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Jim Squires Bio
This is Ron Mitchell, moderator of bloodhorse.com’s Talkin Horses podcast. Today, we’re privileged to have journalist, horse breeder and author Jim Squires as our guest.
Assuming our listeners and readers have read Jim’s background, we’ll go right to the chat.
As many of you know, Jim has just come out with his latest book which is titled – this is a mouthful– Headless Horsemen: A Tale of Chemical Colts, Subprime Sale Agents, and the Last Kentucky Derby on Steroids.
Good morning and welcome, Jim.
Jim: Good morning, Mr. Mitchell; how are you?
Ron: Very well. First of all, after Monarchos won the Derby, you wrote a feel good book romanticizing the horse industry. Now, you’ve come back with another book which takes a bit of a more critical eye. The obvious question is: why did you write this book and what do you hope to accomplish from its publication?
Jim: Well, I really did not intend to write a second book to balance off the romanticism of the first. The first book was a lovely book about the best parts of our business. Last year when Eight Belles broke down at the Derby, it was the latest in a series of terrible accidents on the racetrack in front of a television audience. We seemed to be headed toward a public relations disaster for years and in our public statements, the money we spent marketing our sport and as a result of this latest thing, we looked as headless as any industry I have ever seen.
If you remember what happened, Eight Belles was immediately linked to the history of drug abuse in our industry which has been a problem for years; it was nothing new to the people in our industry but the people outside our industry thought Eight Belles was some kind of drugged steroid horse and in major publications, including the Washington Post, a very wonderful columnist who likes us, likened that day at Churchill Downs to the Christians being fed to the lions for the benefit of well-coiffed mint julep sipping crowd, which was just outrageous.
Some of us thought (we should) explain to the media what had happened there and that Eight Belles was not a drugged horse, that the trainer was one of the real shining stars of our industry, a very trustworthy trainer, who did not use drugs and that this horse was not a drugged horse and that the trainer and the jockey were not responsible. We tried to explain this. The industry’s reaction to that was we need to hire a public relations firm to speak for us. Well, that’s basically the same kind of approach that corporate America takes , (that) most institutions takes: ‘let’s just spin the good news and not talk about the bad.’ And they actually were critical of people who answered press calls to try to explain what had happened there that day. So we were reeling around without any leadership at all in the next few weeks.
Then later in the year, (trainer) Larry Jones and I were both stunned by a clenbuterol drug positive, in Delaware, on my horse, which seemed (like a) very ironic and extraordinary event because I had never had one and in Larry’s entire 20-year career, he had never had one. So we thought that we may have very well been the victim of some kind of sabotage in order to undermine us as critics of the drug policy.
Those two things together made me interested in trying to explain what is going on in this business and what we might do to fix it. This industry is not opaque and you can’t see into it. and the lack of transparency has resulted in a very misguided view of us by the political establishment and by fans and our bettors.
Ron: Do you offer solutions to how to overcome this in your book?
Jim: The book is basically an essay about what is wrong and what we might do to fix it. It is not simply my view, but the view of a longstanding group of reformers who believe that unless we change our structure and change our business model and change our culture, that we aren’t going to get any better, that we’re going to get worse, and a lot of people involved in this movement believe the only way to do that is to come up with some kind of structure in the business that lets someone lead it.
I mean, the real message of the book is that even though we have a lot of very well intentioned people at the top who have the most influence, the structure prevents anyone from leading the business. We are not organized like other sports; we are mainly a social order with various stratas and within each strata – the trainers, the owners, the breeders, the veterinarians and the establishment – we all struggle for status in those various stratas, but no one speaks for the whole and we don’t know how to get that structure done any other way than through some federal legislation that would basically say “Hey, we hear you are organized like the other sports.” We either need to organize ourselves like that or somebody needs to do it for us.
Ron: Of course, many of these things have come up over the past several decades, (with some) even calling for some kind of centralized structure within the industry. Should we be fearful of government intervention in this industry or do you see it as the ultimate outcome here?
Jim: Well, I think that most of the reformers would hope that the pressure being brought as a result of the tragedies that occur on television and with essays, like this book, and the kind of publicity that we get that we don’t want from lawsuits and other problems in the industry, would force us to do it ourselves. We haven’t been able to do it ourselves. I don’t think anyone wants the government to run horse racing. I certainly don’t. I don’t think the government is capable of running much of anything.
