By Chris McGrath
Dr. No must have been a veterinarian. Such, at least, was the implied verdict of many horsemen and women responding to a tweet posted by Gray Lyster of Ashview Farm the other day.
One of Lyster's many appealing qualities is that you are more likely to find him breaking powder at Jackson Hole than glazing his eyeballs on social media all day. On Saturday, however, he was prompted into one of his sporadic messages by the fact that the “two worst vetted yearlings” in Ashview's past two crops had both won on debut last week. “When you are vetting horses to purchase, please keep that in the back of your mind,” he added.
The reaction was impassioned: “likes” by the hundred, retweets by the dozen, each comment creating ripples of further comment. Mark Taylor, for instance, observed that Taylor Made's poster of a hundred Grade I winners could equally be titled the “failed vetting poster,” adding: “I actually believe that failing the vet as a yearling could be the most accurate indicator of elite talent we have!” Bluewater Sales, endorsing Taylor, said that its clients are told: “This one may have just enough wrong with it to be a runner.”
Yet those most incensed by each other's perceived positions often turn out to have plenty in common. As so often, the difficulty comes when nuances of grey are stripped out for a black-and-white, right-and-wrong polemic; reduced, in this case, to the catch-all notion that a horse can “pass” or “fail” the vet according to some objective and immutable scientific standard.
Even the most cursory consultation of vendors, buyers and veterinarians quickly shows that different people, with different priorities, are absolutely entitled to different perspectives on a highly subjective challenge. They're all dealing with adolescent, changing animals, whose inevitable and hugely varied imperfections of flesh and bone place them somewhere on a spectrum of risk.
Few know the market better than David Ingordo. “The term 'pass the vet' is totally subjective,” the agent says. “Vetting is a tool. Some people live or die according to what the vet says. We take a different approach. I can't read X-rays; don't want to. I can't scope horses, don't want to. So I send a vet in there and he comes back with the information. I only ask him to vet a horse if I have an intention to buy it. I'm not asking him to practice using a scope: I want the okay to buy a horse and sometimes, in a nice way, it becomes a big fight. We're not just failing them wholesale if a horse has a problem. But I do want the information that's available.”
As one who understands both sides of the deal, also being a pinhooker, Ingordo stresses that different standards must be applied to horses for different purposes.
“Horses have problems that may or may not affect their racing ability,” he says. “But if you're going to resell you must have a horse literally everybody can buy. When I'm doing that, I'm not trying to sell the horse to myself next year; I'm trying to sell to a pool of buyers that have money to spend and an opinion about how to spend it. And what I can accept and what they can accept are two different things.
“There are tons of horses with issues that will be fine to race. But when you're buying them, there's an associated amount of risk. And it's a dollar amount. I'm willing to lay out $30,000 for this risk, associated with this vetting report; or I'm willing to shell out $1 million on this one. So there's a risk and reward in it.
“I buy a lot of horses that don't pass everybody else's vet but that pass my criteria for what I'm doing. It may be a simple case of some sesamoiditis, the ultrasound shows the branches are clean but the horse just needs an additional 30, 60 or 90 days for the bone to settle down so I can move forward with it. So it 'passes' for me, because I'm willing to take the time—but it 'fails' for someone else, because they aren't. These things get labelled in general terms but there's always more layers to this conversation.”
Equally he remembers his vet producing a research paper that surveyed 100 horses with the same problem they were contemplating in a yearling: a spur projecting from the back of the knee into a ligament. Not one of the 100 had made the track. Yet this horse, duly rejected by Ingordo and his team, changed hands for $475,000. So he plainly “passed” the vet, and big time, for someone else.
Different things work for different people. Carrie Brogden of Machmer Hall, who applauded Lyster for igniting the debate, gives an example from the recent January Sale at Keeneland. She was underbidder on a $40,000 colt, who had been certified by a vet she recognised. Subsequently she received a call from the consignors explaining that the buyer, who had not had him vetted beforehand, was “freaking out” after his own vet subsequently diagnosed moderate sesamoiditis in the front ankles.
