Bobby Trussell: Walmac Farm

[image url=""]Bobby Trussell[/image]

This week's guest on a special Friday edition of Talkin' Horses is Bobby Trussell, the co-owner of Walmac Farm who recently weighed in on the current state of Thoroughbred racing as a contributor to Final Turn.

Trussell, who is chief executive officer of Tempur-Pedic International - a leading manufacturer of mattresses and pillows - has extensive experience in the horse business, having first worked for trainers John Nerud in New York and Woody Stephens in Aiken, S.C.

In the late '70s, Trussell trained on his own for several years before taking a job in the office at Gainesway Farm near Lexington. Gainesway was one of the country's leading stallion stations at the time, and Trussell moved up in the organization, becoming director of sales and later being involved in the recruitment, syndication, and marketing of stallions.

In 1985, Trussell and Jim Philpott started Stallion Management Services, but it launched as the market was taking a downturn and did not last. From 1987 to 1991, Trussell, Philpott, and John Jones III operated Live Foal, a stallion season arbitrage company that converted no-guarantee seasons to live foal seasons.

During the '90s, Trussell kept his hand in the horse business while building Tempur-Pedic into a worldwide leader in sleep system sales. He purchased Walmac Farm - in partnership with John Jones III - in September 2004.

Urbana, Ohio:
When I visited Walmac many years ago, Risen Star was away for one of many surgeries prior to his death. Does Walmac have any Risen Star mares? I've not yet seen any in pedigrees.

No, we don’t. I’ve seen a few in pedigrees but not too many.

Lexington, KY:
Everyone is always saying how difficult it is to be a horse owner and make any money at it. Does the same hold true for major farms such as Walmac? Is it a matter of finding a hot sire to cover expenses?

The stallion business is much more a cash flow business because you can more or less predict stud fee revenue over time. But you’re right in that you don’t really make much money unless you come up with a real proven stallion that can stand at a higher fee over a long career. If they don’t do well they’re pretty much worthless after their first crop is 4 years old. This is really the nature of the entire horse business. Whether you're selling yearlings or racing or standing stallions you just tread water until you hit the home run ball.

Philadelphia, PA:
Bobby, thanks for your candor in your recently published commentary here. What do you think can actually be done to generate change in industry to move away from the over-medicated, under-raced status of American racing? Anyone who follows racing anywhere outside of North America knows of the lack of permissive medication and no one seems to be complaining about performance there; how do we change?

Well synthetic tracks are a big step in the right direction. That’s why I say there should be no excuses for running so seldom in the future. The countries you mention all race and train on all weather synthetic tracks and/or grass. That said I will say that another reason horses stay sounder in these countries is they rarely go around a turn morning or afternoon. Turns really put pressure on the legs. I don’t think we can fix that but it would be fun to see a European type racecourse someday. At Newmarket for instance they race 1 1/4 miles straight, no turns.

I think owners should get more educated on the subject and start asking some hard questions of their trainers. And the trainers should think more outside the box and question the vets. I don’t really blame the vets. They are trained to solve problems with drugs and surgery, not prevention (medical doctors are the same way but that’s a different blog!). They can only give drugs if the trainer agrees. But many trainers just let the vets medicate at will and are only vaguely aware of what the horses are getting. And so a drug culture has just evolved. I know a trainer who gives Robaxin, a muscle relaxant to a horse who gallops with his head a little high. If you ask a vet they will have a drug for everything! The old time trainers just wouldn’t ask the vet. It would never occur to them.

Paris, KY:
Thanks for your article in Final Turn. Ships that are not seaworthy are not allowed to sail. Horses that are not race worthy should not be allowed to race. Too many cripples are being raced on dope and medicines. It is that stuff - not track surfaces - that cause breakdowns and short careers. There have been several fatal breakdowns on synthetic tracks. Salix, Bute, etc should be banned. Please continue to say it. Start a new movement. The time is right.

Thanks, I agree.

La Verne, CA:
I read your article in Final Turn. I totally agreed that drugs are ruining our horses. Drugs are used to treat diseases and not to prevent certain conditions like bleeding and the side effects far out weight the benefits. How as an owner can I change this perception that drugs help the horse to win?

I would bring up some of these ideas with your trainer. Ask him why are we so different than the other countries. Also reiterate that he is not under pressure from you to run the horse unless he is right. Some successful trainers have figured this out. I have had horses with Bobby Frankel. He is very much against steroids, doesn’t tap joints very often, sends horse back to the farm when they have a problem and is generally not a big medication guy. Yet he’s won how many Eclipse awards? Shug McGaughey is the same way.

