The X-Ray Files, Season 2: Nick de Meric

Nick de Meric | Keeneland

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The X-Rays 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 the sales and training process.

Nick de Meric and his wife Jaqui have become stalwarts of the pinhooking scene in Ocala over the last four decades and their program has produced success after success both in the sales ring and on the racetrack. Among the graduates of the family's program are Horse of the Year Knicks Go and champion juvenile Corniche.

Whether de Meric is preparing a horse for the sales ring or the racetrack, the horseman said both start out with the same training regimen.

“When we start the babies, they all start the same way,” de Meric said. “They all start in a round pen. And then they graduate to a small paddock, and then to a bigger field. And then they learn diagonals, leads, head set, learn to respond to the aids, bending around the leg, and I try to spend at least a month in a large field unless I'm really tight on time.

“And then from there, we introduce them to the racetrack, and usually that's a graduated introduction where they'll spend three days in a week on the track, and the other three maybe it's back in the field. And then we gradually phase out the field to where they're going to the track every day. They pretty much all start that way.”

Eventually the training paths diverge as the sales horses are prepared for a solo work at the all-important under-tack show.

“When a baby is going to 2-year-old sales, we all know about the speed factor. We all know they need to show a little sizzle on the racetrack,” de Meric said. “But beyond that, they need to learn independence, maybe a little sooner than the horses that are going to the track. When we do start breezing, I tend to keep the horses that are going to the racetrack in company for longer, sometimes pretty much right through, whereas the ones going to the sale, they need to learn fairly early on to have the independence and the confidence to do that alone without having the sparring partner of another horse alongside them.”

As for the racing prospects, they continue working in company, while also adding on other lessons they will need at the track.

“That sprint speed over a short distance is less critical for horses going to the track, so we tend to work them more in company,” de Meric said. “I do a lot more gate work with those horses going to the track. I have no time for a baby leaving me that doesn't walk straight into the gate, stand quietly when it's locked, and jump clean when the gates open. I consider that part of my job, and I insist on it. But I tend not to do as much gate work with horses getting ready for sales. We're focused on other aspects of their condition.”

Corniche | Horsephotos

Asked if he sees any residual impact of sales horses be instilled with the independence to work alone from an early stage, de Meric said, “I think it probably does. I like the horses going to the races to be comfortable breezing alone, but they're going to do less of it. I think that the graduates of 2-year-old sales, they do have that independence and that confidence and belief in themselves, which I think stands them in good stead when they get to the track. And I think the results of 2-year-old graduates in their racing careers bears testimony to that.”

Purchasing yearlings with an eye towards resale the following spring requires that the team finds a specific type of horse.

“Whether you are buying for the races or for the 2-year-old sales, you've got to find athletes,” de Meric said. “But we're also looking for horses to look and act as if they would show some precocity that would make them come to hand in order to perform at a 2-year-old sale. That can be a product of pedigree, it could be a product of foaling date, but most of all, it's usually a product of conformation, balance, athleticism, and good body type.”

He continued, “With the 2-year-olds going to sales, I think that an element of precocity is pretty much a given. Although it has to be said that the days of, we'll just say, cheap speed or just speed on the track and nothing else to back it up are long gone. Elite buyers now, they not only want a horse that shows up at a 2-year-old sale, but they want one that looks as if it's going to train on and become an important 3-year-old. And that's what the important buyers are rewarding consignors for.”

Beyond physical appearance and pedigree, de Meric has found radiographic issues he can live with and some that are a total turn off.

“I think the emphasis changes a little bit as technology and knowledge and studies evolve,” he said. “But I think that I'm cautious of knees, because nobody wants iffy knees. A little bit of roughing in fetlock joints, mild sesamoiditis, lesions in hocks, all of those things I'm reasonably forgiving on. Again, not moderate or severe sesamoiditis, not lesions in knees, preferably not in ankles, but in hocks, not usually a big deal.

