Route of Ground - By Evan Hammonds

For centuries the most admirable trait of the Thoroughbred has been speed. Their ability to carry that speed is what separates the good ones from the great ones.

As we soldier our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, the skills, talents, and, most of all, patience of everyone in the industry will be asked to stretch out from sprinting to going two turns.

While the breeding season rolls on the best it can, racing has been reduced to but a precious few tracks. Gulfstream Park held its Florida Derby program March 28 without fans or even connections for that matter. Watching via the track feed, we enjoyed the racing but were concerned over the sight of the outriders wearing surgical masks.

Swiss Skydiver gave owner Peter Callahan a thrill winning the Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), but he was frustrated with the fact he had to watch from more than a social distance.

“Peter really loves going to the races,” said winning trainer Ken McPeek. “He was thrilled with the filly’s race but was upset we all couldn’t be there to enjoy it. He watched it at his home in Palm Beach (Fla.) by himself…but he really would have enjoyed being there in person.”

The sport is a personal game. So, too, are the breeding industry and the sale arena.

At present, the major 2-year-old in training sales have been pushed to May and June, but who is to say those dates will hold? The first of the yearling sales is slated to get underway in mid-July. Again, who is to say when those venues will be open for commerce and under what conditions?

For many products there is the “virtual marketplace,” but Thoroughbreds are a hard commodity to sell without actually touching and observing the animals up close. McPeek, a major buyer of yearlings, can relate to that.

“I’ve worked some Brazilian sales where they have videotaped each and every horse and you have walking videos…you can see quite a bit, but I do think that being there in person is dramatically a better way to judge a horse,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly how something like this moves forward, but it is doable to do it online, but I like to look at horses two, three, maybe four times and at different scenarios such as early in the day and later in the day to see what kind of energy level they have.

“It wouldn’t surprise me, and I don’t think it would be a terrible thing, for those companies to push those sales further back in the year,” McPeek said. “Even if we held a sale such as the (Fasig-Tipton Kentucky) October sale in December, it wouldn’t really matter. We need to make sure everybody continues to practice social distancing and all of those things, and if that means the sales are later in the year or early in 2021, that’s OK. You are going to get better sale numbers if everyone is comfortable being there.

“If the sale companies push their auctions to where breeders could sell their product, it would work for everybody. However, I’m not overly worried about the yearling sales just yet.”

As well he shouldn’t be just yet. McPeek, like other horsemen, has stable help and staff in multiple locations. Keeping tabs on them and making sure the crew is healthy, sound, and safe are more important.

While McPeek is in Kentucky with about 10 horses stabled at Keeneland, he has more at Gulfstream Park along with 90-plus horses at his training center, Summerfield Training Center, in central Florida.

“We kept everybody at status quo,” he said. “Everybody is holding their positions, and I have really good guys at each point. Assistant trainer Greg Geier saddled Swiss Skydiver at Gulfstream. Dominic Brennan is running the Summerfield location, and he has decades of experience and has a really good staff. We have our own dormitory at Summerfield where a good portion of the staff lives, and we are making sure they have everything they need to keep the place disinfected and clean.”

Most importantly, McPeek said: “The staff has been unaffected up to now…and we are praying it stays that way.”

Let’s all continue to stay the course and get the trip.

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