Louisville, KY:
Your recent commentary on the correlation between excessive medication uses in race horses was thought provoking. Are you aware of any scientific studies to support your contentions? If there are no such studies, there should be an effort made to fund such studies (Mr. Bowen, are you interested?). Racing cannot afford to have its athletes treated like machines. Some trainers and vets would have owners believe that changing the joint fluid in a horse is the moral equivalent of changing the oil in one's isn't. I think you understand. How do we get this message to the owners? Any honest vet will tell you that rest is one of the most beneficial components of any therapy. When the vet bills equal or exceed the training bill, which is a common complaint from owners these days, there is a serious problem either with the horse or with the trainer. Would you agree that owners need to get educated, assert control over the care of their horses and stop allowing others with economic conflicts make decisions about the welfare of the animal? Perhaps you have some ideas about how to get owners more engaged in the process.

There are certainly no studies looking at whether the interactions of these drugs given to young horses are safe. I think we lose sight that these are baby horses that we are over-medicating. Might be a little different if these were 9 and 10 year olds. I believe there are studies out there which indicate that Salix (Lasix) does not move horses up as much as trainers think. Beyond that I’m not aware of any studies. I am going by personal observation and common sense. If medication worked we should have a higher average starts per horse. That’s the reason given for using it. But guys it ain’t working. As I said in the Final Turn we can’t just reflexively say it’s the breed any more. American breds in Europe and horses sired by American shuttle stallions in Australia are much tougher.

Orlando, FL:
I used to work at Walmac (from 1997-2000) ...lot of fond memories. Anyway, what inspired you and Johnny to look to Japan for your latest acquisition: Hat Trick (who, by the way, is one very exciting prospect)? And, do you anticipate recruiting other stallion prospects from around the globe to infuse the North American gene pool with a little hybrid vigor? If so, what are your criteria for selecting such stallions?

Hat Trick is a really neat horse. We have been looking for a son of Sunday Silence for a couple years and we were very fortunate to get him. Sunday Silence is recognized throughout the world as one of the great racehorse and sires of all time. He’s also a proven sire of sire. Hat Trick is also an unbelievable outcross for most American mares and he should be a source of soundness.

Asheville, NC:
I'm excited to see a horse like Hat Trick coming to the United States. I think his pedigree will do well with our broodmare population. I understood that Sunday Silence did a fair amount of stamping, so do you see Hat Trick as a typical Sunday Silence?

Yes, he’s the spitting image.

Port St. Lucie, FL:
How many grade 1 winners has Sadler's Wells sired?

He had 71 through last year.

Plano, TX:
As a barrel racer, I do not use shoes with excess traction, as this could hurt my horses and I also remove excess toe for better breakover. Why are racehorses still shod with toe grabs? Is there a connection between the use of toe grabs and breakdowns? Why are racehorses still left with a lot of toe?

Toe grabs have been proven in 2 different studies to a) not improve performance and b) cause many more breakdowns. So why do some trainers use them? I don’t know. I would not send horses to a trainer who used them.

Rochester, NY:
What was Favorite Trick like at the farm? He was one of my favorites in the early days of my interest in racing.

Not sure that was before I was an owner of the farm.

San Diego, CA:
Where is Favorite Trick buried?

New York I believe. He died in a fire up there.

Springfield PA:
How do you determined the fee you’re going to put on a new stallion? Also, who do you think is the best stallion in Pennsylvania right now?

The stud fee is set by what the stallion manager perceives is the correct market price based on his pedigree, race record and conformation. The market for stallion nominations is like any other market. Ultimately the mare owners determine the fee because if they think a fee is too high they won’t breed to the horse. Then you have to lower it to attract mares. Same thing if you under price the horse you will be inundated with requests. The trend has been to keep stud fees slightly lower than market especially on new horses and to breed more mares, rather than fully price him and breed less mares. Used to be just the opposite 20 years ago.

Churubusco, IN:
During the recent Keeneland sale, I repeatedly heard: "He's a nice racehorse sire but not much of a commercial sire." I've always thought that the industry's primary focus was on producing racehorses. Is there that much difference from a horse that can top the sales and one that can win on the track? Maybe trends like this are what takes away some of the toughness and durability from today’s horse. Your opinion on the difference in breeding to race or sell and whether there should be a difference.

My opinion is if you buy a colt you need to be aware of his pedigree as a potential sire prospect. You don’t want to be in a situation where you ship comes in, you have a multiple graded stakes winner and you find out his residual value is zero. So I like to buy colts that, if they hit can be sire prospects. If not you are really buying a gelding who must earn back his purchase price plus expenses to break even. That can be ok just be aware of that going in. With fillies it doesn’t matter as much who they are by when it comes to residual value. An example would be a horse like Alphabet Soup. Very good sire but you’re not going to get anyone excited about breeding to a son of Alphabet Soup.

