Monday, December 3, 2007

Discussion: Racehorse breeding and the future of racing

Just a brief note after attending the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders' Sale yesterday...

There is a good and a bad way to sell horses at auction. The variation in prices was absolutely stunning - all the way from "couldn't get a $100 bid" to $24,000 - but it wasn't random. The horses who brought good prices looked like they should. They were excellent weight - fat, shiny, blanketed or body clipped. A real effort had been made to make them look appealing. Whereas a lot of the horses who couldn't get a bid or sold for under $300 looked like crap - furry, poor weight, no muscle tone. In some cases, I don't think anyone had even given them a bath.

I walked through the barns and I saw the owners who were hustling to make sure their horses brought good prices and went to good barns. It was like a horse show - show sheen and baby oil everywhere, clippers running, tails being meticulously picked out. But there were some horses no one had even made the slightest effort with. It was sad. I am not opposed to good quality registered horse sales like these - but get off your dead ass and put some effort into making sure your horse sells well!

(At left, a very nice Tribunal colt who was presented beautifully and, unsurprisingly, brought $14,000. OK, you're allowed to breed. You are putting effort AND thought into it. Thank you!)

One of the most stunning things to me was that it wasn't just open mares that sold badly. Some of the mares in foal sold poorly as well! People, when you're getting $200 for a bred, stakes-winner-producing mare, isn't it time to re-evaluate? Or when you can't get a $100 bid on your weanling? Hey, if you're one of the people who sold multiple horses for $5000+ yesterday, by all means keep breeding. If you couldn't get bids, HELLO! Stop it! Sometimes you have to accept that you're not very good at doing something and maybe in your case it is breeding! Or maybe what you've bred isn't so bad but your management, nutrition, and preparation suck. Either way, you need a new hobby.

You know what else made me sad? All of the crabby, anti-social broodmares. Is it gonna kill you people to buy a 25 pound bag of carrots here and there? Why do all of these mares HATE people? None of my friends have any broodmares that hate people (other horses, yes!). What have you DONE to them? I can see one or two crabby old bats but, man, I only found 2 really sweet ones in the bunch yesterday. (On the plus side, it's easier to say no to the 22 year old when she snaps at your face...though I have to say, she sold OK, I'm not worried about her fate).

(I did want to take home Coffee Nudge. She was very sweet. They have my phone number if the new buyer doesn't want her after they get the baby...)

Now, looking at the bigger picture...let's talk a little about the future of horse racing in general. I've heard (feel free to elaborate if you know more) that the corporation that owns the tracks is in financial trouble. Horse racing, for whatever reason, is not doing too well. Tracks have closed and other tracks are running fewer races, getting fewer entries. (Still, it sure didn't look like production had slowed down. 124 yearlings yesterday!) While I am not anti-racing myself, I do think there have been problems with footing that have resulted in avoidable deaths, and I am 100% flat out opposed to riding yearlings of any breed for any reason, standard practice in racing.

I do think the whole Barbaro thing has created some backlash for the racing industry and perhaps resulted in declining attendance and betting. Public breakdowns are always bad news in any horse discipline, and they do happen more often in the high-performance ones. A couple years ago in L.A., I watched a horse start to have a heart attack on the polo field. I knew he was done and it was actually a pretty fast death. There was no limping to a halt with a shattered, bloody appendage...he just crumpled and was gone. I happened to be up near the audience watching and got to hear the comments. It freaks people out no end. I'm sure they know horses die, on some level, but they don't expect it to happen while they're watching, and their first instinct is to believe some kind of abuse is to blame. There wasn't - in this case it was a fit, sound teenaged gelding who toppled over just like a fit, marathon runner can with no forewarning that anything may be wrong. But people were freaked. I can only imagine how much more freaked they are witnessing a breakdown on the track. I'd hazard a guess it would scare many, many people away from attending a future race. I'm pretty realistic about the fact that horses break down in all disciplines, but I admit I watched those 124 yearlings sell and wondered which of them would be dead in a year.

Racetrack folks, did we always have as many breakdowns as we do now, or is it just that with TV and the Internet, we know about all the breakdowns now? What do you think is the main cause of breakdowns? Is it riding them too early? Poor conditioning? Not giving time off for soreness? Bad conformation to begin with? Are the new polytrack surfaces a real solution or just an attempt to look like we're trying to fix the problem? I'm particularly interested to hear from those of you who have racehorses or work on the do we discourage the overbreeding of low quality Thoroughbreds at the source? Is there a way to increase interest in racing anymore? Is there any way to make racing safer for the horses and reduce the breakdowns?

What do you think?