“The growing emphasis on these races for 3-year-olds has decimated the racing program for older horses.”
I’ve been asked many times whether or not American Pharoah’s sweep of the 2015 Triple Crown has had any measurable, positive impact on the horse racing industry in the United States.
There’s been no surge of popularity for the sport since the Bob Baffert-trained colt ended the 37-year Triple Crown drought dating back to Affirmed in 1978. Neither handle nor attendance, the two traditional benchmarks for the industry, has increased nationally, though racing’s biggest days have either held their own or shown an uptick in popularity.
Where American Pharoah may have had an impact – and this is not easily measured – is at bloodstock sales. There appears to be some new owners inspired by the excitement and personal gratification that comes with being associated with a horse who excels on the sport’s biggest stage.
That’s both a blessing and a curse. Owners are the critical component for the bloodstock side of the industry, just as a thriving horseplayer and fan base ensure the popularity and financial viability of the game. Owners with deep pockets have the dreams that fuel prices at public auction for yearlings and 2-year-olds in training. This keeps the breeders going, encouraging them to try and produce the best horse possible. In turn, this drives the prices paid for breeding stock – the mares and the stallions.
It’s a cycle that goes full circle. Buyers of racing prospects hold out hope that, if their purchase should win a classic race or Graded Stakes, they will not only have the thrill of victory but the financial reward should their horse go on to the breeding shed.
That’s the blessing.
The curse is that too many owners see the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes – the American Triple Crown – as the be-all and the end-all. Unfortunately, too many racing fans see it that way, too.
The growing emphasis on these races for 3-year-olds has decimated the racing program for older horses. Too many young horses are pushed beyond their natural limits to make the Kentucky Derby field and fall by the wayside with injury. Those who are successful – the rare few that have breathed the rarefied air of a classic winner – become precious commodities, an asset to be managed with caution. More often than not, at least in modern times, those horses do not race as 4-year-olds. Their breeding rights are purchased by stallion farms during their racing careers, and care is taken not to take any chances of devaluing the asset.
It isn’t like that everywhere.
Take Japan, for example.
From 2000 to 2016, all but three winners of the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) went on to race at four years of age. The three who didn’t – Tanin Gimlet in 2002, King Kamehameha in 2004 and Deep Brillante in 2012 – were injured and forced to retire. Not a single Japanese Derby winner since 2000 has retired sound at the end of his 3-year-old campaign.
This does two things. First, for the benefit of racing fans and horseplayers, the sport’s stars don’t flame out in a matter of a few starts and head off to the breeding shed. In fact, many Japanese classic winners race not just at four, but at five or six before going to stud.
Second, for the benefit of breeders, these horses had a chance to prove their soundness, durability and talent over more than one or two seasons of racing.
By contrast, from 2000 to 2016, 12 of 17 Kentucky Derby winners did not race at four. Two of the five who did, 2003 winner Funny Cide and 2009 winner Mine That Bird, were geldings.
In other words, only three of the last 15 colts to win the Kentucky Derby were kept in training at four: 2001 winner Monarchos, who made one start at four; 2011 winner Animal Kingdom, who continued to race until he was five; and California Chrome, who retired early this year as a 6-year-old.
This hurts the game’s need for enduring stars. The most recognizable horses to the sporting public are those runners who compete in the Triple Crown. When they retire early, it leaves an unmistakable void.
It also raises questions about the soundness of our stallions, and whether this runs against the best long-term interests of the breed.