“This buyer was having a meltdown, wanted to return the horse, so I said send me the pictures,” Brogden says. “Don't get me wrong, I'm not a vet, but I've seen hundreds and thousands of X-rays now. And when I saw them I was like: 'Huh!?' So we ended up purchasing the horse for a discount. An example of a horse being completely failed for something my vet wouldn't have called. Nor had the original vet. But the purchaser's vet is killing the horse. It's this stuff we deal with all the time.”
To Brogden, the key is trust between consignor and buyers. Tepin, the champion who put her on the map, herself had an issue not dissimilar to this colt. “And she didn't have a perfect throat,” Brogden recalls. “That's why she was $140,000 as a Saratoga yearling. I lost a lot of buyers.”
But the Greathouses knew they could take Brogden at her word, and did so when she assured them that the young Bernstein filly's hind ankles had never blown up. As the other side of the same coin, she recalls frankly turning Niall Brennan against a very handsome and well-bred horse, whose ankle problems had indeed reached a clinical level. Sure enough, that horse never got to the track—and she trusts that Brennan will remember her candour whenever she gives him the green light in future.
“It's the same farms that raise the graded stakes horses year after year,” she notes. “And to me, the ones that raise a lot of runners don't raise them like sale horses. They raise them tough and strong. We don't separate our yearling colts until they go into sales prep and sometimes I watch them and think, 'My God they're going to kill each other out there.' It's the clash of the titans, a battle zone. So, sure, somebody's going to get a defect in their sesamoid; somebody's going to chip here; somebody's come up with this there. But we try to walk that line. And plenty of times we kick on to the 2-year-old sales with horses that have gotten crunched by the vets as yearlings—just like Maximus Mischief (Into Mischief), for what I thought was b.s.—and… surprise! They vet great.”
Ingordo, coming at it from a different side, equally deplores the notion that horses have to be bubble-wrapped to get past a sales vet. “That's absolutely the opposite of what should happen, if you want horses to perform and be sound and be horses,” he says. “A little cosmetic thing, a cut or whatever, who cares? It's frustrating [to hear that] because it's never as simple as someone giving a rubberstamp to say these all vetted, and these didn't.”
If anything, Ingordo wonders whether there might be a chicken-and-egg element, in that prepping young stock is nowadays so intense. If a horse is forced through the commercial process too early, it may come up with marginal issues that simply require a little patience. And that's where the guy signing the check comes in. Sometimes he will want a horse to be in Ocala on Oct. 1 to start the breaking process. Ingordo will sometimes plead on behalf of a nice horse: it only needs a P1 flake [first/proximal phalanx] taken out, say, the equivalent of a tonsil for us. But if his client doesn't want to wait, he doesn't want to wait.
“You know, nobody has a crystal ball,” Ingordo says. “But good vets will tell you that in their experience a problem may not manifest itself in one race, or ever, but could become a problem somewhere down the line. And then the people getting the information have to be able to process it. Unfortunately, in the sales environment we're in today, some people don't know [how to do that]. Their reliance is on the vet—and the vets, through no fault of their own, are then in a no-win position. Because if they 'approve' the horse and anything goes wrong, somebody's going to get blamed.”
Lyster himself actually takes a similar view on that: unlike many consignors, he does not resent the vets themselves for failing horses, instead suspecting that they are given little margin by their patrons.
“I don't buy the 'vets-are-screwing-us' scenario you hear from some peers,” Lyster says. “I think it's the principal, at the end of the line, we need to try to educate a little. It's all a risk assessment, right. And people are spending a lot of money. And a vet is saying: 'Hey, to me this yearling is more risky than this yearling.' And then basically someone takes a pen and marks that number off their list. Any kind of blemish, the horse becomes valueless to that person. So the term 'a horse fails the vet' has turned into 'well, he doesn't have a perfect set of X-rays.'