Our status in the industry is pretty much a reflection of the rest of society. I mean, we do not have the leaders that act for the benefit of the whole. They may think they do and in our case, we have some good people at the top but they don’t have the authority to do this. If we could somehow give ourselves the authority to do it ... other countries have done it. The British Jockey Club rules are strictly enforced and are honored and obeyed, and they seem to do a much better job of this than we do. And I’m sure they don’t want the government run sports either, but you probably have to have it written down in some form of legislation and some method to comply. We have a lot of voluntary codes of conduct and statements of good intentions and almost no ability to follow through. We can’t investigate our drug problems. We can’t police our tracks. We cannot ensure what we say we want to do.
Ron: What has been the reaction from the establishment and those you criticize in the book?
Jim: Well, the people who are interested in reform have been very positive and forthcoming. The people who describe themselves as leaders and believe they are leaders and are, in fact, in the position to lead have said very little, if anything. And if they have, it hasn’t come back to me but I would imagine that there’s some unhappiness in some quarters. In any business – in any institution -- there is this reluctance to have bad news but there is nothing in this book that everybody in our business did not already know.
The political establishment views us a playground for the wealthiest people in the world and we have, in fact, with our marketing, emphasized that. We present ourselves as a high status society that needs no help from any place and that is false picture of our industry. Our industry is very much a reflection of the rest of the American economy in that it is a highly unprofitable business and basically is subsidized by the discretionary income of the wealthiest people in the world. And 80% or better, probably 90%, of people in the horse business just struggle to stay in place, and it’s certainly true in the breeding industry.
I suspect that leaders who are singled out in this book, despite all their good intentions, realize that this is not an inaccurate picture of where we are. Now whether they like me doing it is another question.
Ron: Right. That brings us to a question from Marie: With one more negative piece on Thoroughbred racing being sent out to the general public, you’re putting another nail in our coffin. I’m sure you think you’re helping by being a whistleblower but how do you feel about your book potentially doing more damage than good and turning off even more people from the sport?
Jim: Well, I think that no matter what we do, if we don’t clean ourselves up and present a better picture to the public, we are never going to do any good. Hiding the truth has never been a good idea in any industry. I think this is a big ship that turns slowly in the water and this basically is just simply a follow-up to the congressional hearings from last year. We’ve had some congressional hearings last year in which some very important people in this business -- and who love it as much as I do and have been in it even longer -- said a lot worse things about it than I have said. That seemed to just blow away. That’s what we want to do -- let the criticism just blow away. As a result of that, we ended up with a lot of voluntary codes of conduct rules that we were going to follow if, in fact, we want to. Nothing really much has changed in the sense of our ability to get anything done.
We had a beginning with this. I mean, there has been progress made and things like track surfaces and model drug rules that are being adopted. So we had a start and this is simply an effort to keep that ball rolling. There are a lot of people in the business who think that this is a positive step and not a negative one.
Ron: So in other words, confront it rather than just hoping that it goes away with time.
Jim: You know, we have presented a false picture of ourselves to the country. The political establishment never wants to help us. We are looked upon as a source of tax revenue and pretty much and getting any reasonable assistance and recognition from them for what we are has been impossible and I think we need to get some.
Ron: Next question is from Kathy: I applaud what I’ve read so far about your book but I must ask, at what level do you plan to remain in the thoroughbred business? As someone who was an insider in another breeder organization, I well know that once a person starts rocking the boat, unless they have mega bucks to shield them, they we get steamrolled.
Jim: Well, I think I’ve been pretty much steamrolled already but that’s simply been the way the business works. I mean, this is a very difficult business at almost every level. Whether you are an owner or breeder or run a racetrack, just staying in place is very, very difficult. I have been able to stay in place and earn a living and cash flow my farm for over 15 years, and I consider myself very lucky to have done that and so I don’t know that I’ll be able to do that in the future. I have had to scale back dramatically in my numbers, but mainly because this industry, for some reason, thought it’s immune to the laws of supply and demand. I mean, everything we’ve done to present our face to the public said “come in please and breed more horses and you have a great chance to make a million dollars.” Well, the best way to become a millionaire in this business is to have five million when you come in.
