Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Talk you out of racehorses? I think not.

An e-mail message sent to a horse-breeding and -racing discussion group asked a question in its subject line: "How crazy am I?"

The reason for the question?

The female writer has a couple of mares. A friend has acquired an intact horse who was a decent runner who earned nearly $200,000 and was stakes-placed. And, noting that women are now more accepted on the back side of America's racetracks, the writer has a desire to breed, raise, train and race her own horses. The whole kit and caboodle.

"Give it to me straight as I need to be talked out of this," she wrote.

How crazy is she?

"Insane," I told her.

But then anybody who isn't practically made of money is nuts to get into this business, even in the smallest way, on the breeding and ownership end. Not just in this economy, though especially so. And yet we do it anyway.

Somebody oughta padlock the gates at America's racetracks with guys and gals like me on the inside; fit for straitjackets those of us who really need them; and make rounds to hand out our medications twice a day or as dictated by our psychiatric professionals.

Just please make sure you've left us with the horses.

It makes no sense for me to take in mares that others didn't want (but in which I see potential) and a stallion that had no place else to go (but who can get you a racehorse and deserves a decent home) and try to breed foals for the track. But it's what I'm doing.

Want a racehorse? They're everywhere. People run fairly good ones for claiming tags every day. Hire a trainer, write the first check (and be prepared to write a whole bunch more) and you're in the racing-stable business.

Want to start with an unproven talent so, theoretically, the sky is still the limit? Particularly in this economy, breeders, pinhookers and consigners must feel like they're giving away weanlings and yearlings at the sales. Outside of the sales ring, some of them even are.

But the pedigree side of horse racing has always intrigued me just as much as the races themselves. There's no magic combination that works every time. But can you find affinities between families and individuals that give your youngster a better chance of growing up and becoming a winner than the chances of the average foal?

As a breeder, everything is against you. Beyond the process of just getting a mare pregnant -- often no simple task -- you then have to cross your fingers and pray to the deity of your choice (where applicable) that the pregnancy doesn't slip. And that the foal is born alive. And that he has all his legs. And eyes. And internal organs, fully functional. And that he isn't sickly. Or doesn't get sick when 12 hours ago he seemed like the healthiest foal in the shedrow.

And that as he grows, he stays straight -- or gets even better with age. A real looker at six months can be a rat at 12. And sometimes a near-perfect specimen again (or an ugly one who can run) by the time the 2-year-old sales and races roll around next year.

And you hope he doesn't step in a hole. Get struck by lightning. Get kicked. Bow a tendon early in training. Bow a tendon before he ever gets to training. Isn't a head case that is impossible to train. Isn't one of those who is as fast as you'd ever want a horse to be when working alone, but so afraid of running in company that he'll just back out of the crowd and quit. That he won't freak out schooling in the starting gate and smash his skull, nearly killing himself. (Or that if he does, he recovers to threaten the Triple Crown.)

Insert your own disaster here.

If you think breeding to sell is tough, try breeding to race. You make all the plans, sometimes with a little help from bloodstock and breeding advisers and sometimes on your own. And you take all the financial chances, from cover and conception, to foaling, to the racetrack ... inviting failure at every step along the way. You're almost better off if they show you early on that they aren't a racehorse so you can retrain and rehome them right away, rather than after they're a 4-year-old, 20-race maiden who has cost you a mint and will never earn it back.

I'm not disrespecting those who breed to sell; it's become the bigger segment of the market. And for every one you make money on, there are ones on which you lose. But at least if you've bred a foal of fashionable pedigree, from reasonably good family, and he isn't sick or crooked on sale day, you have a chance. People will eventually stop buying your foals if you build a reputation for nothing but a string of perpetual losers (regardless of looks), but the one you're selling today hasn't won a darned thing to prove himself. And might never. And as a seller you can still come out well ahead.

When you breed to race, in effect the potential sucker who just bought your unproven, potential lifetime loser, is you.

How crazy is it to try and help out a friend's freshman stallion with some business (probably getting free or greatly reduced seasons in return); to breed, raise and race your own foals?

You'd be hard-pressed to come up with a better word than "insane."

So I told it to her straight, and "off-list," so far as the discussion group goes.

If she keeps all that money she would've spent, safely tucked in her pocket, she can't possibly lose.

She also can't possibly win.

Me? Talk somebody out of racehorses? ... I think not.

Just, along the way, try to make the choices that will leave you with the fewest regrets.


  1. Kudos to you Glenn for your sterling defense of all of us too crazy to know it's time quit the business.

  2. Thanks, David!

    Sometimes I wonder whether I'm writing to remind myself of these things ...

  3. Just today I was reading throught the "financial committment" section of a local racing syndicate...I must be losing it!

    Great post.

  4. This absolutely captures what we're doing and why we keep doing it. Great post.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.