Taking Stock: West Offers $500,000 for Derby Study

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Gary West | Adam Coglianese

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Gary West lives in Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego, but he was back at Keeneland in Lexington last month to buy potential classic colts; or, to be specific, to try to buy a colt for the Gl Kentucky Derby–a race he’s wanted to win more than any other. Inconspicuously dressed in a long-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, he sat alone behind the desk in Room H, one of several private rooms in the sales pavilion for big spenders, but he had more on his mind than buying yearlings.

West and his team of racing manager Ben Glass, veterinarian Dr. Doug Brunk, Dell Ridge Farm manager Des Ryan, and Jeff Kirk, who breaks and trains his young stock, assemble daily in Room H to systematically scrutinize the day’s short-listed candidates. [Disclosure: Gary and Mary West and Ben Glass are retained clients of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants.] They inspect and vet the horses they like on pedigree, and Glass bids on those that suit. It’s ordinarily an upbeat time for them. They spend millions each September chasing Derby dreams, and in recent years Glass has signed for two Eclipse Award winners at Keeneland, West Coast (Flatter) for $425,000 in 2015 and Game Winner (Candy Ride {Arg}) for $110,000 in 2017–outstanding achievements. But the day we met up in Room H, West didn’t want to speak about either of those champions, or even about any of the yearlings he was interested in.

Instead, he spoke first about his homebred multiple Grade l winner Maximum Security (New Year’s Day), who was first past the wire at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May before becoming the first horse in the history of the Kentucky Derby to be disqualified for impeding another competitor.

The Wests went on a roller coaster of a ride that day: initially, elation and a celebratory walk towards the winner’s circle; then, the inquiry; and, finally, a historic disqualification and the ensuing daze that enveloped them for the rest of the evening, if not for days and weeks. West’s emotions since then have run a path from shock to frustration to anger to introspection, but he’s emerged from the ordeal with some clarity about the Derby.

He’s a competitor by nature who’s been racing horses for close to 40 years, and he’s come close to completing his racing bucket list: the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which he’s won twice, most recently with Game Winner last year and before that with New Year’s Day (Street Cry {Ire}) in 2013; the Gl Travers, which he won with West Coast in 2017; the Gl Breeders’ Cup Classic, which he hasn’t won yet; and the daddy of them all, the Kentucky Derby–which he thought he’d won, but didn’t.

Competition aside, West is also a humanitarian with deep concerns for people and horses. Along with his wife, he has given away more than $200 million to aid the low-income elderly through their philanthropic foundation, and before every race, he’ll say a prayer for the entire field of horses. Last year, in this space, he said: “People can believe this or not–and they may think this is bullshit–but the first thing I say is a prayer for everybody’s horse to come back safe after the race. Okay. That’s my number one thought. Then number two, I want our horse to win the race, and if he doesn’t win the race, I want him to do as good as he can do. I’ve been on the bad end of horse problems in races, and I know that gut-wrenching feeling it is for people who love their horses so much, and I don’t wish that on anybody.”

The Kentucky Derby

Though at Keeneland to reload the stable, West was preoccupied by his concern for the sport that he’s been passionate about and heavily invested in for so long. This wasn’t about what happened with Maximum Security, but about what could have happened to him–and others.

West has always been concerned about horse and rider safety, but he’s even more sensitive to it now with the heightened public outrage the sport is facing for the racetrack fatalities that have marked media coverage since the winter meet at Santa Anita. All of this has led to angst about the Kentucky Derby itself, the race that drives him and others to spend millions at Keeneland and to breed horses.

