Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Horse Racing - Heading for the finish line?

Before I begin, I want to note that I'm far from an expert about the world of horse racing. My involvement with racehorses has been after the track - letting them down, fixing what's broken and retraining them for their second careers. So if you are an "insider," I am particularly interested in hearing your take on all of this.

Joe at TB Friends was talking about how the racing industry is clearly tanking today. Well, it'd be hard to argue with that. A lot of tracks have closed or are rumored to be closing. The racing industry got a lot of bad publicity with the high profile Barbaro and Eight Belles breakdowns, and I think that has contributed to poor turnout at races - although even more important is the fact that the economy flat-out sucks and fewer people have money to risk betting on a horse race.

Given that these conditions exist, and are unlikely to change anytime soon, what is the future of Thoroughbreds and racing?
Prices are down at the Thoroughbred auctions, though you will still see prices far higher than the average private horse sale. But what are these prices supported by? I've always thought it was a crazy industry, where you can buy a $500,000 yearling and two years later he's proven he can't win a race and you wind up selling him for $500 if you're lucky. Then there's race training, which to my understanding is incredibly expensive. I hear people whine all the time about how it just doesn't make sense for them to put $2000 of regular training into a horse to get it broke to sell when it won't even sell for that much. Well, isn't racing the same way? I don't know what the average cost of training is right now, but I remember years ago being told it was about $80 a day. Holy crap. That's a lot of money to gamble on a horse who - odds are - is never going to make your money back.

I assume - again, I'm no expert here - that all the losses are written off and that in the end, this is a lovely tax break for wealthy individuals who need to lose money somewhere and that's how the system survives. I am curious what the "break even point" is - how much does a horse have to win to break even on what you've paid buying and training him? (And yes, obviously it also depends on how long it takes to make that money)

But I also - just because I'm the suspicious sort - have to wonder if there isn't an element of fraud involved in some of these high-dollar sales. Some of you remember the Arabian horse market of the early-mid 1980s, when horses sold for a million bucks but, well, there were ten other horses and a beach condo in Maui discreetly thrown in on the deal. When that crashed, it crashed hard and a lot of people lost a lot of money - not to mention the horses who fell upon equally hard times. Does that go on in today's Thoroughbred world? Given how completely unpredictable racing performance is, how IS it that yearlings sell for six figures?

So let's assume Joe has a point and racing is tanking. I love Thoroughbreds. They're ultimately my favorite breed. They are unique in that they are a "major" breed that lacks one thing that ALL of the other major breeds have...a breed-specific show system. This has annoyed me for years. Sure, lots of Thoroughbreds compete in hunter/jumper and dressage competitions where breed is irrelevant but in recent years they have fallen out of fashion. Warmbloods are what's trendy now, and I read diatribes from competitors who claim no one will take them seriously on an OTTB. (Sure, some are just whiners whose horse isn't that great, but I also think there's something to their complaints)

I do think Thoroughbreds need their own show circuit. Let's start out with the fact that Thoroughbreds need halter classes! They really do. We pretty much ALL agree we're seeing a lot of track breakdowns related to crappy conformation - so in my never-humble-opinion, we need halter classes that reward excellent conformation. We need a Thoroughbred breed ideal that includes good bone and straight legs and a decent hip.

I'd also like to see performance classes where the Thoroughbreds go up against other Thoroughbreds - and only other Thoroughbreds. Just as Quarter Horses, Appies, or any other major breed you can name have the option of going up against just their own kind.
The breed show circuits create value which protects the horse. They provide a way to make a horse more valuable and appealing to buyers. They create a way for owners to show off their horses, win prizes and sometimes even win money. They offer fun youth programs which help get young riders hooked on showing that breed - the customers of tomorrow. If racing is tanking - and it may well be - we need to create an alternative purpose to breed Thoroughbreds - and to breed good Thoroughbreds. Now would be a very good time to try to start a serious Thoroughbred breed show association.

So what do you think? Do you think horse racing is on its way out, or do you think it will rebound? Do you think you know what it would take for it to rebound? Do you think we need to create an alternative competitive circuit for Thoroughbreds or do you think it's fine that they continue to compete mostly at AHSA all-breed events? What do you think is the best course of action to ensure that a hundred years from now, people are still breeding quality Thoroughbreds for riders to enjoy?

Pictured is a blast from the past - an older Thoroughbred named By George I'm Late. I don't know how he did on the track but a couple of my lesson kids bought him a long time ago and they just loved him to death. He was one of the lucky ones.