“I do think fewer and fewer principals have hands-on horsemanship. They're not familiar with a lot of the advice they're getting, and simply sum it up as: 'Well that horse doesn't vet.' And part of me understands that. Honestly, vet work has become very difficult to understand. It used to be you'd have a vet go over something and if there wasn't a big problem you'd buy the horse. But now it's become that when a vet talks to an owner, I've got to tell you—as a professional in this industry—a lot of the time I can't understand what the heck they're saying. When I get confused and owners get confused it turns into: 'Well, that horse failed.' What was it? 'Oh, something in the ankle.'”
Lyster accepts that in a crop of 20 there will typically be one that comes with blatantly high risk. But nowadays he feels that a major issue will be made of anything that is “remarkable,” rather than significant: anything, literally, you can “remark” on. And he reckons that maybe half those 20 horses will today be “crucified” for something of that ilk: something merely mentionable.
A couple of years ago a prospector came up to him at the sales and said: “I had six horses on my list today but they all failed the vet.”
“Do you know what you need to do?” replied Lyster.
“No, what's that?”
“You need to fire your vet!”
As he elaborates: “Because it's not possible to hand-pick six yearlings and for all six of them to fail the vet. It's not possible to vet 20 horses and have 14 fail the vet. You've X-ray machines that all of a sudden are seeing three or four times the detail they used to see, and I don't think that's benefiting anyone. Because they're finding more reasons to say: 'Oh my gosh, that doesn't look like what the perfect X-ray looked like when we went to vet school.”
Brogden concurs. “I don't think the horses have changed,” she says. “What's changed is digital X-rays. Before, in 10 years I had one horse called for a knee spur. One horse, a Mr. Greeley colt. Fast forward to digital X-ray, now have maybe 20% called for 2mm knee spurs, and probably 40 or 50% of yearlings called for sesamoiditis.”
Of course, the ultimate corrective to the market is the racetrack. If people are letting good runners slip through the net, there is value there for the discerning shopper.
“I understand how we have a limited amount of buyers, and how each year people are taking tons of risk in our industry,” Lyster says. “If you're going out there to buy one or two yearlings, I understand why you'd want to be super picky. But it's got out of control if horses with a couple of 'remarkable' findings, that rarely bother horses, become valueless.
“But there are people out there smart enough to go out and target that value. If Horse A and Horse B are both perfect X-rays, they're both worth half a million dollars. But if Horse A has perfect X-rays and Horse B some 'remarkable' findings, Horse A becomes worth $750,000 and Horse B $150,000. The gap just seems to get wider and wider. It seems like with 10% more risk, Horse B will be literally 20% of the cost of Horse A.”
At the same time, in Lyster's view, the gap is narrowing between the horse that legitimately shouldn't be touched with a bargepole, and those with a “laundry list” of trivial drawbacks. One of the Ashview graduates who won last week had a congenital defect in an ankle—not that the technical diagnosis made particular sense to Lyster. “All I can tell you is that I was told this horse will never stand training,” he says. “So when he runs off the screen you think: 'Woah, I didn't think he was able to breeze a half-mile!'”
To be fair to the veterinarians, they too object when their own judgements on matters of degree are presented as absolutes. And, as both Ingordo and Lyster have acknowledged, often it is actually the vets' clients who do that.
“We would very rarely use the terms 'pass' or 'fail' when we're looking at horses,” stresses Dr. Scott Hay, president of Florida racetrack practice Teigland, Franklin and Brokken DVMs and vice-president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. “Now, some clients don't understand anything other than pass, fail; and sometimes they drag us into that terminology. But we really resist it. The most important part, typically, is to be working for people with whom we've developed a good relationship over time, and whose tolerances for certain findings we have come to understand.
“Now over time we may change our level of tolerance for a certain finding, if we realize that maybe we missed a horse because we had a prejudice against a certain finding. The flipside is that sometimes we may prove too tolerant, and horses have a poorer racing career than expected because of something we were happy enough to accept.
