A FOWL QUERY ABOUT RACEHORSES

A recent article got me thinking about the scientific approach that has evolved pertaining to the breeding and selection of racehorses, from statistical mining for nicks to biomechanics and cardiovascular analysis. Yet, in spite of the putative science, Thoroughbred racehorses have generally not gotten any faster than their ancestors of 40, 50, or more years ago, with the possible exception of sprints, and have regressed when it comes to endurance.  Moreover, contemporary racehorses may not be as durable as their ancestors, using number of career starts as the criterion.

I thought about this seeming lack of progress while reading “Why chickens are twice as big today as they were 60 years ago.”  Following are a few excerpts:

  • “Chickens we eat today are twice as big as they were 60 years ago.  In 1955, the average weight of chickens sold on market was 3.07 pounds, while the number for the first half of 2016 was 6.18 pounds…
  • The trend started with the 1948 contest that invited farmers nationwide to develop the “Chicken of Tomorrow” with specific goals — bigger, meatier, faster growth.  As a result, Arbor Acre breed, the crossbreed of the two winners, has become the grandparents of most commercial meat chicken we eat today worldwide.
  • The time it took to grow a newly-hatched chicken for market has been cut half since the 1990s to only less than 7 weeks from 16 weeks in 1925…And it only takes less than half feed to get the same amount of meat.
  • There were massive genetic differences as a result of selective breeding by raising chicken breeds from different eras under exact same conditions, a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Alberta, Canada, observed.  The result was stunning:  At the same age, the 2005 breed had grown to about four times as heavy as the 1957 breed, despite being fed the same food.”

Why have chickens advanced so dramatically genetically and not racehorses?  I am not a geneticist and can’t provide a scientifically-based answer.  My layman’s guess is twofold:

First, the quest to breed faster racehorses is impeded by The Jockey Club’s policy that horses cannot be registered unless they are conceived by a registered TB stallion covering a registered TB mare.  This precludes genetic engineering and experimental outcrossing with other horse breeds, at least if the owner wants to register the foal.

Second, Thoroughbred racehorses have been selectively bred for speed and endurance for over 300 years (since the days of the breed’s three foundation sires) and may have reached their genetic limits earlier than chickens that began to be selectively bred beginning about 1948.

The fact that racehorses are no faster now than a half century or more in the past matters little in terms of having competitive races.  Where genetic engineering and outcrossing for hybrid vigor could possibly help is in breeding more durable and sounder horses less susceptible to breakdowns.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business

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U. S. HORSE-RACE WAGERING

Following is a brief objective assessment of how the horse-racing pari-mutuel industry has fared in the United States over the past decade, stands currently, and looks for the future.

The dollar figures used are adjusted for inflation and are stated in 2007 dollars.  For example, in 2016, the nominal or reported pari-mutuel handle was $10.735 billion but the real handle, when adjusted to 2007 dollars, was $9.222 billion.

U. S. Handle 2007-2016           No. of Races Run  Per-Race Handle
(in billions of 2007 dollars)

2016     9.222                                       38,284                   240,884
2015     9.338                                       38,941                   239,799
2014     9.241                                       41,276                   223,883
2013    9.681                                        43,139                   224,414
2012    9.827                                        45,086                   217,961
2011    9.927                                        45,417                   218,575
2010   10.858                                       46,379                   234,115
2009   11.902                                       49,368                   241,087
2008   13.157                                       50,170                   262,248
2007   14.725                                       51,304                   287,015

2007-2016 results in pari-mutuel handle = -37.4% in inflation-adjusted dollars

2007-2016 results in number of races run = -25.4%

2007-2016 results in revenue per race = -16.1% in inflation-adjusted dollars

Takeaways:

  • The U. S. pari-mutuel industry continued its long-term secular downward trend over the past decade.  Like most other enterprises, horse racing was hard hit by the worldwide financial meltdown of 2008; it never recovered to pre-crisis levels.  A major concern is that the percentage decline in pari-mutuel handle greatly exceeded the percentage decline in number of races run.
  • In the past three years, the industry appears to have almost stabilized in terms of both pari-mutuel handle and number of races run, but it is too soon to tell for sure. The question going forward is whether pari-mutuel handle will remain stagnant or grow faster than the rate of inflation in the economy.  To a large extent, the answer to this question depends on how aggressively–and how skillfully–racetracks and online betting outlets market horse racing.  With casino-oriented organizations in charge of most major racetracks, this may be a detriment to growth.  Casino companies are expert marketers, especially in terms of customer-rewards programs, but it is doubtful that most of them will aggressively promote horse racing, with the exception of the Triple Crown races and to a lesser extent the Breeders’ Cup.
  • A potential regulatory development that should boost handle is the modernization of IRS rules on tax withholding and reporting.  At this writing, modernization looks to be feasible.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business

“YOU’RE FIRED”

A story in the Paulick Report of January 3, 2017 led off with this sentence:

“Jorge Navarro will become the ninth trainer for 5-year-old War Story when the Northern Afleet gelding makes his 18th career start Jan. 28 in the inaugural running of the $12-million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park.”

The proclivity of dissatisfied racehorse owners to switch trainers has a lot in common with the annual ritual, occurring about this time of year, in the National Football League.  So far, at this writing, five of the 32 NFL head coaches have been terminated and a sixth–the 2016 Super Bowl-winning coach–has retired citing health reasons.  A few more firings in the days ahead would not be surprising.  The San Francisco 49ers will be hiring their fourth coach in four years.

Every racehorse trainer with a public stable has experienced the negativity and hurt associated with an owner taking horses away and sending them to another trainer, and Hall of Fame conditioners are no exception. Last week, for example, Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert had an owner relocate 13 horses to two other trainers.

A firing is inherently an ordeal, a challenge to the banished person’s self-esteem, especially when the firing is done capriciously or in a heavy-handed way.  For instance, the owner of the Buffalo Bills reportedly terminated his coach without first informing the team’s general manager.

While parting of ways with racehorse trainers and NFL head coaches is sometimes warranted for poor performance, in many cases fault lies with an impatient owner who has unrealistic expectations and outsized demands.

Unrelenting pressure on trainers and coaches to win makes for a stressful situation.  During the 2016 NFL season, three head coaches were briefly hospitalized, apparently owing to job-related causes.

The one big and important difference between fired NFL coaches and fired racehorse trainers is that the former routinely receive millions of dollars to soothe their hurt feelings while the latter get vacant stalls.

Professional sport is one of the last bastions in society for meritocracy in that participants are largely evaluated objectively on their won-loss records.  Yet even a strong winning record is not always enough to please an owner.  The trainer of Seattle Slew was fired soon after the colt won the Triple Crown and Barbaro’s owners took all their horses away from the trainer who guided him to a Kentucky Derby victory.

Copyright 2017 Horse Racing Business