In Thursday’s TDN, we ran an op-ed by Bill Finley about the decline of starts per year by American Thoroughbreds. Finley asked for feedback, and we were inundated by the replies. Here is a sampling.
We are quite certain Lasix plays a part in the lack of horses. How could it not be? All you mentioned, Bill, in your article is true and a piece of the horse racing pie. How could Lasix not affect racing and our breeding of horses? I am sure that horses that can only run on Lasix need to be questionable breeding prospects. Maybe we have in turn weakened the breed? Maybe Lasix opened the door for more use of drugs instead of time and real healing. I know this is the 21st century. The use of drugs is prevalent in our culture, but is it overused? In human beings, we have the opioid crisis. Do we have a parallel crisis in horse racing?
To address your point of owners taking more action in their horses running in more races, I find that hard to do. Trainers train horses, not owners. One hires trainers to do just that. Most trainers given a free hand, enthusiastically supported by the owners, will do a good job for you and your horse.
Bill Finley asked in his Thursday Op/Ed piece if he was “missing something.” Bill, you are not missing anything, but I think there is at least one area where more focus needs to be brought to bear.
It used to be popular in the racing office to blame a “horse shortage” for small fields. There is not so much a horse shortage, as a shortage of owners willing to pay the upkeep on racing stock in whatever one wants to call this current era in which we are racing.
Over the years plenty of solutions to lowering expenses have been promulgated to better the situation, yet very little if any initiatives have taken place. Here are some of the cost issues, with some remedies, as follows:
FEED: racing associations are certainly capable of buying feed in bulk and selling it to horsemen at cost plus labor.
VETERINARIANS: a backstretch pharmacy is long overdue, not only for selling drugs at a low cost, but for officials to keep track of what has been bought and by whom. Let vets work like human doctors and invoice clients for their time, and not try to game the system by overcharging on meds.
TACK: ditto the above.
THERAPY: therapies such as a cold saltwater spa, stalls with vibrating plates, a Euro-ciser, Aqua-tred, hyperbaric chamber, etc. are all valuable treatments for horses in training that can prolong wellness in a runner. Racing associations can erect facilities with these modalities and allow them to be used at subsidized rates.
There are other ideas, but this should be enough food for thought to get the ball rolling.
While not directly related to expenses, another issue that is causing fewer horses to race that is little known outside of the backstretch is the loss of the integrity of the condition book. You mentioned that trainers are loathe to race long shots because they want to protect their winning percentages.
Well racing offices are guilty of not wanting to run races unless the field size is large enough to attract a good handle. To this end, it is now quite common for some racetracks to card multiple extra races and to abandon book races all for the sake of field size. This makes it impossible for trainers to plan races for their horses except for stakes races that have finite dates. Trainers don’t know when to breeze horses anymore. This messing with the condition book causes many horses to miss races.
—Barry Irwin, CEO, Team Valor International
It may be foreign to American racing culture but to anybody looking from an international perspective a possible solution to the problem Bill Finley poses in “Trainers won’t run their horses…” is to put on handicap races. Handicaps may have more or less disappeared from U.S. racing, but it was not too long ago that some of the best races were handicaps, however, in many racing countries they make up the majority of races on offer. In Britain handicaps make up around two-thirds of all races, in France they not have quite the same acceptance but they are still around 25% of all races, and then in somewhere like Hong Kong handicaps account for closer to 90% of all races.
Handicaps are on the whole positive for the two principal groups of racing customers. They are good for those who bet as they provide open competitive races in which most if not all of the runners have a realistic chance of winning. Yesterday’s card at Happy Valley in Hong Kong, for instance, featured eight races, all handicaps, in which the shortest priced favourite was at 41-20. They are also good for owners as they provide winning opportunities for horses of every level of ability.
And of course they encourage owners and trainers to run their horses. If your horse is well handicapped, (you believe it is better than its rating), it makes sense to run to make the most of this opportunity, and if you think your horse is badly handicapped, (it is not as good as its rating), it makes sense to run to convince the handicapper to drop its rating.
In Britain where handicaps make up a large majority of races, all but the very best 2- and 3-year-olds compete in handicaps at some point in their careers. Most of the leading older horses in Britain in 2017, including Group 1 performers like Decorated Knight, Librisa Breeze, Persuasive, Ballet Concerto, Poet’s Word, The Tin Man and Aclaim among many others, competed in handicaps before moving on to group races. There are a series of what are called heritage handicaps which offer about
$150,000 to the winner and attract large competitive fields of high class horses at different distances throughout the year.
If there are not enough owners and horses to fill races, surely it makes sense to try offering something a little different?
–Jocelyn de Moubray
An important missing element to your story, and possibly the genesis of this problem, is the negative impact caused by the fraudulent “bounce” theory initially perpetrated by “The Sheets” guys and now morphed into the lexicon of virtually everyone in the industry. Whenever a horse runs back in three weeks and doesn’t match a prior performance, he “bounced.” Exact same situation and the horse runs back in six weeks, there will be NO mention of when he last raced. For an industry consumed with statistics, why is it that no one performs a statistical analysis that would actually analyze whether or not horses actually run better with more time off? There are a lot of factors to consider to ensure a proper analysis, but it can be done. There was a study performed by Derek Simon a number of years ago that concluded there was NO improvement in performance with more time between starts, but it never received widespread distribution. This problem is killing the industry and it’s a shame because it’s fixable. Thanks for shedding the light.