Ron: Next question is from Ernie: Why is fraud not considered illegal in the Thoroughbred business?
Jim: Well, that’s one of the really important parts of this book. You know, no one in here is accused of doing anything illegal. There is nothing illegal about what the basic tenants of our culture. I mean, ingrained in our culture seems to be this road to deception, how much money can we make off the next new guy who comes in here. It has rolled over into the veterinary part of our business to the point where any new owner who comes in here, even if he’s lucky enough not to be frisked on the way in by the people who sell and trade in horses, that he will ultimately get frisked by the outrageous cost of owning a Thoroughbred. (It’s) because we are viewed as a group of very wealthy playground people. And even if they come to your farm, to work on your farm ... I mean, they stick you for the services that you get because you’re viewed as having a lot of money when in fact, most of us do not run profitable businesses.
The real problem in this industry is these gross sales were going up and these multimillion dollar horses are being advertised as the face of our business and presented as what we’re about; 60-70-75% of our yearlings are unprofitable. You have to go sell one horse in order to cover the losses on 10 others that you have, or 5 others. So it’s not an easy business to survive in and it’s going to get worse if we don’t do something about it.
Ron: It almost sounds like what you’re describing there is a house of cards that’s getting ready to fall.
Jim: Well, it may have already fallen. I mean, you still have this action at the top which you will always have. I guess that’s why they call it the sport of kings. The problem is the subculture underneath, trying to behave and act like this top. There are a lot of people who come into our business who want to buy the most expensive horse and who want people to know that they can drop $10 million on a yearling. But underneath, there is this constant reach that you see in the rest of society. I don’t think that we’re much different than the rest of society in the sense that we have become a fast buck, quick return kind of business. It has not been good for the horse, it has not been good for the breeding industry and in the long run, it is not good for the sales companies and the people who do make money in this business.
There are some institutions that make money. Sales companies make money. Transportation companies make money. Veterinarians make money. But if we continue to go down the road we’re going, none of those people are going to be making money either.
Ron: So it’s in their best interest to try to come to some kind of terms for logical restructuring of the business.
Jim: Well, I think that its time has come. I mean the economy was not in this bad a shape as it is now when I wrote the book. The book was written last fall before the total collapse came. But I think that all along, the goal has been to attract into this business new owners and new fans and make people come to the racetrack.
If people actually come to the racetrack, they will fall in love with the animals and the sport, just like all of us have that are in it; but if you bring them in here and then you mistreat them (as we do regularly), they will not come. If you want new owners, we have to put them into a sport that has a structure, that has some ability to police itself, that spends its money on improving the quality of life for the horses and for the people in it, and is not going to waste it all on marketing (the idea) that we’re all rich and you can make a million dollars tomorrow.
Ron: Sounds like a pretty basic concept, Jim.
Jim: Well, you think it would be, but for some reason it does not work for us.
Ron: Next question comes from Vin-man : It seems that just about everyone in the horse industry has to be licensed except bloodstock agents. Do you think it is time for bloodstock agents to be licensed and bonded?
Jim: I don’t want to just pick on the bloodstock agents. There is a subculture in our business of bloodstock agents that are just out to make money. They are very much like the coupon clippers on Wall Street who never touch a horse and don’t own any farm and have no overhead, and it’s just the next deal that they get a commission on that really matters.
I don’t think licensing them does much for us. I mean I don’t care if they have to get a license. If we’re going to license people in this business, they ought to have to pass rigorous licensing requirements and then there ought to be some structure to enforce the rules and police the license. I mean, licensing them and not being able to then follow up and make sure they comply with what they’ve agreed to do is something entirely different.
This is the purpose of this book. We ought to spend our money improving our operation and then we can sell it to the public. And until we can have some kind of structure that can pull that license – I mean, we can’t depend on state governments or the federal government to police our business, we have to do it ourselves. Look at NASCAR and pro football and pro basketball. They have very responsible, well qualified and well financed police functions within their sport to police themselves, and we need to do it too. We’re not necessarily talking about illegalities that you get a state law passed against or a federal piece of legislation. We’re talking about behavior and complying with codes of conduct and rules of the game. Our rules of the game variy from state to state, from day to day, from new governor to new governor around the country, and we just don’t have any kind of central structure to let things work in a positive fashion for us.
