THE FORTUNATE FEW IN BREEDERS’ CUP 2010

On a recent visit to Thistledown racetrack, a particular race on the card put me to thinking about the many risk takers in the sport and industry of racing and breeding; these folks are like wildcatters on steroids. It also made me reflect on Breeders’ Cup day 2010 and just how fortunate a person is to have a horse good enough to run in a Breeders’ Cup race.

A Thistledown 1-mile dirt allowance race for three year olds and upward that have never won two races was being contested with a purse of $8,700. In the field were three entries that attracted my attention. Speed Limit was listed as a 4-year-old colt by the exemplary sire Storm Cat out of a mare by Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled. At the time that Speed Limit was foaled, Storm Cat was standing at stud for $300,000. Another entry was a 3-year-old gelding named Gravitas by Dynaformer and out of an Honor Grades mare. When Gravitas was conceived, Dynaformer, the sire of Barbaro, had a stud fee of $150,000. Also in the race was a 3-year-old gelding called Geodi’s Gold, by Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold out of a mare by Breeders’ Cup Classic champ Alphabet Soup. Only Geodi’s Gold had been sold at public auction and brought $45,000 as a yearling at the Keeneland September sale in 2008.

Together, these three splendidly bred animals had competed in 41 races with a combined record of 3 wins, 5 seconds, and 5 thirds–and earnings of nearly $58,000. The top all-time Beyer speed figure among the three was 70.

In the Thistledown allowance race, Geodi’s Gold finished second in an eight-horse field, Gravitas was sixth, and Speed Limit was last. It was like watching Pavarotti’s kid butchering a song or Michael Jordan’s son throwing up bricks at a basketball rim.

Thousands of Thoroughbred racehorses are foaled every year in the United States, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. To dramatically increase the odds of having a really classy animal, a breeder who can afford it “breeds the best to the best.” So he or she sends mares to a Storm Cat or a Dynafomer or a Touch Gold. But planned breedings have probabilistic rather than deterministic outcomes and things often don’t work out as intended. Consequently, a blueblood may not be competitive at Thistledown while an unfashionably bred animal might be able to contend in stakes races at the best tracks.

All of the owners in the  Breeders’ Cup races can count their blessings. Regardless of whether an owner’s entry finishes first or last, or somewhere in between, he or she has a horse capable of running at the pinnacle of the sport of racing, not just in the United States, but globally. Not many Thoroughbred owners, as a percentage of all such owners, will ever have this opportunity. In this respect, there can be no losers on the Breeders’ Cup card. Moreover, thanks to the true sportsmen husband and wife team who own Zenyatta, racing fans get a rare chance to watch a 19-0 sensational mare attempt to defeat the world’s best dirt horses for a second straight year at a mile-and-a-quarter and retire undefeated.

Here is wishing all of the horses and jockeys a safe trip on November 6 in Louisville.

Carpe Diem.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business

SECRETARIAT: THE MARYLAND CONNECTION

Secretariat was foaled in Virginia, but has two important connections to Virginia’s next door neighbor, Maryland. First, Secretariat won the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, at Pimlico racetrack. Although his official time was not a Preakness record, other clockers had him breaking the record. Second, Mark Ciardi, producer of the movie Secretariat, is an alumnus of the University of Maryland.

Mr. Ciardi majored in marketing in the Robert H. Smith School of Business and received his degree in 1983. He was on the University of Maryland’s baseball team and was good enough to be drafted to play for Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers. Mr. Ciardi spent six years in the major and minor leagues. Other movies that he produced were: Invincible, Miracle, and The Rookie.

Maryland has a long and distinguished history pertaining to the breeding and racing of Thoroughbred racehorses. E. P. Taylor’s great Canadian-bred sire Northern Dancer spent most of his time at stud in Maryland. The Thoroughbred Racing Associations is located in Elkton and is headed by another University of Maryland graduate, Chris Scherf. Well-known trainers Michael Matz and Graham Motion have stables at the Fair Hill Training Center, also in Elkton.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business

HORSE RACING’S POPULARITY

ESPN’s recent online poll concerning the popularity of various sports had horse racing finishing in seventh position out of twenty. The unscientific methodology used would ordinarily call into question the findings, except in this case they are consistent with what the National Thoroughbred Racing Association found in its own surveys.

This is an outstanding showing for horse racing. The sports that finished in the first six places were all team sports. The exact order of finish was: NFL, college football, MLB, college basketball, the NBA, and the NHL. The sports that followed this half dozen were predominately non-team sports, leading off with horse racing and including, for example, tennis, boxing, and NASCAR. It would be accurate to say that horse racing came in first among the non-team athletic activities.

In terms of popularity, sports featuring individuals are unlikely to ever outrank major team sports because the former are inherently disadvantaged. The idea of a “hometown rooting interest” explains why. Professional sports teams are physically located in venues throughout the United States and Canada and carry the name of a city (Pittsburgh Steelers) or a state (Carolina Panthers) or a region (New England Patriots). Therefore, each has a dedicated resident fan base that follows the namesake franchise year in and year out. Likewise, a university fielding football and basketball teams has a provincial core of fans. Local media cater to and fuel their passion.

Large numbers of diehards gather at Wrigley Field to watch the Chicago Cubs irrespective of the team’s record. Players get traded or retire but the fan interest remains because it is the Cubs and these beloved underdogs belong to Chicago. Athlete turnover has a different outcome in racing because even the stars are brief-career nomads who are not associated with a particular city or a specific racetrack. During Funny Cide’s rags-to-riches Triple Crown campaign, he garnered an international following by conquering all comers in Louisville and Baltimore. Then he moved on to New York and the Belmont, where he lost and abruptly dropped from the consciousness of all but racing fans. Moreover, unlike team sports, there could be no hope of “wait ‘til next year” to win the Triple Crown.

In a city with a professional sports franchise, fans’ chitchat about who the team might draft or trade or who will start this week’s game. Similarly, college recruiting engenders year-round banter and armchair experts call sports-talk shows to voice their opinions about this or that. Yet relatively few people are aware of–much less enthused about–a budding cycling star or a 12-year-old swimming phenomenon or a blazing fast 2-year-old maiden stakes winner.

Given that horse racing does not have the built-in ingredients to develop and maintain the same kind of fan continuity as the main team sports, a seventh place finish in the ESPN poll is a winner.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business

Originally published in the Blood-Horse. Reprinted by permission.