Taking Stock: How We Got Here



The American dirt horse is tough, strong, and fast. He’s an athlete. He’s a combination of speed and stamina, bred to race on an unforgivingly hard surface, bred to race at two, bred to break quickly from the gate, bred to run hard early, bred to withstand pressure late. He’s not a pet, though he’s viewed as such by a growing segment of the population. He’s been selectively bred like working dogs, who are as prized for their “prey drive” as he is for his ability to compete. American dirt horses and their sons and daughters may not be as sought after around the world as they once were, but their influence globally is still significant.

Sunday Silence (Halo) changed the face of Japanese racing, and he has a son, Deep Impact (Jpn), who is doing even more. Danehill (Danzig) is a ubiquitous presence in Australia and Europe. Sir Tristram (Sir Ivor) put New Zealand on the map. Sadler’s Wells (Northern Dancer) and sons and others by Northern Dancer have long dominated Europe. Southern Halo (Halo) was a giant in Argentina. I could go on, but you get the drift.

M. V. Magnier, son of Coolmore owner John Magnier and grandson of legendary Irish trainer Vincent O’Brien, said, after the Irish-based stud farm landed Justify (Scat Daddy) last year to stand at its Kentucky affiliate, Ashford Stud: “My grandfather M. V. O’Brien built Ballydoyle off the backs of some brilliant American Classic horses. In Justify and American Pharoah we now have two all-time greats, so we couldn’t be more optimistic about the future.” That about puts the stature of the American dirt horse in perspective.

Last year in the pavilion at the Fasig-Tipton yearling sale at Saratoga, Claiborne’s Bernie Sams said, “People don’t come to this sale looking for turf horses. They’re here looking for dirt horses that can win the Kentucky Derby. Sure, there’s more opportunity on turf now, and if they get one that runs only turf, fine, but they mostly want the classic dirt horse. That’s what they’re looking for.”

Coolmore and partners found one of those last week when they outbid Stonestreet Farm for the Curlin (Smart Strike) colt at $3.65 million at the Fasig-Tipton selected 2-year-olds-in-training sale at Gulfstream. From the Bernardini mare Achieving–a granddaughter of Broodmare of the Year Better Than Honour, dam of Coolmore’s Belmont S. winner Rags to Riches–the son of the Hill ‘n’ Dale-based Horse of the Year and Preakness winner was a gorgeous physical specimen with ideal temperament who’d worked in :10 flat but is bred to run all day on dirt. In other words, he’s the prime example of the type of horse that Bernie Sams noted that buyers want, to aim for the American Classics.

The development of the American dirt horse mirrored the evolution of our immigrant culture. Imports, like immigrants, formed a bedrock. The breeding industry here was strengthened by importing foreign-bred stock, horses like Sir Gallahad (Fr) (Teddy {Fr}), Bleinheim (GB) (Blandford {Ire}), Mahmoud (Fr) (Blenheim), Nasrullah (GB) (Nearco {Ity}), etc., horses that had raced on turf but were asked to adapt to the American way of racing flat-out from the gate on dirt ovals at sprint distances and up. It was a Darwinian approach: Those that made the transition and assimilated to the ways of a new culture succeeded, and those that didn’t, failed; a microcosm of society at large, where the safety nets then weren’t as large as they are now.

Breeders and stud farms were cognizant of continuously infusing new foreign blood to supplement and strengthen the few native strains (imports from a century earlier) and second- and third-generation lines here, and they had the money behind them to buy the best stallions from abroad as America was propelled through a period of economic prosperity after WWll. This process, through decades of being tested on dirt, produced that unique American dirt horse that was distinctly different to its foreign counterparts who raced on turf, at distances longer than here, and in a style of not being seriously asked to run until late in a race.

By the time that Vincent O’Brien started vigorously importing North American horses to Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, these differences became widely known. The Americans had more speed and gear changes than their European counterparts, and turf wasn’t a problem for most of them. As a result, they started beating the Europeans at their own game. For example, in the three decades of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, there were 14 North American-bred Epsom Derby winners. By that time, of course, the pendulum had swung, and European stables had the monetary heft to import the best of our horses, and many of those–notably Sadler’s Wells and Danehill, both at Coolmore–went on to become iconic sires and sire makers abroad.

