May 12, 2008

Jumping to Conclusions

Jumping to conclusions is often the only exercise we get in the horse business. Never more so than the present debate, if you could call it that, about the demise of Eight Belles in her moment of glory in the Kentucky Derby.

That dreadful reality hit hard among those of us in the Thoroughbred world, a gutshot for which none of us could prepare. Tears flowed, fingers pointed and a pronounced numbness against the sorrow left us to grieve in the aftermath.

The event also unleashed a barrage of emotion that rarely mingled with fact while a stunned public tried to make sense of it all. Even before the Derby some once-a-year commentators placed the blame on Native Dancer for the woes of the breed. He was faulted for siring Raise A Native who sired Mr. Prospector. That hardly constitutes a felony but you know how radicals think... "Don’t trust a stallion over 30”.

A young lady on National Public Radio got in the act by telling her audience that Northern Dancer was the culprit for bringing a gene for unsoundness into the breeding shed. Which “gene” she did not say.

Thus the quest for new urban myths to espouse got the drop on the Thoroughbred hierarchy’s response time. By the time the usual suspects and the usual committees were rounded up it was left to the likes of PETA to set the agenda.

Too late for racing to borrow the modernist’s apology template of deny it, lie about it, and say that’s it time to move on. So now what do we do? And don’t anyone dare suggest giving $2 million to Rudy Giuliani to try to fix it.

Let’s try to calmly identify the things that we can amend first. Continue research on synthetic tracks. Modify the use of the whip. Increase pre-race soundness inspections at major races.

The majority of horses racing are claimers and year-round racing economics doom them to race non-stop. Why not change the rules in favor of the owners and trainers who wish to give their horses periodic time outs? I suggest a dua- entry claiming race whereby a horse who has been turned out at least 60 days is allowed two runs in claiming races with a waiver that prevents him from being snatched up by another owner. Perhaps he should run for a reduced purse, say 80 % of the total.

And isn’t it time to put to rest, once and for all, of the canard that 2-year-old racing is responsible for breaking down immature animals? That idea is usually followed by a plea to ban juvenile racing. The fact is that young horses need that activity for develop sufficient bone to compete later on. In short, if you do not race at two, chances are you will have a maiden with bucked shins at ages three and up.

There might be a way to mollify proponents and opponents of 2-year-old racing. Tracks might cut juvenile purses in half and take that money and supplement maiden races for older horses. An owner bent on running early gets to do so, albeit for less money, and those with patience and a wish to protect their animal are handsomely rewarded.

Chief merit of simple ideas like these are that they require no regulation, only the agreement of individual tracks and the horse owners who race there.

Another thing we can do is stop worrying about PETA and its ilk. You could have fit all their demonstrators in a station wagon last week in Lexington. Do they have such political power that we need fear their wrath? Doubtful. They’ve been trying for 40 years to get Canadians to stop harvesting baby seals, with no success. They badger fur wearers and meat eaters, but have you noticed any progress in those areas?

The Eight Belles tragedy was predictably conjoined with that of Barbaro two years earlier. Numerous pundits both inside and outside the Thoroughbred industry decried the public loss of these two great horses and suggested that they were evidence of defects in the breed.

Maybe. But these things are hard to prove. Statistics experts often encounter anomalys that seem to suggest a trend in certain areas, i.e., childhood cancer rates in a neighborhood near an electrical power plant. What seems a clear cut case of cause and effect sometimes is seen years later as a statistical coincidence.

And so it is with Barbaro and Eight Belles.

A more positive example is the Triple Crown cluster of l973-78 produced by Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. I recall that serious racing people at the time who wondered if the Triple Crown had gotten too easy. Thirty years down the road we recognize that period as a “cluster”.

Agricultural land prices surely affect the breed, forcing small and mid-sized farms to overstock their paddocks as an economic necessity. Not much we can do about that.

It’s often tempting to vilify track management when such things go wrong. But if you think running a track is any picnic in the face of 24-hour a day casino competition then you have another thing coming.

Casinos are mentioned to remind Kentucky voters of the pathetic handling of their plea to vote on the issue of gaming at racetracks. Research and development costs plenty of money in the horse world to make the sport safer. The legislature responded with outright disdain to any proposals made by the horse industry. An industry which is best suited to drive the economic engine and produce much needed revenue for all of Kentucky citizens.