior to the 1970s and '80s, before the big push from trainers and veterinarians to legalize furosemide, a bleeder was a horse who visibly bled from the nostrils after a race or workout. That in fact was pretty much the universal definition of the malady in use at least since the days of the line-founding stallion Herod, born in 1758.

Advocates of race-day furosemide use, though, managed to conflate the term bleeder with exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH), a condition that is common in human athletes, greyhounds, and racing camels as well as equines. EIPH, essentially means the presence of blood, even tiny flecks, in the airway as a result of exercise. In horses, EIPH occurs in a significant percentage of horses after mild canters. That means, by the way, that some horses cantering and playing in their paddocks would likely incur EIPH. And, no, I am not trying to minimize the humane significance of EIPH, just stating facts.

Racing jurisdictions abroad, however, have never changed their definition of bleeding. Visible blood from the nostrils (epistaxis) is required for a horse to be defined as a bleeder. In some jurisdictions, such as Australia, observed epistaxis requires a lengthy ban from racing, and repeated episodes can lead to a permanent ban.

American trainers tend to assume that their situation—training at racetracks in large cities—is uniquely stressful on their horses. Have they ever been to Hong Kong? That city of seven million people is a match in terms of crowding, pollution, and other stressful factors for any American city. Race-day Lasix is not allowed in Hong Kong, and their horses have started to win races all over the world.

American horses do not win nearly as many races all over the world as they once did. That is no doubt partly because we have sold many of our best potential stallions and broodmares abroad for 30 years and the rest of the world has caught up, but that is not the only reason. If you understand genetics at all, it is not hard to understand that race-day medication is bound to increase dependence on such drugs over time.

American trainers and veterinarians need to understand that if they wish to have a business to run, horses to train and doctor ten or 20 years from now, they are going to have to adjust their viewpoint. American racehorse owners are not going to continue in a business the public increasingly sees as tainted by drugs. American breeders cannot continue indefinitely breeding horses that no one but vanishing American owners will buy.

Even if we agree that American conditions are different from foreign conditions—and they are—in the long run it does not matter. Globalization is here in Thoroughbred racing, and it has been here for about 15 years.

Our choice is either to retreat from the global village and die a long, painful death, or to embrace it and compete on even terms.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ode to Epsom

The following was first published in Thoroughbred Times Today on June 3, 2011.

Like many other classic races around the world, the Belmont Stakes was modeled on the Epsom Derby, which will be run for the 232nd time tomorrow—if you count wartime Derbys that were run at Newmarket in 1915-18 and 1940-45.

More accurately known simply as the Derby Stakes, the true father of all classic races is the third oldest classic in the world. Both the St. Leger Stakes (G1), founded in 1776, and the Derby's companion race for fillies, the Epsom Oaks, inaugurated a year earlier than the Derby, are older. But the Derby has always been the most prestigious horse race in England, and that is why virtually every country around the world copied it as closely as local conditions allowed.

France came first, kicking off the Prix du Jockey-Club as the French equivalent of the Derby in 1836, and other countries followed almost as soon as their racing programs stabilized. In many cases it was the invention of local Derbys, as well as echoes of the other English classics, the Oaks, Two Thousand Guineas, One Thousand Guineas, and St. Leger, that formed the foundation for stabilizing those racing and breeding programs.

That was certainly the case in the United States. When racing resumed in New York at Jerome Park late in 1865 after the conclusion of the long and bloody Civil War, foundation of a race modeled after the Derby was one of the first orders of business for the wealthy bankers and industrialists intent on putting the horrors of the war well behind them. Leonard Jerome, though, went against tradition by naming his Derby equivalent the Belmont Stakes, after his primary financial backer, August Belmont I.

As American racing consolidated its shift from four-mile heat racing that had dominated prior to the War Between the States, other states soon followed suit, most notably Kentucky, which inaugurated its equivalent Derby in 1875. Over the years, the prestige of all these races waxed and waned with the times, and it was not until after World War I that the Kentucky race began to gain preeminence in America, and, in some senses, the world.

By that time the Kentucky Derby had been reduced from its original distance of 1 ½ miles to 1 ¼ miles, in deference to its position on the calendar a month before the Epsom classic. Meanwhile, the Belmont was raced at several distances over its first 60 years and did not settle at its current distance until 1926.

None of these global imitators, though, truly could match Epsom's unique conditions. The greatness of the Epsom Derby as the truest test of the Thoroughbred lies in the complex terrain of the racecourse itself. Myth has it that there is not one level square foot of ground on the wide, sweeping, horseshoe-shaped course. That is not quite true, but, as with most myths, there is truth in the thought.

