"Why are Thoroughbreds not as tough as they used to be?” That is the question of the day, being asked by racing columnists, editors, and punters. It should surprise no one that the answer turns out to involve money.
At Keeneland a year or so ago, I watched a 5-year-old mare win a maiden race while making her first career start! Her owners were on cloud nine, and so was her trainer. They had every right to be proud. If I had owned that mare, she would never have made it to the races. I can’t afford to pay training bills for four years with no money coming in.
As I pondered this unpleasant fact, it occurred to me I knew the answer to the question of the day. The reason today’s Thoroughbred is not as tough is that there has been a change in the direction of cash flow in the racing world.
In its earliest days, the Sport of Kings was conducted by and for sportsmen who poured money into the game. In recent times, the amateurs, defined as those who play for the love of the game, have become outnumbered by the professionals, defined as those who make money from the game. (Don’t forget the tax man, who preys on both but is especially tough on the former.)
Of course every owner, rich or poor, then and now, tries to win to defray costs. But the breeders who brought us Man o’ War, Secretariat, Northern Dancer, and Buckpasser did not expect to make a profit from their horses. These people served as a conduit for money that flowed from business and industry to the kingdom of the horse. Fortunately, a few of these men, or their heirs, are still with us.
In his book The Great Breeders and Their Methods, the late Abram Hewitt devoted a chapter to each of 27 individuals (or families) who were responsible for producing so many of the classic winners in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Only a handful of them were individuals for whom horses were a livelihood. A few (Tesio, the Hancocks, John Madden) were professional horsemen in the very best sense of the word. But the majority were people who had made (or inherited) a fortune earned in commerce, and who used their money to support their passion for the Turf. Thus money flowed in the direction of breeding farms and racing stables from Wall Street bankers, railroad tycoons, and the purveyors of baking powder and cosmetics, inter alia.
After World War II, with the spread of pari-mutuel wagering, money began to flow in other directions, and at a faster rate. Takeout from the pari-mutuel pools became a source of cash for purses and for state governments, whose support was needed if horse racing was to be allowed a monopoly on gambling. (The story of how that monopoly vanished is well known and need not be repeated here.) Increased purse money made it possible for owners to earn enough to replenish their racing stock. The result was the rapid development of a market for young Thoroughbreds. The value of yearlings sold at auction in North America increased approximately one hundredfold between 1950 and 2000.
Market breeders learned to tailor their product to the tastes of the buyers. Therein lies a key element in the story.
Horses that are bred for speed, especially if that breeding is confirmed by some very fast works at a 2-year-old sale, seem likely to reward their owners as early winners. Colts who fail to show 2-year-old speed are often gelded before they have an opportunity to perform at longer distances. Some of the runners who pass these early tests are tough enough to train on, and they become successful runners in the classic mold. But “class” has always been a rare commodity and will continue to be so. What happens to the runners who do not make it to the top?
There are plenty of opportunities for horses with distance limitations to win sprinting, and it is not unknown for a good trainer to coax one of them into winning important races. (One remembers Bold Forbes and Laz Barrera.) But the horse that lacks the speed to win sprinting may have few chances to do his thing. No owner wants to have a barn full of 5-year-old maidens with no place to run.
Badly needed is a way to reward toughness and stamina in horses of mid-class. The New York Racing Association has begun a series of distance races that would appear to accomplish that goal. The Steven Duncker/P.J. Campo plan deserves the support of horsemen everywhere.
Martin Stiles, and his wife, Martha, bred group winners Hardgreen, Castle Green, and Canadian champion Buckys Solution at Stockwell Farm in Bourbon County, Ky.