Ron: What you just hit on was the fact that we’re at the whim of different political structures in every state and all the stakeholders and all the different entities that go into making up this industry has been viewed as one reason that we can’t have any kind of anything centralized office. But frankly, when you looked at the NFL or major league baseball, they operate in a lot of different states and they’ve been able to figure out how to get this centralized.
Jim: They don’t depend on their governments to do it for them. They basically turn their business over to independent professionals. I mean the commissioner of baseball traditionally has been a czar. He was able to keep people from buying franchises or even being in the game. That kind of function in a sport is critical. Even those sports can get corrupted but they certainly have less of a problem with it than we do.
Ron: Next question comes from someone who is probably about as outspoken as you are and it’s Barry Erwin: Jim, are you positive or negative on the future ability of horse racing to conduct contests on a high level of competition?
Jim: I think they can conduct contests on a high level of competition. I think it’s the middle and the bottom that’s in serious trouble and where the worst abuses occur and where the horses face the greatest risk and the people have the worst quality of life. As the sport of kings, it will probably always exist because very rich people will put up a lot of money to run their horses against the horses of other rich people.
And if that’s the future of the sport, I think it’s probably guaranteed. But if you’re trying to keep all of these tracks and trainers and veterinarians and hay suppliers in business and you’re trying to keep the Kentucky breeding industry at the level it has been in the world, you cannot do it with the present structure. I am positive about the relationship between man and horse, and I’m positive about racing and I think you are seeing at some level. The Breeders’ Cup, there’s a lot to criticize about the Breeders’ Cup and its structure and its history. I don’t put it all in the book. There is some in there about it but having said that, the Breeders’ Cup is making strides for one day of racing. They can enforce rules on one day – they can test all the horses, they can police their grounds, they can do a lot of good things on one big promotional day.
That’s kind of like a lottery. People put up a lot of money and then some other people compete for it. But the people who are putting that money up are mainly the breeders of horses, most of whom don’t get to play that day. We’re lucky to get a seat.
So it can be done at the highest level with discretionary income from the wealthiest people. But we can’t fix the future of the claiming races and the small tracks in Kentucky and a lot of the things that are ailing us now will not be fixed unless we do something about it.
Ron: Next question comes from Abby Hart: As a man who has worked hard to enter the thoroughbred industry, made an impact on the breed as a breeder when coming from a working background, what would you say to a young person eager to dabble in thoroughbred breeding to make an impact on the horse and not just for profit?
Jim: Well, I think that’s another core reason for writing a book. This book is from a breeder’s point of view. I have only been breeding thoroughbred horse about 15, 16 years but I’ve been breeding horses for nearly 40 years of one kind or another. I deliver my own foals and I’m there when my horses die and I teach my babies how to walk and lead. So I am a hands-on breeder. There are more people like me than there are of those breeders whose names are on the breeding certificate who do not touch the horses.
So when I speak as a breeder, I’m talking about the horseman who kneels down behind his mare to pull the baby out. It seems to me that one of the casualties of the way we’ve been operating. The natural great classic thoroughbred that made Kentucky the source and the cradle of this business, where this is where the great horses came from, it’s where people come from all over the world to buy them, and it’s one of the things I’m trying to protect.
I think we’ve gotten away from that rather dramatically in the last 10 or 15 years, in much the same way the stock market got away from its traditional goals. The American stock market became a fast buck of “what can I do in the next 60 days, what kind of fraudulent derivative of stocks can I concoct that will suck all the money out of the system and make me rich.” They’ve figured out how to do that and they almost brought the world economy down.
We have done something very much like that in horse breeding. We have gone away from the horse that made us what we are and we went for a different kind of horse that grows very fast, that is very heavily muscled, that can run down the track in less than 10 seconds and get a furlong in less than 10 seconds, or two furlongs in 21 seconds, faster than a racehorse ever has to run in their entire life, and we’ve made that the kind of horse that we need to breed in order to make a buck in this business.
The natural horse that grew up on Kentucky grass and hay and water, and spent most of its time outside is fading into the background. You can buy those for $7,500 and $10,000, much less than their stud fees, or around their stud fees, all over the country. In fact, they will give them to you now if you want those kinds of horses.