The Derby course begins far across the chalky Surrey Downs from the grandstand, and climbs rather steeply uphill around a gentle right-handed curve for most of the first half-mile. As the course straightens out briefly at the top of the hill, the horses cross to the left hand rail and begin the steep descent around a left-handed curve to Tattenham Corner, 3 ½ furlongs from the finish. The course slopes downhill for another furlong or so before rising sharply again over the last furlong and a half.

It is a roller-coaster ride that tests a young three-year-old in more different ways than any other racecourse in the world. The horse must have the stamina to cope with a breakneck pace up that killing first half mile, the agility to turn right, turn left, and run uphill and down at racing pace. Then he must be able to accelerate in the last two furlongs on a course that doesn't just look to him by then as if it is tilting toward the inside rail. The natural camber of the land actually does slope from the outside toward the inner rail in addition to being uphill at that point. Thus countless tired horses have staggered toward the inside rail in Epsom's final furlong.

That is why the Derby remains the Derby. Non-stayers cannot win. Plodders without speed and acceleration cannot win. Horses who easily become unbalanced and lose their action cannot win.

Federico Tesio was right. The Thoroughbred is what it is because of a piece of wood—the finishing post at Epsom.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A feature not a bug

Every year when Triple Crown season rolls around, complaints about the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes (G1) resurface. Certain trainers in particular annually call for the distance to be shortened to 1 1/4 miles, and even go so far as to suggest shortening the Kentucky Derby (G1) to 1 1/8 miles so that the three Triple Crown races provide a steady progression of distances.

Fortunately that sentiment does not seem to have gained much traction, because, as software engineers are wont to say about perceived flaws in their products, the distance of the Belmont is a feature not a bug. Furthermore, in an all too insular industry that finally seems to be waking up to the negative way the rest of the world views our racing program, it is a feature that may well become a much stronger selling point in the future.

The Belmont is the oldest of the American classic races, inaugurated by Leonard Jerome in 1867, the year after the Wall Street speculator opened his eponymous racetrack in the north Bronx. Founder of the American Academy of Music and grandfather of Winston Churchill, Jerome designed the race as an American equivalent of the 1 1/2-mile Epsom Derby, and named it after banker August Belmont Sr., who financed construction of the track. Jerome Park's amenities were described as lavish, complete with an elegant ballroom and a clubhouse that rivaled the city's most luxurious hotels.

Jerome Park returned first-class horse racing to New York, following a hiatus during the Civil War. The Belmont was originally run at 1 5/8 miles, but fluctuated between 1 1/8 and 1 3/8 miles after it was moved to Morris Park in 1890 when Jerome Park was condemned by the city to facilitate the construction of the New Croton Aqueduct and Jerome Park Reservoir to provide water for the city.

The Belmont transferred to the new Belmont Park, built by August Belmont Sr.'s son August Belmont II, in 1904 and was run at 1 3/8 miles until 1926, when Samuel D. Riddle's Crusader, son of Belmont-bred Man o' War, became the first Belmont winner at the 1 1/2-mile distance that has since become sacrosanct.

In Crusader's era, there were scores of other prestigious American races at 1 1/2 miles and beyond, but as the emphasis in American racing shifted inexorably toward precocious speed after World War II, those races disappeared, were reduced in distance, or transformed into turf races one by one. Since the American Jockey Club, founded by August Belmont II and Leonard Jerome, among others, abandoned its historic principals in pursuit of perceived relevance for its namesake race, the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), and reduced its distance to 1 1/4 miles in 1990, the Belmont has stood alone as America's only 1 1/2-mile Grade 1 stakes on dirt.

That uniqueness makes the Belmont more valuable than ever to the American racing industry in the current global racing environment. As various supporters of the move to ban race-day medications have correctly pointed out, the rest of the world, particularly Europeans, see American racing as increasingly irrelevant, primarily because medications allow horses who otherwise might not be able to compete to win top-level races.

Distance is also a factor in those perceptions, however. The rest of the world still reveres horses that can beat the best at distances from the 1 1/2 miles of the Epsom Derby and most other Derby equivalents around the world to the two miles of Australia's greatest race, the Emirates Melbourne Cup (Aus-G1).

It is an exquisite bit of irony that an American-bred horse named Americain won the 2010 Melbourne Cup. His sire, Dynaformer, trained by one of the principal critics of the Belmont's distance, D. Wayne Lukas, won at 1 1/2 miles, and is one of only a very few American sires foreign buyers might expect to sire a major winner over that distance. Dynaformer's daughter, Blue Bunting, winner of the 2011 Qipco One Thousand Guineas (Eng-G1), is one of the favorites for the 1 1/2-mile Epsom Oaks (Eng-G1).

Dynaformer, though, is 26 years old. Who will succeed him as a potential sire of European Derby winners when he is gone? Why should Europeans come to America to buy potential Derby winners if we have no stallions capable of producing them?

So, the next time someone mocks the distance of the Belmont stakes or calls it a “marathon” (please!), tell them, no, it is a feature, not a bug.