“It’s our Super Bowl,” he said. “You’ve got 150,000 people there and millions watching it on TV here and around the world. It’s the race, let’s face it, that defines the sport; from January on, every 3-year-old race is essentially a ‘Kentucky Derby prep,’ and the race, frankly, transcends Churchill Downs’s ownership of it. It’s really the face of our industry, if you want to be honest about it. Some people know about the Breeders’ Cup and the Travers, but everyone has heard about the Kentucky Derby. What if we have a pileup in that race? We could have had one or more in it this year. In this climate, that would be devastating for the sport, but more importantly, what about addressing real horse and rider safety? Have we addressed these issues, both for public consumption and for our knowledge as industry participants?”

West said that “because of what happened with Maximum Security, I have watched the race more than 1,000 times– probably more than anyone out there.” As he’s replayed the Derby over the months, he said that he gradually found his narrow focus on the outcome of the race shifting to the broader picture of the potential dangers the race posed for any of its equine and human participants. Call it an epiphany.

“Racing is a dangerous sport, granted, but [the Derby] makes it seem more so, and you start to eventually think about one thing, because it’s staring at you in the face: Why are there 20 horses out there on a track supposedly built for 14? If you step back, you’ll see it’s the only race in the country where they run more than 14 in a race, and there were more than 36,000 races in the U.S. last year. They don’t do it in the Breeders’ Cup. Churchill doesn’t do it in the [Gl Kentucky] Oaks. It’s a true outlier.”

For the record, researcher Chris Rossi said that from Jan. 1, 1994, until Oct. 3, 2019, there were 26 pari-mutuel races on the flat in the U.S. that had fields of more than 14 runners, and 24 of them were the Derby (with two 16-horse fields at Calder in 1994 and 1998). Put another way, over this time span of almost 26 years, there have been only 26 pari-mutuel races with more than 14 runners from a total of more than 1.2 million races in the U.S.

There’s a direct correlation between increased field size and increased handle that likely drives Churchill owner CDI’s bottom-line philosophy, but at what future price, West wonders. “People forget the 2008 Derby when Eight Belles died. It wasn’t field size with her, but it was a really big deal when it happened. It was horrible when it happened, and people talked about it ad nauseum for weeks, if not months. It was a tragedy of epic proportions, but it was a tragedy that would pale in comparison to a multi-horse catastrophe going into the first turn or coming out of the last turn when horses are getting leg weary late. These are horses running a mile and a quarter for the first time under conditions that aren’t ideal, and if a couple of jockeys and two or three horses get killed, it’s game over.”

A Louisville Courier-Journal article from earlier this year– “Churchill Downs is one of the deadliest racetracks in America”– noted the track’s fatality rate was one of the highest in the country in 2018 and was “50% higher than the national average” from 2016-2018. “A high fatality rate, plus 20 horses, all running the farthest they’ve ever run, is a potential catastrophe, in my opinion,” West said.

A $500,000 Offer

His opinion aside, West said he’d fund “up to $500,000 to commission a safety study” to find the optimal field size for the Derby. “Horse and rider safety is the biggest issue today in American racing and is probably the only issue that can literally ruin racing overnight. I think everyone–the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, The Jockey Club’s safety group–should do everything they can to help the industry validate and confirm the safety of the highest-visible horserace in the world.”

West said he’d write a check for $500,000 to a group like The Jockey Club or the NTRA to oversee the study, would have no input in it, and would accept the findings. “Let me be clear. Once I write the check, I walk away. It has nothing to do with me. If the study finds that 20 horses are perfectly safe–I will accept that. And the industry will have a study that confirms that. But, if the study finds that, say, 14 or 16 is the safest number, we as an industry would be compelled to change. That’s why I want the study to be done or overseen by racing organizations like the NTRA or The Jockey Club that are beyond reproach in matters like safety. And, these groups have publicly stated how important safety is to them, so I would provide the resources so they can fulfill their stated purpose. If they and Churchill do not support this initiative, I and much of the racing community will naturally question how important safety really is to them. For me, if I can save the life of one horse or rider, it will be one of the best investments I have made.”

Offers of this magnitude don’t come around often. TJC or NTRA should accept this with open arms, and as soon as possible.

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

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