“Other radiographic findings, splints of course, it's not so much a radiographic finding, but you prefer not to because it sometimes implies soft bone or at least one that's going to take a little bit longer to mature and harden up. But spurs in knees, you'd prefer not because there's always the risk they might break off and chip. While a lot of buyers are reasonably accepting of P1 chips, if they occur, knee chips much, much less so. So that's an issue. Definitely more than mild remodeling in the ankle joints would be a difficult sell because again, a lot of those horses are going to turn out fine given time, but you don't always have that luxury of getting horses ready for 2-year-old sales. The cleaner the X-rays, the less explaining you're going to have to do at the other end. You want the yearling X-rays from when you buy a baby to correspond to his 2-year-old X-rays without too much changing in the middle.”

The issue of medication at the 2-year-old sales became a hot-button topic this spring. De Meric sees plenty of things to give buyers confidence buying at the juvenile auctions.

“I'm on the executive board of OBS, and I've been on the board for about 25 years, and this is a constant discussion,” he said. “We're constantly raising the bar, tweaking our medication rules and regulations. There certainly was a time when there was a little bit of a wild west component to 2-year-old sales, but that's been a long time.

“We at OBS have a very strict protocol for medication use. We have medication reports that are filled out in advance of the breeze show. There is a complete library of any medication that is given to a horse, within, I think it's three days of his breeze show, right through the sale. And surprisingly few people take advantage of that. It's right there on file, and it's just like the repository. It's available to anybody who wants to see it. Is there a major problem with medication at 2-year-old sales? I honestly believe that the answer to that question is no, that there is not a major problem. The perception and the reality, there's a chasm between the two.”

Highlighting the divide between perception and the reality that de Meric sees, the horseman said, “Throw away lines like 'Clenbuterol use is rampant in 2-year-old sales,' and I'm quoting verbatim, that strikes to the heart. That really hurts us because we've worked so hard to prevent that. We [at OBS] test 20% of the 2-year-olds that go through any 2-year-old sale. And any time that we've had a positive for Clenbuterol–and there's been three in the last, I think, five years–and in all instances, those horses were scratched and the consignors were sanctioned.

Knicks Go | Sarah Andrew

“We've tried very, very hard in the U.S. to sell a clean product that is well regulated, not to the point that a consignor is unable to ply his trade, but to where a buyer can walk on the sale ground with as much confidence as it's possible to have, knowing that the process is tightly regulated, the horses are tested and that there are sanctions available to them if a horse is tested post-sale or post-breeze that comes up with a positive.”

De Meric has a quick answer when asked what advice he would give to a buyer heading to the 2-year-old sales.

“Do your homework,” he said.

He continued, “I'd say to buy from somebody you know, or if you don't know them, somebody who you have researched enough to know that they're selling you a clean and honest product. That's not to imply that half of the sellers of 2-year-olds aren't to be trusted. That's not to imply that for a minute, but I just think that if you are listening to information you're being given by a consignor, you want to know it's coming from a good source. And there's the used car salesman approach or there's the straight down the middle trying to get it right approach. And we've always tried to aim for the latter. In the same vein, if you are not an expert yourself, use a reputable agent with a good track record who is respected industry-wide.”

The information is available to all would-be buyers, if they choose to use it, de Meric said.

“At the end of the day, we provide a ton of information on these 2-year-olds when they go through a 2-year-old sale,” he said. “Way, way, way more than you get when you buy a yearling, for example. Yes, you might have to pay a little bit more because you know this horse has a turn of foot, and you know he moves like this on the racetrack, and you know he's resting well after being put through his paces. You know all that.”

De Meric's passion for his craft is clear, as is his pain at what he sees as unwarranted criticism of the 2-year-old sales.

“Those of us who care about the future of our sport and of our industry, are working really hard to do the right thing,” he said. “And it offends us deeply to hear some of the comments that are written in the trade press, and of course in the mainstream media, that are absolutely, blatantly inaccurate. And it's hurtful to us because we're trying so hard to get away from any of the stigma of what used to be. Going back 20 or 25 years, it was a bit more wild west. But it has changed so much in the time between now and then that it's a very different marketplace you're walking into. If you do your homework and you approach it intelligently, you can stack the odds in your favor buying a 2-year-old.”

Click to read previous 2024 X-Ray Files with Alistair Roden and David Scanlon. For the entire series, click here.

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