The X-Ray Files, Season 2: David Scanlon

David Scanlon | Fasig-Tipton


The X-Ray Files series, now in its second year and presented in cooperation with the Consignors and Breeders Association, uses conversations with buyers and sellers to contribute to the discussion on radiographic findings and their impact on sales and racetrack success.

Ocala horseman David Scanlon is not just a leading 2-year-old consignor, but he has also built an impressive list of training graduates for leading owners like Godolphin, Coolmore, Don Alberto, and Calumet Farm. In both capacities, Scanlon's operation is well represented on this year's GI Kentucky Derby trail. He was in charge of the early training of leading Derby contender Sierra Leone (Gun Runner) and his Scanlon Training & Sales pinhooked GIII Gotham S. runner-up Just a Touch (Justify).

Whether he is training a horse for a client to race or one of his own destined for resale, Scanlon said they all start with the same training regimen.

“When we go through the breaking and basic training, pretty much everyone is on the same schedule,” Scanlon said. “Everybody goes through getting acquainted with the rider, getting ridden, from small round pens to paddocks, to big fields, to the racetrack. So that's usually our technique that we use and that's pretty much standard for all of our horses.”

Eventually the sales calendar forces the two groups to diverge in their training.

“With a lot of these racehorses, especially for my higher-end clients, these horses who are going to be late summer or Saratoga classic horses, we will plan their work schedules to start much later. Whereas, with the 2-year-olds, I will look at a sales date and then I start to work backwards from the breeze show dates. I want to start a couple of months away and say I am going to start my light schedules here and at this point, we need to be doing this with him and going this fast.”

Sierra Leone | Hodges Photography / Lou Hodges, Jr.

But plotting out a course for his pinhook prospects necessarily begins in the fall when Scanlon and his team are shopping at the yearling sales. Without the seemingly limitless budget of some of those high-end clients, he has learned what corners he can cut while still finding success the following spring in the sales ring.

“It's really hard to get everything for us,” Scanlon said. “The old saying, checking all the boxes, if they have a real high-end fancy pedigree, and they also have a great body and conformation, that's usually going to be hard for a pinhooker to buy. You are usually going to get beat by an end-user.”

Buying on a budget over the years has led Scanlon to accept certain conformational flaws, but always in the context of the entire horse.

“The one thing we always look for, say a horse's conformation isn't perfect, they may toe in, they may toe out or they are a little offset in the knees, you still want them to have a big, athletic walk and see how they walk through it,” Scanlon said. “Maybe we are going to buy a horse that is a little bit off-set in the knees, but he ends up walking through it really well. If I am looking at a horse and he is toed in, but he walks really well through it, I may forgive that horse. But if he comes at me and he has a lot of action in his walk–like a wing, as they say–that's not good. That horse may not be a good mover or a galloper, too. If they don't walk through it well, then they don't move as well.”

That winnowing process that pinhookers are forced to use at the yearling sales in the fall makes for outstanding offerings at the 2-year-old sales, according to Scanlon.

“Some of the best horse people I know have basically gone through and already short-listed horses,” he said of the pinhookers. “We look at thousands of yearlings all year and go ahead with what we've discovered as athletes. Year in and year out, you always see at the top of the standings, horses that the top 10 pinhookers have picked out. I don't think it's a coincidence that they are, every year, some of the best 2-year-olds in the country. It's our job and what we've done for a long time. We have done this so many times, we know what really works and what doesn't. Sometimes when you just have an open check book, maybe it means a little bit more to us, it's how we make our living. It's very important to know what works and what doesn't.”

Scanlon-trained colt by Constitution sells for $800,000 at last week's OBS March sale | Photos by Z

While innuendo and speculation continue to swirl around the 2-year-old sales, Scanlon said he thinks the sales companies have made impressive progress in regulating both the horses and their sellers.

“I think the sales companies are really doing a good job, especially in the last two years,” he said. “I don't think people are actually highlighting enough how far the sales companies have come with their medication rules. It was really a little more open a few years ago, but in the last two years, they have really tried to adopt rules that come along a little bit more in line with what HISA is trying to tell the racing public. Can you always do a little bit more? I am sure you can. And I think that is what they are working on. I do believe there is a lot of disclosure in the sale.

“With some of the stuff they've been talking about, like Clenbuterol, I just feel like that is something that doesn't have a place anymore. We don't even keep that on the farm anymore, for any use. It's one of those things that, with the way the world is now, it's just something we don't need to have around here knowing it's frowned upon and the penalties.”

Asked if there were any changes he would like to see, Scanlon said, “I think the sales companies not being so lenient on some of the guys who do have violations. Enough slaps on the wrist, if you have this many, that's it. You're not going to be able to sell. I do feel like some of the rules with people who have multiple violations will need to be more stringent in the future, just to give people a little more confidence going forward.”

And what advice would he give to potential buyers at the juvenile sales?

“I think the buyers need to educate themselves,” he said. “I think buyers need to realize, when they come to these sales, they need to do a little bit of homework, too, on the people they are doing business with. Spend some time, go through the results. To me, when you go ahead and open the TDN, or if you see guys who are selling multiple winners, guys who have been around for a long time and have sold a lot of winners, they have been established. Ask around and know who you are dealing with. Those are the kind of people I think you want to do business with. I'm not saying everybody doesn't deserve a shot to start a business, but some of these guys can be fly by night. You want to take your time with that.”

Despite the issues that still need to be confronted, Scanlon stressed it was important to appreciate the gains that have already been made.

“I think sometimes in this sport, we are facing a lot of challenges right now, but I don't think we always stop to look at how far we've actually come in the last few years,” he said. “I do think the 2-year-old sales companies are really trying to work together to improve the sport as far as medication and how it all comes together.”

To view the entire 2023 X-Ray Files series, click here.

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