We want a very particular kind of horse that is absolutely clean on x-rays, that looks like an Adonis and represents about 10% or 15% of the foal crop. We spend all the money on those and then we take them to the racetrack and we watch Mine That Bird -- who weighs about 900 pounds -- win the Derby. So, I think we’ve been going in the wrong direction and we need to go back to the natural horse.
Ron: Did you find your own mindset change when you transitioned from quarter horse breeding to Thoroughbred breeding along this line? In fact, you had to think more from a business point of view than from just a natural point of view of breeding and working with horses.
Jim: When I was breeding quarter horses, I didn’t have to make a living at it. I had a job, and I had it in an industry -- not unlike the one I’m in now -- one that was opaque and blind to it’s own foibles. But when I started racing Thoroughbreds, I saw that there was a potential for at least cash flow in my farm. But I’ve been cash flowing my farm, and surviving for 15 years without following the herd to breed the sale horse. I’ve bred a horse to win the Kentucky Derby and to go to England and run on grass and win the Arc, and as a result of that, I have not been a successful businessman in the thoroughbred industry. I have been a successful breeder. My horses will go to the racetrack, they win, they’re sound, they have a high percentage of winners to foals and graded stakes horses. We’ve only had a few mares. The only time I ever made a breeding decision based on what I thought the market wanted was when I planned to sell a mare and foal because I knew it would help. And I had to do that in some instances for some of my clients/customers who wanted to sell their horse. My mares that I have bred, I have always bred on the basis of the horse I wanted to get and not what I thought I would get in the market.
Ron: The next question comes from Michael. After viewing the results of the yearling sales so far this year, what are you expecting from the upcoming Keeneland sale?
Jim: Well, I suspect that it will be like all the other sales of the last 10 years or so and that all the money will be spent at the top for a few horses and that there will be an overwhelming number of unprofitable yearlings pass through the ring at Keeneland. I don’t why that would change since that’s been going on for years. It went on even in good economic times when we were telling everybody about how much the average had gone up and the gross has come up and presenting a basically false picture of the health of this industry.
I suspect that the picture that we get in September is going to look pretty much like what we saw at the end of last year and what’s happened so far this year.
Even though it’s very important to us, it’s a sad commentary on our business when one or two buyers have to hold up the average and the median in the market – they’re spending a lot of money for their own horses that are bred by their own stallions.
We’ve been living off really tremendous investments by Sheikh Mohammed and over the years from the Irish Coolmore group. Those prices have driven up our averages and our medians to unrealistic places. I think we’re going back to a much more realistic value on the horse. Now whether or not we can get them to be profitable again is another question. I don’t know how to do that.
Ron: So it’s almost like a false economy within this industry.
Jim: Well, I think it has been and people don’t like to hear that. You know, that is not what the sales companies want to hear and it’s not what the Jockey Club wants to hear or TOBA or any of the people who are out trying to get new owners. They want to present this as a great high social order where you can come in and have a great time and spend a lot of money and, in some instances, make a lot of money. They are right about that part of the business. It is romantic. It is exciting. It’s a wonderful sport to be involved in. But the bottom is crumbling and eventually ... I don’t know what you do with all the horses you have.
I mean, we have no ideas who is ever going to buy them. They’re going to buy a few and they’re going to spend a lot of money on a few but the rest of them ... or I think it has to retrench. I’m afraid that the Kentucky breeding industry is going to be a lot smaller and it’s going to have to be for us to ever recover.
Ron: Yes, there will probably be some jobs lost in that transition but it would certainly, one would think, be an overall healthier, more stable industry.
Jim: Well, you know there is a central question in this business ... you know, (owners in) minor league baseball very seldom make any money. For racetracks, even very successful ones, the financial model for is not good. It is not a good business in the sense of business models. But most sports rely on the top to subsidize the bottom. We do that now in a haphazard personal kind of way. We have to figure out a way if we want to bottom first – do we want a bottom, do we want the small tracks, do we want the $2,500, $5,000 claiming horses, do we want to support those backsides? If we do, then we have to figure out a way that the top can support the bottom.
The money comes in to this business in two ways: the discretionary income of wealthy people who invest in horses and give to our charities and then the betting public that puts the money into the race and that bets on us every day. We have to figure out how to best use that money. My position is let’s use it to: first of all, to decide what kind of business we want to be and then to make that part attractive. If we want the bottom, we have to figure out a way to subsidize it.
