Friday, August 7, 2009

Hey, VTA, no love for the Slam? Then how about a little love (and money) for VA-sired horses?

With even the Virginia Thoroughbred Association calling for its demise, I have to wonder if I'm the only person alive who appreciates the concept of the Grand Slam of Grass.

Battle of Hastings -- this year's winner, albeit hard-fought, of both the Colonial Turf Cup-G2 and Virginia Derby-G2 -- positioned himself to be the first-ever horse to claim the Grand Slam, a four-race series sponsored by Jacobs Investments (Jeffrey Jacobs owns Colonial Downs) that has the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park as its third leg and the Breeders' Cup Turf-G1 as the final base in the equine circuit clout. But Battle of Hastings won't be running this weekend in the Secretariat, apparently because the race is too close on the calendar to the horse's last effort 21 days ago in the Virginia Derby.

So, per the VTA blog, it's "Time to abandon the Grand Slam of Grass."

"Since 2004, when Colonial Downs owner Jeff Jacobs first offered the $5 million bonus (purse winnings included), no horse has come close to winning the four races that make up the Grand Slam," the blog states. "Colonial Downs management continues to cling to the Grand Slam of Grass bonus ignoring the obvious fact that owners and trainers aren’t embracing it for some pretty obvious reasons. The schedule is tough, and winning the Breeders Cup Turf against the best older horses from the U.S., Canada and Europe with a three-year-old is a tall order most won’t even consider pursuing. History has a nasty habit of repeating itself."

The VTA apparently would prefer to see the money Jacobs has spent funding big purses for the Turf Cup and Derby, the insurance premium that would actually pay the bonus of the Grand Slam, and the "considerable (advertising) dollars" spent airing the first two races on national television be applied toward "funding a turf stake for older horses so former Turf Cup and Virginia Derby horses could return to Colonial Downs." Those funds could bump the purse of the Kittens Joy Stakes to $250,000 or $300,000, the VTA writes.

So I oppose the VTA here on two counts.

First -- and again, I might be the only guy -- I think the Grand Slam of Grass is a great idea, though obviously one that has never really found traction.

The VTA and probably others, including the connections of top 3-year-olds, are apparently convinced the Grand Slam is unattainable. It isn't, and there is plenty of evidence to show that a truly great and deserving horse could win it. And, with $5 million total on the line, only a great horse should be good enough to take all four legs.

But let's examine what's so darned difficult about the Grand Slam of Grass.

Exactly how rigorous is the schedule, really? The Colonial Turf Cup-G2 in June, the Virginia Derby-G2 in mid-July, the Secretariat S.-G1 in early August. ... Then the Breeders' Cup Turf in late October or early November.

So the first three races fall in three different months; two of them at the same track. There's a 28-day span between the Turf Cup and the Virginia Derby, and another 21 days before the horse has to be fit again to try the Secretariat in Chicago. If a graded-stakes horse's conditioner can't figure out how to get a horse tight and right for three races in 50 days, perhaps he should call someone who trains a bunch of $5,000 platers for a little advice. Or anybody who's ever had a colt on the Triple Crown trail, which demands three races in 36 days.

So the Grand Slam of Grass races simply are not too close together. And even if they are, a one-week alteration in Colonial's schedule would add seven days between the Virginia Derby and the Secretariat, and if four weeks isn't enough, then either your horse or your trainer -- or both -- just aren't good enough anyway.

As for the difficulty of a 3-year-old winning the Breeders' Cup Turf at a mile and a half among older horses, such a win historically is improbable, but far from impossible.

In fact, seven of the 25 B.C. Turf winners have been 3-year-olds; that's 28 percent or nearly three in 10. Two of the first three winners of the race (Lashkari 1984 and Manila 1986) were younger horses facing older. So were two of the last three, including Conduit's stakes record in 2008 and Red Rocks' victory in 2006.

The remaining 3-year-olds to win the Breeders' Cup Turf were Prized in 1989, Tikkanen in 1991 and High Chaparral when he won his first of two at age 3 in 2002 (he dead-heated with Johar in 2003).

And other 3-year-olds have come close. Lately, Shamdinan was second to 5-year-old English Channel in 2007 and Kitten's Joy was runner-up to Better Talk Now in 2004, meaning that in four of the last five years, a 3-year-old has either run first or second in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Kitten's Joy might be the best possible evidence that the Grand Slam is attainable. He didn't have a Colonial Turf Cup to try, but would have been among the favorites if he had. Then he won the Virginia Derby and the Secretariat before finishing second in what could have been his shot at the big bonus, the B.C. Turf, had his connections been targeting such a series from the get-go.

