The 'Societal Evolution' of Stallion Selection


Into Mischief, who has become a superstar stallion despite racing only six times in his career | Lee Thomas

The Week in Review, by T.D. Thornton

Although the long-term implication of breeding trends on the soundness of racehorses was not an aspect that got covered in the post-mortem report released last week on Mongolian Groom (Hightail)'s fatal injury in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic, the author of that analysis, Dr. Larry Bramlage, did address the topic in a Jan. 16 media teleconference that followed up on the study he was commissioned to write for the Breeders' Cup.

And while the breeding-related remarks by the internationally respected equine orthopedic surgeon were brief, they are worth summarizing here beyond TDN's initial coverage of the report (here) and the teleconference (here).

“We used to reward horses for durability,” Bramlage said. “Whenever the stallions were selected from the large racing families, so to speak, those horses got [selected for breeding] because they raced for a long time and they were earners, and then they would earn their way into their stallion barn.”

Bramlage gave a comparison of how other sports have changed in the past 50 years, using the analogy of how baseball's World Series used to be conducted between the teams that finished first in both the American and National Leagues to decide the season-ending championship.

In some years–like when the New York Yankees were routinely dominant in the 1950s–the pennant race was over two months before the end of the regular season. Such a playoff format might have rewarded consistently durable winners, “but that didn't sell tickets or didn't create television revenue,” Bramlage noted.

Thus the divisional playoff system was invented in 1969 to spice up spectator interest and give second-tier teams a chance at disrupting the balance of power over a shorter series of games.

That format has now expanded to the point where every major American team sport has multiple levers of qualifiers and wild-card entrants. In the case of baseball, winning consistently over the course of a long, slow, 162-game season got de-emphasized at the expense of winning highly-hyped playoff rounds.

The same thing has happened in Thoroughbred racing, with mega-events like the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup now generating outsized attention and emphasis at the expense of more traditional performance-over-time benchmarks.

“Now we have showcases that generate a lot of interest, and those situations make brilliance over a few events more likely to be rewarded than durability over the long term,” Bramlage said.

“We don't really assess durability now,” Bramlage explained in a follow-up email to TDN that was relayed by the Breeders' Cup. “We value brilliance more. Winning a few prominent races is valued more than a long career. So we may be inadvertently selecting against durable horses. It is a result of society's 'event mentality' where the big event is valued more than a long season.

“So I think there is somewhat of a change in the breed,” Bramlage summed up. “It's not purposeful, but it's sort of societal evolution as to how we select our stallions.”

Possible settlement in $150 million NJTHA lawsuit

A pair of intriguing articles (here and here) by John Brennan of the news site NJ Online Gambling last week examined court documents just made public in the ongoing federal court battle between the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NJTHA) and the major U.S. sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NCAA).

The key takeaway is that the leagues have expressed interest in settling a $150-million lawsuit initiated by the NJTHA that dates to 2014, when the leagues tried to block Monmouth Park's initial attempts in 2012 at getting sports betting up and running.

At that time, the leagues had been required to post a $3.4-million bond to cover estimated damages during a four-week court injunction that lasted until the judge ruled in favor of the leagues. Because the leagues won the argument, they didn't have to pay any damages.

But in May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal law that had prohibited sports betting in all but a few grandfathered states. Soon after, the NJTHA-run Monmouth opened for sports betting.

The NJTHA subsequently appealed the 2014 decision that had denied it the ability to conduct sports betting at Monmouth, arguing that it had been “wrongfully enjoined” from taking sports bets at the track. Last September, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and by a 2-1 margin, vacated that 2014 decision, putting the bond and the question of damages back in play.

Now the NJTHA wants to collect on damages that don't just cover the initial four-week period that existed while the injunction was in effect, but for the years-long entirety of the time that it was unable to conduct sports betting until the Supreme Court ruling said it could in 2018. That new amount, the NJTHA has claimed in court, is $150 million.

In his reporting, Brennan discovered a Dec. 30, 2019, letter from NJTHA attorney Ron Riccio to a lawyer for the leagues that said, “I informed you that we intended to serve discovery requests but would wait if the Leagues were interested in continuing settlement discussions that you initiated.” This represents the first public disclosure that the leagues might be willing to settle on the suit.

A subsequent court filing cited in the NJ Online Gambling story quoted Riccio as writing to the judge overseeing the case that “I am also willing to discuss mediation as an alternative to continued litigation” but that “to date, the leagues have not responded…”

Brennan wrote in his Jan. 15 story that “just the possibility of a settlement is tantalizing news for the state's horse racing industry. Even half of the proposed $150 million—and minus possibly hefty legal fees—would be a major financial infusion for a sport that a decade ago seemed on the verge of a shutdown when Governor Chris Christie elected to take the state out of the horse racing business.”

Loaded agendas

The Eclipse Awards and the GI Pegasus World Cup will dominate the racing news this coming week, but racing commission meetings in both Illinois and California are expected to produce fireworks that could reverberate into 2020 and beyond.

At Tuesday's Illinois Racing Board (IRB) meeting, the status of the deadlocked (and acrimonious) purse contract negotiations between the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and Arlington International Racecourse anchors the agenda.

The dispute is threatening the status of the 2020 meet at Arlington, because a state law enacted last year imposed the new requirement that a purse contract must be in place by Dec. 31, and none was filed before that deadline. When TDN last reported on the issue, the two sides were $70,000 apart on average daily purses ($130,000 to $200,000).

Also of note is that the IRB appears poised to join other jurisdictions in restricting whip use. A staff-submitted request to initiate new whip-related rulemaking is on the agenda.

At Wednesday's California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) meeting, an agenda item is listed that would “modify riding crop specifications” and “require racetracks to supply and control riding crops.”

Morning workout drug testing could also be coming to California. The CHRB will hear commentary and take action on a measure “to establish threshold limits for the presence of certain drug substances and medication in official test samples taken from horses after they complete a timed workout.”

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