You guys do first-crop, second-crop, etc., stallion rankings. Run a top-100 trainers list by earnings and list how many starters they had in a given year (or six months), how many starts those horses made and the percentage. I know that many owners feel that their horses aren’t making enough starts (or worse, the horse that breezes 50 times and never makes it to the races), but there was a culture built up at some point where the trainers told the owner, “I am the expert and you are not, so let me call the shots.” That culture continues today and the trainers do what they want, not what the owner wants. There is a fine line here, no doubt. We do not want every owner picking out races and saying, “run my horse here.” That could be disastrous for the horse. If we can find a way to shift the emphasis from win percentage to start percentage, that would be a start. Unfortunately, every time you open up the Form or the program at the races, you only see win percentage–it’s hammered into us all day long. Thank you for bringing up this issue.
I can only speak for racing in Maryland, where we race three days a week mostly, but races don’t fill! Other than maiden claiming races, very few races fill, especially at the higher levels, in the winter when there is no grass racing, and dirt races don’t fill in the rest of the year. Our horse ran a slight temperature one day and missed his race, an allowance ‘a other than,’ and it didn’t fill again for five weeks. Because of the three day a week schedule, it is hard for the racing secretary to get the races to come up on a weekly schedule. Our racing Secretary, Georgeanne Hale, does an amazing job, considering days that are lost to bad weather. Writing extras so everyone gets a chance to run must be like solving a Rubiks Cube. Also, if you are trying to run in a non-West Virginia-bred at Charles Town, for example, your opportunities are limited. Conversely, there are so many New York-breds trying to get in the New York-bred races that it can take eight weeks to draw back into a maiden race. It is not as simple as you made it sound!
I do think you are missing something. And it is actually a good thing. When I was growing up and going to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, I would always watch the post parade and make notes about horses. There were always a couple horses that looked bad. A little off, or jogging very sloppy. These horses were not lame, but a little off or arthritic. Nowadays, that does not fly. If you have a sore horse, you can’t run. The vets in the mornings are very sharp out here and you cannot run these horses anymore. If they do pass the morning vet, and they look bad in the post parade, they will for sure be scratched. Also, with the new claim rule, nobody is going to run a bad one to get it claimed. You have zero chance of the claim going through.
So, you space out their races to make sure the are perfect before you enter. This is a great thing for the horse, which should be our number one priority.
Thanks for your thoughtful article.
As a small owner (four-horse stable), and lifelong student of the game, I have given lots of thought to the same issues. My horses made 27 starts last year (my stakes-placed 2-year-old first started in June and, after three starts, needed surgery to remove knee chips). So, my other three horses made a total of 24 starts. For me, that seems about right.
Having watched racing since the early ’50s (one of my earliest memories is watching Dark Star beat a beloved Native Dancer) I think I bring historical perspective to this issue. While you are probably right that genetically these horses have not changed since the 1980s when average starts/year were much higher, I would argue that the typology of the horses selected for has changed dramatically. I am amazed every time I look back at the old photos of my racing heroes. Just look at Seabiscuit, Dr. Fager, Round Table, Kelso, Forego, Ruffian and so many others. Generally long bodied, slab sided and almost coarse looking by today’s standards. These horses and their contemporaries were tough and could readily withstand the pounding required of constant training.
They look very little like today’s desired type. Today, given the yearling and 2-year-old commercial marketplace, we are breeding big, heavy, Quarter-Horse types–fast horses that can breeze a quarter in :21. I would argue that this change resulted directly from the dominance of Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert (and their emulators) both of whom came out of the Quarter Horse industry. They wanted a certain type of horse and, given their success, the market accommodated them. Hence, we are stuck with horses that simply cannot train like those old classic types.
I am not sure I have an answer to this problem but I think Tim Ritvo is on the right track. Also, I am not totally discouraged given the increasing popularity of turf racing which will, I think, lead to future changes in the desired type of horse sought in the marketplace (I think we’re seeing the start of that right now).
Again, I enjoy your articles. Keep them coming
–Bill Greenstein, Billy Speed Racing Stable
We’re talking about such a small number of trainers here. Less than 5%. The major problem is those same 5% holding over25% of the total horse population (super trainers). Evidence is in the fact that 33% of 300 Triple Crown nominations are from such a small number of trainers. The answer to me is limiting stall numbers at tracks. Split the business up amongst trainers so
races fill. As we know, a trainer can only have two horses per race. So holding 70+ horses at one track hurts field size.
As a trainer myself, I don’t make money on day rate. I earn my living off of running my horses and those horses earning me 10% of on the board finishes. I can’t afford to not run. So in my opinion, your speaking of a very small percentage of super trainers that charge high day rate. Just my two cents.
A question to ask is what did the average horse earn in purse money in 2017 versus 1987? Also, how much does the average horse cost to train versus 30 years ago? How long does the average horse still in training now versus years ago? Possibly, owners want their horses to last longer without getting hurt or sore. There is more to this than just a trainer’s winning percentage, particularly at the lower end of the sport.
Very interesting and thought provoking piece… thank you.
–Charles C. Fenwick, Jr.