And the more we retire accomplished 3- and certainly 4-year-olds to stud, the more likely it becomes that a younger horse will win such a big race at the end of his 3-year-old season -- even on turf, even at a distance.

But if Jacobs and Colonial did drop the notion -- and the costs -- of the Grand Slam of Grass, funneling all those funds into only one other race would be a greater folly. Colonial Downs would benefit little from another Grade 3 or even Grade 2 race. And for the good of Virginia horse racing -- which is what the VTA is supposed to be all about -- a lower-graded race for out-of-state-breds certainly isn't the worthiest goal.

If Jacobs and Colonial were to drop the Grand Slam of Grass, the $200,000 to $250,000 that the VTA suggests should be added to the Kitten's Joy purse in an effort to make that one race a featured event on a third "big" Colonial date (to go along with Turf Cup Day and VA Derby Day) would be much better utilized in establishing a Virginia Stallion Series to save the state's breeding industry.

I've detailed repeatedly the sickening decline of Virginia's thoroughbred breeding business. It's the VTA that should be at the forefront of saving that industry and the jobs of those who work in it, and whatever the organization has tried for the past 15 years or so, hasn't worked. Once one of the nation's proudest and most active breeding states (where Secretariat himself was foaled in 1970), Virginia has declined from 154 resident stallions serving 837 mares in 1991 to just 41 stallions serving 123 mares in 2008.

"Epic fail," as my kids would say.

The best way to turn around Virginia's breeding industry -- and to add another big-ticket day of racing to Colonial Downs' annual schedule -- would be the establishment of a Virginia Stallion Champions Day. Like similar events in other states, I envision a full card of stakes races open only to Virginia-sired horses, regardless where they're foaled. (By contrast, this year's first two VA-bred stakes races drew 22 entries, 17 of which were sired outside the state, albeit born there, and none of which were sired by a horse still standing in Virginia.)

Taking a fairly modest estimate of a daily Colonial Downs total purse -- say, $125,000 to $150,000 -- and adding in the $250,000 the VTA advocates tossing wholesale at the Kitten's Joy Stakes (typically dominated by non-VA-breds) would create a $375K to $400K basic purse structure for such a "Champions Day." That's potentially eight $50,000 races for VA-sired horses, and that's a real incentive to use a Virginia-based stallion. With a major sponsorship, added funds from nominations and other minor sources, or an increase in available monies should the VTA ever succeed in its worthwhile goal of getting OTBs situated in Northern Virginia, that purse structure and the number of races on the card could grow.

The VTA is proud of its "100 percent VA-bred bonus program" at Colonial, wherein owners of Virginia-breds that win among open company get double the purse payout. That's great if you campaign a VA-bred; not nearly so beneficial over the long haul if you're the breeder who sold the horse to make a living. And it's no incentive whatsoever for a mare owner to use a Virginia stallion so long as said mare returns to the Old Dominion to foal, as a couple-hundred do each year.

It's far past time for the VTA to start supporting its staggering stallion industry. So if the VTA is going to advocate abandoning the Grand Slam of Grass, then it certainly shouldn't be touting a massive purse addition for the Kitten's Joy, a race that had exactly zero Virginia-breds entered this year.

The VTA instead should be pushing for that money to directly support Virginia farms, horses and jobs.


  1. Agree that the Grand Slam can be done. If I was the VTA, I'd consider lowering the bonus to 4 million, one of which is to be payed if a horse wins the sophomore sweep of the Colonial Turf Cup, Va Derby and Secretariat.
    This way, rather than shooting for the moon in June, horsemen would have a more realistic goal to aim for, and still more than enough reason to take on the old guard if they reach it.

    I'm generally against statebred purses, but at least your proposal would do it the Maryland way: creating incentive for the breeding of quality horses, rather than the more common system of just throwing around money in statebred races and bonuses that nobody wants to see.

  2. VTA just had "elections" of their board too...guess whos on it? The same people from Middleburg.

  3. Interesting commentary and welcome to the world of impotent Virginia racing...what a group of do nothings. I think my question would be, why are Deane and Petty making any salary in the VTA office? I say, if the industry is failing and progress is not being made, no payroll is to be made either. I've watched these guys for 8 years and it is just tragic. Maybe they are on the Citigroup incentive plan; run an entity into the ground and still make your bonuses. To be fair, VTA has board members (of which, I understand any decent horseman in VA doesn't want to be a part of) and they don't seem to be steering the a drift ship either.

    Turf and distance are my passions. Too bad it's being squandered with the likes of the VTA. I have not renewed my membership for many reasons, the main one being they don't represent the horses and don't advance VA racing...good luck Glenn Craven, not Petty). You and your horses, the fans (what's left of them) are going to need it.