Since 2000, only one North American-bred horse, Kris Kin, in 2003, has won the Epsom Derby. The Europeans, with such Classic-siring stallions as Galileo and Montjeu–both Coolmore-based sons of Sadler’s Wells–no longer needed the American dirt horse for Europe as it once had. In fact, there were whispers both here and abroad that the American dirt horse was no longer what it once was, and the global economic meltdown of 2007-2008 was perhaps a symbolic metaphor for its perceived decline. (In recent years there’s been a bit of a renaissance with American-bred progeny of such as War Front, Scat Daddy, and Kitten’s Joy enjoying some European success at levels below the Classics.)

The Finger Pointing

It’s about at this point that medication such as race-day Lasix became (or became again) the hot-button issue for what ailed American racing and breeding–the equine version of the opioid crisis. You know the story: fewer starts, less stamina, more brittleness, more breakdowns, etc. All this was blamed on the liberal use of the diuretic that was legally available in all racing jurisdictions for the treatment of bleeders suffering from exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage or EIPH.

By this time, too, the breeding industry had weathered the advent of synthetic tracks and had rebelled against them, complaining, mostly in private, but powerful circles, that the artificial surfaces were changing the character of the American dirt horse. Santa Anita, Keeneland, Del Mar, and Meydan–with a lack of American support–soon reverted back to dirt, and for some of the elite owners and breeders who had urged surface changes back to dirt, their sights were now solely on Lasix and medication. The Jockey Club, to which many belonged, was charged with leading the fight for medication reform and, specifically, to get federal intervention to ban race-day medication. With friends in high places and the funds to lobby Washington, The Jockey Club through the last several years got various versions of the “Integrity Act” introduced in Congress–none that has progressed past the subcommittee level–and created a wide-ranging PR campaign that equated Lasix with the illegal “drugging and doping” of horses.

The Lasix battle has essentially pitted one segment of the industry against another: the group at the top of the pyramid represented by The Jockey Club versus the rank-and-file horsemen plying their trades at the bottom, represented by the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (NHBPA). The internecine warfare, unfortunately, has now had the amplified effect of projecting to the public a culture of “drugging” in the aftermath of the 23 fatalities at Santa Anita, though no follow-up studies have been conducted to pinpoint actual cause.

The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, is a major backer, both philosophically and financially, of the Integrity Act, and it has deflected attention away from the dirt racing surface as the cause of the fatalities and has brought the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to the table in its attempt to effect policy change through a range of measures, including limited use of Lasix and the whip and the banning of several therapeutic medications. However, in PETA, whose stated mission is to end racing, it has a Trojan Horse on its hands that has already turned on TSG and racing.

Coincidently–or perhaps through a concerted effort–the latest version of the Integrity Act was also introduced in Congress during the Santa Anita crisis, and The Jockey Club just days ago followed up with a “white paper” urging for the act’s passage and implying that the use of medication was a likely cause of the Santa Anita fatalities. It said, “Improper drug use can directly lead to horse injuries and deaths.”

Curiously, what The Jockey Club didn’t publicize in its paper–or hasn’t in its fight to get the Integrity Act passed over the last few years–is important data that it has collected for years through its equine injury database on equine fatalities. Here are The Jockey Club figures of fatalities per 1,000 for Santa Anita from 2009 to 2017. Note the startling discrepancies between the synthetic surfaces and dirt:

2009 (synthetic): 0.90/1000

2010 (synthetic): 0.59/1000

2011 (dirt): 2.94/1000

2012 (dirt): 2.89/1000

2013 (dirt): 2.11/1000

2014 (dirt): 1.57/1000

2015 (dirt): 1.75/1000

2016 (dirt): 3.13/1000

2017 (dirt): 2.27/1000

If The Jockey Club is truly interested in welfare, it should have advocated for a return to the safety of synthetic surfaces along with its agenda for medication reform, and this omission is nothing but an embarrassment in full public view now.

PETA and a senator from California have already digested this and have called for a return to the less-fatal synthetic surfaces at Santa Anita. It’s also quite likely that lawmakers considering co-sponsoring the Integrity Act will also now insist on the inclusion of synthetic surfaces in the bill.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, adverse publicity against dirt tracks is snowballing. The other day the Louisville Courier-Journal blasted a headline that read “Churchill Downs is one of the deadliest racetracks in America” and said the home of the Kentucky Derby had a fatality rate of 2.73/1000.

High fatality rates, of course, are part and parcel of the culture of American dirt racing–the proving ground of the American dirt horse. It’s what made those that excelled in this rigorous program special and desirable. But it has come at a price, something those involved in the business–including The Jockey Club–have known for decades.

But in the current climate, where animal welfare looms so large in society, the future of the American dirt horse may once again be at a crossroads.

Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.


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