As far as breeding to race it’s really not any different. You should be aware of the commercial value of what you are putting in training whether you buy him or breed him. If you are breeding or buying $25,000 type yearlings you are limited to how fancy the pedigree can be. I this case you can still find some sneaky good stallions to breed to that can get you a runner. I always look at the CI index of a stallion and if his AEI is higher you can usually breed with confidence that he will help you mare.

Scottsburg, IN:
Since synthetic tracks are popping up everywhere have you seen or anticipate any of your stallions to be in even bigger demand, if so who?

I think the trend now is toward versatility. We have 3 surfaces now and if you are one dimensional it could hurt your opportunities. Grass horses used to be hard to sell to breeders but that’s changing. Hat Trick is perfect because his pedigree is dirt but he raced on grass. Sunday Silence is as versatile as they come. Bandini should benefit too because the Fu Pegs have done well in Australia on grass and he is out of a Dixieland Band mare which is grass. Most grass horses will handle poly.

Elmont NY:
Have you been able to manufacture a mattress and pillows that can take away the stress of horse racing? If so, I would love to buy a couple...

After a day of handicapping at Keeneland there’s nothing better than the good old Tempur-Pedic to sleep away the stress!

Louisville, KY:
Thanks for your time with the forum. A strong argument can be made that a lack of top tier older horses has contributed to a decline in interest for horse racing. How do you feel about requirements that stallions reach the age of five or even six, as they do in Germany, before being allowed to stand at stud? Is there another possibility that could keep horses on the track longer?

I didn’t know they did that in Germany. Seems a little radical. I don’t think there is anything wrong with brilliance and precocity. It is what made US breds dominate the European classics much of the last 30 years. The only other things which can keep top horses on the track longer are soundness and big purses. I know that the Dubai World Cup is being considered by the Lawyer Ron people. He can earn nearly what they paid for his breeding rights in the one race.

Kenbridge, VA:
Safer track surfaces do make some difference, natural hooves can help, and drug use is a bad thing but if you breed for good conformation and hard bone horses would be tough. While some sires’ offspring are often unsound, horses such as Gold Alert, Demidoff and some other stallions have get that average more than twice as many starts and their offspring race in the USA. I feel it is breeding for poor conformation and weak bone that is hurting horses more than anything else. Do you think the breeding industry would be willing to do what it takes to create a sounder, healthier breed?

People are going to buy horses that look like they can win the big races. That is what the commercial market is about. Take a horse like Unbridled’s Song. He gets brilliant horses that don’t last long. But they win big races. That makes him very popular and he had the sale topper at the recent Keeneland Sale. He’s a great big, good looking fast horse who sires horses like him. People rather take a chance on a horse that looks like he can run than a horse which they perceive as sounder and slower. I don’t think that’s going to change.

Raleigh, NC:
How would you advise for a young racing fan to get involved in the sport of Thoroughbred racing. Are new jockeys/trainers needed in the sport, or are there other facets of the game that I should look into?

It’s a wonderful game. I would advise working as a hot walker and groom for a successful trainer at a big track. Learn how to handicap. While you do that study pedigrees. Keep your nose in the Racing Form, the Blood-Horse and the Sire Book. The trade publications are awesome in this game. So much information is available. If you learn the racing game and breeding game you will have a big advantage because few people really understand both. Then you can just go where it leads you.

Lexington, KY:
With Darley taking such a huge position in the future, as far as stallions, how important do you feel it is to create partnerships within the horse community to pool the resources and remain viable in the market?

Racing Partnerships are a growing trend and I think there should be more. People get educated and get a taste of both the fun and the heartbreak of the game. As for Darley’s recent purchases they inject a lot of money into the game which is then re-circulated and they let us breed to these nice horses. If the breeders didn’t have access to these new stallions that might be an issue. But Darley not only makes them available but usually at a very fair price.

Coral Gables, FL:
Your "Commentary: Culture Change" was the voice of reason in the wilderness of Thoroughbred racing. Are there others that feel as you do? Also, I would like to visit Walmac in Lexington, do you allow visitors?

Thanks. Judging by the reaction I am receiving most people feel the way I do. That’s the weird thing. the problem we have is trainers are under pressure to run horses so they justify the use of medication in order to keep the horses going. Synthetic tracks could and should change this. Horses won't bleed as much because they are less stressed. The use of Lasix should naturally decline unless this mindless drug culture persists. Minerals won't be depleted from the drugs, horses will recover faster and run back sooner, field sizes will go up. Trainers won't feel pressured to run sore horses. Horses will hang around longer kind of like many grass horses do now. Our racing should start to look more like other countries.

Yes we allow visitors. Call the farm at 859-299-0473 and make an appointment. During the upcoming November sale is good because we are showing stallions most of the time.

Prospect, KY:
Regarding your commentary "Culture Change". Do you think part of the reason for less starts could be conformation altering surgeries and shoeing performed by sellers and steroids used at the sales to bring more money for the horse they are selling? Seems to me horses are already behind the eight ball, healthwise, before they even see a trainers barn.