“We try not to get prejudiced about findings we think will probably be all right for a horse's racing career. The issue is that some clients just don't want to take a risk of any sort. I'm not trying to sit here and tell you it's always the clients, if we miss a good horse. Sometimes the vet leads them down that path as well. But I do think we all take a bad rap for turning down a horse.
“My philosophy is that we report on what we see; try to explain what we think that means; try to weigh up the risk tolerance; and let them be the ultimate decision-makers on whether or not to buy. We try to educate them the best we can. But it's their money they're spending. And they're the ones who know how much they want to stick their neck out on something that may, or may not, be an issue.”
Everyone knows of champions rejected as young horses on veterinary advice. One consignor who sold a horse now at stud remembers how his spectacular physique was legitimately undermined, as a yearling, by severe question marks over an ankle. A big Kentucky farm sent three different vets to try and get him cleared, but none was prepared to oblige. Nonetheless the horse met his (relatively conservative) reserve. After his championship campaign, the trainer rang the consignor and asked for his yearling X-rays, because they had just taken a new set that suggested they must have deteriorated to a shocking degree. “No problem,” said the consignor. “And I bet you'll find they're exactly the same as your new ones.” On receiving them, the trainer rang back and said: “This is incredible. Our vet can't believe that this horse has never been clinically lame.”
But stories like that shouldn't necessarily alter anyone's position. If it's all a question of degree, then those that do survive doubt and prosper as runners don't—in themselves—prove that the original doubt was misplaced.
“Sometimes you'll see a beautiful horse by a leading sire out of a Grade I winner,” Ingordo says. “And he's an A-plus physical. And he brings 30 grand. He's been vetted 20 times, and he brings 30 grand. Were all those people wrong? And if he breaks his maiden by 15 lengths, and goes on to win a Grade I, were all those people wrong on their assessment at the time? I would argue probably not. Everyone would say: 'Look, he didn't pass the vet and now look what he did!' But how many of the horses we all turn down never run because they have an issue that gives them a 1% chance to make it?”
“People hire us for a reason,” Dr Hay says. “That's not necessarily to overly protect them, but certainly to protect their interests. You're talking about percentage risk—and any time you do that, some of them are on one side of that line and some on the other. If we could figure out which, we'd all be geniuses. But we're not, so we have to weigh it out and see where that individual lands. Hopefully, we make the right choice and take the right risks but that's not always going to work out in everyone's favour. Somebody's going to miss that horse, and someone else's going to buy that horse. And they're the ones who are going to do good or bad, with that horse, because of that risk that was there.”
As Ingordo said at the outset, the same issue can look radically different from one perspective to the next. And, as he also emphasises, nobody—on any side of this equation—is always right.
“Vets vary in opinions but they all have the opportunity and the right to work,” he says. “So there are some who would turn down Secretariat at the head of the stretch in the Belmont and say he doesn't vet; and there are others who'll pretty much wave them through, no matter what. Buyers can be too stringent. Myself, I'm pretty forgiving. We have good clients and use horsemanship in every process. But the buyer's the one putting up the money and if they want things a certain way, that's their prerogative. Nobody's perfect in this game. But the term 'does not vet' is very subjective and needs qualification.
“I understand people being frustrated when they've never had a problem with a horse. Okay, it's never had a problem for you. But as buyers our job is to assess whether it might become a problem. You hear about the ones that go on and are successful—but never about those that didn't make it.”
Again, different ways of looking at the same thing. Brogden turns it round: “As one of my very dear friends, a 2-year-old consignor, said to me: 'Carrie, you have to look at it this way. They fail as many horses that can run as they pass horses that cannot.' And I thought that was spot on.”
But that beauty of this business is that we don't establish who's wrong or right by arguing about it. We have that oval out there, with a wooden stick opposite the stand. And we can sort it all out there, every day of the week.
That said, you would be very welcome to carry on thrashing things out in the horseman's forum that is TDN. If so, we'd love to hear your views. Email us at [email protected] if you have comments for publication.