Getting on in years (Ok, getting old if you want to be crude about it) has its curses and its blessings. As my world has revolved around horse racing for the past 50-plus years, I will use it to address that opening statement.
The blessing has been the joy of witnessing tough, durable, brilliant horses whose owners wouldn’t dream of retiring them sound at 3. It was watching them compete in handicap races at age 4 or 5 or older that made racing so enjoyable and satisfying, and helped make it one of the three most popular sports in America, along with baseball and boxing. But to young racing fans now, those were ancient times.
The curse has been the joy of witnessing tough, durable, brilliant horses whose owners wouldn’t dream of retiring them at 3, and watching them compete in handicap races at age 4 or 5 or older. The reason that this is also a curse is because I know what racing was like and how great a sport it can be when it comes to longevity and being able to follow the stars of the Turf for several years and getting to know them and rely on them week after week. The sport felt more like a close-knit family back then. Our equine heroes were more like good friends whose company we enjoyed week after week and year after year.
If a great horse carried 134 pounds and was beaten, it was no big deal. He would get a few pounds off next time. No one holds Forego’s losses against him or Kelso’s or Round Table’s or Seabiscuit’s or Exterminator’s or John Henry’s or any of the sport’s enduring stars. People only remember their conquests. Many consider Gallorette the greatest filly of the past 100 years even though she lost 51 of her 72 starts. Why? Because 56 of those starts were against the boys and she defeated them in a number of big races, including the Met Mile and Brooklyn Handicap while racing against the likes of Hall of Famers Stymie, Armed, and Assault. Back then, horses did what they were bred to do--run.
Now, every defeat is perceived as a catastrophe in much the same way as seeing your stock plummet. Yes, horses have been like stocks since the breeders took control of the sport and bought up major shares in the hot stocks.
Watching Omaha Beach win the Malibu Stakes in brilliant fashion, I took little joy in his victory because it was just another painful reminder of another unfinished work of art. And I say that as a huge fan of Omaha Beach who was my No. 1-ranked Derby horse for many weeks. When I think of what he most likely would have accomplished in 2020, it conjures up images of da Vinci painting the eyes and nose of the Mona Lisa and then deciding to retire from painting.
Imagine Beethoven writing the famous opening four-note motif of his fifth symphony and figuring that was good enough to sell and not bothering to write the rest of it.
Had Seattle Slew and Affirmed retired at 3, they would be ranked right there with American Pharoah and Justify as Triple Crown winners, but it was their 4-year-old campaigns that stamped them as all-time greats.
I know I’m sounding like an old fogey who still hasn’t come to terms with racing’s metamorphosis into a business, but I just hate to see potential greatness go unfulfilled. The premise now is to produce potentially great horses instead of all-time great horses, because it is potential that is maximized financially just in case it does not materialize into true everlasting greatness. Why wait to find out and risk having potential evaporate into mediocrity. Curiosity to see just how great a horse can be is a thing of the past.
Now, only a small handful of our biggest stars remain in training at 4, and that usually is because their pedigree is not attractive to breeders, and their owners figure they might as well race them and hope to capitalize on one or two of the numerous mega million purses around the world. It’s a lot better than standing them for $7,500 and wind up eventually having to move them to some small farm. Of course there is always the chance of receiving a lucrative offer from some far-off land.
Omaha Beach certainly isn’t an isolated case, and no one can blame owners for accepting offers from breeders and avoiding the risk factor. Those offers simply are too enticing to pass up. But that doesn’t make it any less sad and frustrating. After all, the true sportsman is pretty much gone.
Racing today comes in several stages.
There are the spectacular maiden winners or bottom floor potential. “Let’s buy that penny stock now and hope it splits many times over and becomes IBM.”
Then there is the proven stakes winner at 2 with the classic pedigree. “Let’s buy stock in this rapidly growing company before it becomes too expensive.”
And finally there is the hot horse on the Derby trail. “Let’s buy 50% of stock in this horse now with future controlling interest before one of our competitors beats us to it.”
I compare horses to stocks because of the many hedge fund and stock brokers that have infiltrated the sport. We welcome their support and putting millions into racing, but we can’t expect them to emulate the sportsmen of the past. They were another breed.
So Omaha Beach likely will have one more start in the marked-down Pegasus World Cup before retiring to stud. He will take with him an excellent pedigree, courage in the heat of battle, and exceptional brilliance, but we will always wonder to what heights those attributes could have taken him.