There are 54,000 races run every year in North America. People who do the numbers – and we’re in a numbers game always – say that the business could attract just as much money from bettors and the racetracks that do even better if you had just 7,500 races or 8,000 races. Now if that’s the model you want, think about all the horses and all the people that are going to have to drop out of this business for that to be.
That is a future that’s looking at us, so we have to be careful about who owns the racetracks and who makes these decisions. And right now, our biggest problem is we can’t make any decisions that help the whole. We can make decisions that help various segments of the industry but we cannot make decisions that deal with questions of that magnitude.
Ron: Next question : Jim, I’ve read a few reviews of your book and they point out that you have some errors in it. Do you think this will take away from the message you’re trying to send?
Jim: Well, you know, when you go looking for errors in a book that are typos and bad dates, or something like that, which seem to be what these people who have reviewed the book have mentioned, you are looking for pee in the ocean. I have reviewed dozens and dozens of books for newspapers and book reviews around the country and I don’t ever remember looking for a misspelling or a misdate in an effort to discredit the author and the book. They will look for any reason to discredit this book.
The Herald Leader was the one that pointed out a lot of errors in the book. The people who review these books are, for the most part, journalists in the business who have watched this go on for a long time and have for one reason or another been unable to report it. So there is a personal concern about that. I would assume they’re saying, “Hey, don’t believe this book because it’s got some errors in it and so don’t believe its overall message. “ That’s some kind of personal thing.
I don’t like errors. For 30 years, I was in the newspaper business and for 19 of those, I was an editor responsible for publishing a book every day. And I was never successful at publishing that book every day without some errors creeping in. You know, most of the things that I have seen cited in my book has an error, were things that I couldn’t possibly remember on my own. I don’t trust my own memory on what year some horse won the Kentucky Derby. So I look those things up and I look them up in the databases of our industry and in many instances, I’m getting those dates and spellings out of this new web world that we live in. I mean, you can Google it up now and you can get different spellings and dates. Some of those errors are errors that are permanent in the database. That’s a real problem for today’s world. We had a lot of errors in the original copies of this and we corrected many of them and some of them are going to slip through.
What’s fascinating to me is on the day I get the Herald Leader review to pointing out some errors in the book, there’s a big story about me and it has three errors in it. Do I call them to complain about those errors? No. Errors are going to happen when you publish stuff.
Ron: It’s the nature of the beast, isn’t?
Jim: Nature of the beast.
Ron: One reason I like the web, we can see the error and boy, within 15 seconds it can be corrected.
Jim: Well, it can be corrected in your database, You can make sure the Blood Horse database has been cleaned but, you know, you can’t do Wikipedia.
Ron: That’s right.
Jim: Somebody can just go in there and put something in. People do make those kinds of errors. I regret any error by having spent my life in publishing. Errors drive me crazy, and so I don’t want the errors but I don’t think book – you know, I’ve employed a lot of book reviewers and critics of all kinds – books, film, food – and it really breaks their heart to have to write a positive review, to look for negatives to balance off your review. I mean, I would think the real way to ignore a bad book and to criticize is don’t review it at all. I think that the reviewers feel bad about saying positive things and all about the book, you look like some kind of (negative angle). Believe me, I understand.
Ron: So where is Monarchos these days and how often do you stay in touch with him, see him?
Jim: Well, I see Monarchos a lot. He’s at Nuckols Farm, which is close to mine, and I breed to him every year, two or three mares if I can. When you look at his foals, his winners to foals, his stakes winners to foals, he’s doing really well, considering the fact that he really hadn’t had much of a mare book over the years. He is a terrific horse. I’ve bred a stakes winner by Monarchos, and I breed to him every year. I love the horse and I think that he’s a great bargain. My Monarchos babies, I love them.
Ron: While we’re on the line of plugs here, how can people get your book?
Jim: I don’t have a Website. I don’t sell the book. It’s generally at all the bookstores and Amazon.com and Borders online. I guess it’s everywhere that there are books, I hope.
Ron: Jim, it’s been very educational, entertaining as usual. I thank you for your time and good luck to you.
Jim: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate the questions.