    Maybe you ought to take the time to ask the likes of Evans, Oare, Petramallo what they think the problems are and how to fix them...because you won't get it from the full timers at VTA?

  4. Glenn, good reading. I failed to make it clear the VA TB Blog post you reference was my opinion and not that of the VTA, its staff, directors or members. I have an alternative plan I will reveal in a later post.

    I based my opinion on the conversations with or comment from trainers who have won one or both of the CLN Slam races. Yes, an exceptional horse like Kittens Joy, English Channel and now Gio Ponti might someday be able to accomplish the Slam, but my point is the folks that own and train these horses aren’t embracing it enough to sustain its popularity. For example, the Triple Crown is a series that promotes the industry and, in some cases, dictates the future of the gene pool. The Slam is simply a marketing and promotional tool, it has little impact on the industry.

    I was simply suggesting some different ways to use those “marketing” purse dollars. Wouldn’t the return of Kitten, English or Gio draw a bigger crowd then a bunch of three-year-olds casual fans, the general public and the media don’t know well, if at all?

    Glenn’s Breeders Fund points are interesting but ultimately plagued by the current problem – lack of funding. The decline of foals, stallions and mares has not been caused by the VTA or the Breeders Fund, it has been caused by the competition from other states and the roadblocks the state government refuses to remove so the industry can grow. (By the way, neither I nor the VTA make the Va Breeders Funds rules and regs – there is a committee of breeders that does that. They spend long hours deliberating what to do. This year we polled our members as well. It’s an open process than anyone can participate in and anybody can go to a VRC meeting (montly, 3rd Wed at CLN) and have input there as well.

    (Also, the VTA has nine new members joining it’s board, none are from Middleburg. Yes, the board is weighted toward No. VA, but 80% of the membership resides from Richmond north and west, so that doesn’t seem unreasonable. The new board members include the managers of the two largest farms in VA, some small breeders and some medium sized ones as well…Some breed to race, some to sell, some both.)

    This year, the committee’s dilemma was tough one. They agreed to hold back money for year-end awards, and to pay the purses for the Virginia-bred stakes (a majority of breeders polled want both of these programs), then they decided to spend the remaining $500,000 on the 100% Bonus. Why did we only pay the winners? Because that was all the money we had, and it was agreed that spreading it thinner (as we did in 2005, 2006 and 2007 with a 40% bonus) would again fail to add any value to Va-breds of create any interest in the way the 100% Bonus has.

    The 100% bonus program includes a currently unfunded additional 100% that would be paid to the breeder of the horse – making it a 200% bonus. The breeder can keep or sell the additional 100% with the horse. It will create gigantic value added and increased earning potential for VA-breds (which should be reflected in sale prices), but right now we don’t have the money to fund it…

    If you talk to folks who used to stand stallions they will tell you the business model Glenn discusses has failed here due to a lack of mares. The mare owners now breed their horses in neighboring states where they can get much more money in return. For example, last spring Gordon received a $400 year-end Breeders Award from money that Mark Deane and I raised privately (while not earning our salaries according to some).

    In a normal year in VA, that would have been $800, but in MD where they have more wagering, more live racing and $4 million Breeders Fund (VA’s is $1 million), Gordon’s check would have been $1,600. Same is true if he had bred the horse in WV, but had he bred it in PA his check would have been $3,200. What sensible business person trades $3,200 for $800.

  5. Part 2 -- sorry so long, it's a complicates subject!

    Cont'd: Why is this? Those states generate more wagering and they are supplemented by slots, but let’s look at MD for now pre-slots. MD has 5.5 million people who wager $400 million on TBs – hence a $4 million fund. VA has 7.5 million folks who wager $100 million through track and OTBs and another $50 through ADW.

    Every time, we try to level the playing field by expanding the OTB network (into No. VA for example where there is likely $70 million in additional handle leaking to MD/WV and unlicensed wagering sites ( which equates to another $700,000 for the Breeders Fund), we are blocked by the House of Delegates where the Speaker has openly declared his distaste for racing and gambling. Just last session, he and key committee members blocked such a bill in a manner similar to what happened in KY recently. We spent thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars annually along with the VHBPA and Colonial Downs trying to change the legislation…

    If anybody has a solution to these legislative roadblocks that will lead to an expanded and improved Breeders Fund, I’m all ears.

    Until we clear that hurdle, we’re stuck with a $1 million fund – the smallest of the racing states in the East, and that’s what is ultimately to blame for this “Epic failure.”


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