I think there has been some research done on the surgeries and correction used on yearlings and the conclusion is that it probably doesn’t help a horse be sound but it doesn’t hurt either. As far a steroid use I believe it’s much worse for the horses in training than the yearlings. You hear how some yearlings fall apart after the sales but my observation is they snap back pretty quickly. I also think that with all the scrutiny lately at the sales most people are backing off steroids for yearlings. I believe the far worse phenomenon is the fat yearling. Some consignors perceive that fat yearlings sell better. But many times you just can’t get the weight off them because as soon as you apply pressure they fall apart. The Blood-Horse has published studies on how fat yearlings don’t earn as much on the track as “normal” yearlings.

Portland, OR:
Thanks for the chat. I enjoyed your Final Turn column. It framed your argument better than any I have seen. Regarding horse health, I'm fascinated by the AIRshod shoeing technique which sponsors your chat. Do you know anything about AIRshod?

Not really, but it seems like a good product.

Woodbine, MD:
You have had great success with bedding for humans, any chance you can come up with something for horses; eliminating dust, etc?

Well, I tried that once about 15 years ago with a negative ionizer from Sweden but couldn’t get trainers to buy it at the time. I still believe in it.

Owensboro, KY:
First, I have to know how you went from the horse business to the mattress and pillow business? Second, as a veterinary student interested in sport horses, how well could someone thrive in Aiken as a young practitioner?

I did racing partnerships in Europe and met a Swedish guy in the horse business who claimed he had invented the world’s greatest mattress. I went to Stockholm, slept on the mattress at his house and it proved to be a life changing experience. I didn’t think anything could get me out of the horse business but I’m glad it did!

I used to spend winters in Aiken when I was grooming and training horses. Wonderful place and they have more there than just racehorses, so I would think it would be a great spot to practice in.

Austinburg, OH:
What factors are contributing to the fragileness of the American Thoroughbred today? Years ago, it was common to run a horse 2 or more times per month, today they barely run 6 times a year.

In my opinion, it’s selective breeding for speed over the course of 25 years combined with over-medication of our young horses especially steroids and Lasix, trainer mindset and lack of owner understanding and involvement.

Yorba Linda, CA:
Please share your thoughts on horse slaughter. In your opinion, what responsibility do owners, trainers, and tracks share in making sure retired race horses do not end up going to slaughter?

It’s not an easy problem because we have so many half crippled and speed crazy horses. Hard to find homes for all of them. I’m just glad its in the spotlight and people are concerned about it.

Oak Hill, OH:
As an individual new to the business of commercial breeding, I have several questions. Could you explain briefly what a stallion season is and how it works? Could you explain briefly what a foal share is and how it works?

A stallion season is a one year contractual right to breed to a certain stallion. You can breed your mare to the stallion during the breeding season as many times as it takes to get her in foal. It is usually paid for by a “Live Foal” stud fee which means your money paid (usually in the fall) is refundable if the mare does not produce a live foal the following spring. A foal share is the same except the stallion owner owns half the foal with you in lieu of stud fee.

Sparks, NV:
When one of my all-time favorites, Sunday Silence, retired to stud back in 1990, it was a near impossibility to even give away his stud service. Now that he has become one of the top producing stallions internationally, I see the beginning attempt to bring the pedigree back to the U.S. with his sons Hat Trick at your farm and Silent Name elsewhere. Personally, I think it's great to see "Sunday" coming back but wonder why there was no interest in him to begin with?

Sunday Silence went to stud when the US stallion market was in recession. Everyone knew he was a great racehorse but his female family scared a lot of people away. There was interest in the horse although conventional wisdom was that his arch rival Easy Goer would make the better stallion. As so often happens in this game conventional wisdom was wrong! The owners received an offer from Japan that far surpassed what he was worth here commercially at the time, so they reluctantly decided to sell. It came down to economics. One thing about this game, you have to cash in your chips once in a while!

Pismo Beach, CA:
Is breeding 20% pedigree and 80% luck?....or what your numbers are?

Luck is a big factor, especially if you have small numbers. If you have big numbers luck becomes less of a factor. One of the common aspects of many of the great breeders is they have at least 100 mares. You can further increase your odds if you breed to proven stallions. The failure rate for young stallions is so high that you end up breeding to a lot of really bad stallions if you only frequent the young ones. On the other hand if you are a market breeder these types can sell well because they haven’t become proven failures YET. The next thing you can do to improve your odds is own stakes caliber mares or better yet stakes producing mares under the age of 17. My old boss John Gaines used to say that the progeny test was the only thing that mattered. He was right but he was only talking about the stallions. Over time I have realized it’s the same for the mares. The problem with that is it can get quite expensive.

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