On the Cusp of a New Year

I rarely fly into my local airport in Lexington, so I loved seeing the nods to horse racing in the form of stallion advertisements within and the horse statues outside, as well as the unbeatable view of Keeneland and Calumet from the sky, which I craned to see. I couldn’t remember if I had ever known Calumet has a training track, never visible from the road, so I enjoyed that aspect of discovery from the overhead view.

It struck me upon exiting the area of the airport reserved for flight passengers how it was like a symbolic exit from one year to the next, as the days of 2021 were nearly gone. Even with a few years recently that have been challenging, it was also a reminder there’s always reason to hope. And these stallion ads did represent hope for the future, of what their foals may be.

A few days later, I paid a visit to Silver Springs and Spendthrift, looking in on a few horses I’ve invested in through MyRacehorse and a few they own that I haven’t, like Vow. It was good to round out the year with horse time, always restorative to me. A few barn cats tagged along, enlivening the tour further with their presences.

Then it was on to Spendthrift, primarily to see Authentic, who I believe each of the three of us on the tour had invested in. Before going to the stallion barns, we paused outside of the breeding shed, noting that 2020 stakes winners conceived at Spendthrift had recently had their names added, including Authentic.

Recent rains had left mud irresistible to each of the stallions, just being brought up from their paddocks upon our group’s arrival to have a meal in their stalls. Mud did not distract from his eye-catching appearance. He presented himself well. I approached after a few moments, tentatively reaching out a hand to have a personal interaction. A lot had changed for me since I saw him previously in May, and I had forgotten he had a kind nature. Still best to approach a stallion without assuming, but he sniffed my hand without causing me concern he’d nip.

Our guide, the MyRacehorse concierge, related once more how this U-shaped barn was built for insurance purposes, to fulfill requirements to house a horse of Nashua’s value, and was sometimes called “the Nashua Motel.” While Authentic does not reside in that barn, it makes a glorious backdrop for him during the time he stood there for our visit. His barn is magnificent too, with its elegant craftsmanship seen in the fine wood and the lights that hang within. It frames trees that offer a pleasing symmetry near the breeding shed, catching my eye even without their leaves. Given how unseasonably warm that day was, it wasn’t too far-fetched to almost expect leaves to be budding! It did make the visit more pleasant than one may expect for late December.

All was quiet, as expected in the interim between breeding seasons, and yet the stalls that would receive mares paying a visit to be bred were already filled with shavings. On the cusp of a new year, and the universal birthday of all this hemisphere’s Thoroughbreds, the expectation of what would be and the rhythm of life on the farm continued.

Medina Spirit’s Legacy

When I went to Churchill Downs with a friend a few days before the Derby this year, the aim was to see as many of the Derby contenders as possible during morning training since I wouldn’t be attending the track’s signature race. And it truly was Medina Spirit that left the biggest impression on me that day, because of the opossum that ran across the track as the colt galloped down the stretch. It was a comical moment, one for the pantheon of memories of rarely seen events at racecourses. And for those who believe in omens, maybe that marsupial was a good luck charm as Medina Spirit went on to victory in the Derby. I thought how funny that the horse who was joined on the track by an unexpected animal was victorious. And I loved hearing the elation of his breeder in articles–a dream come true surrounding the colt she had always believed in, giving him a value beyond his first auction price of $1,000.

What also stood out to me that morning I saw him train (if he saw the opossum at all) was how he took it in stride, revealing a mentality that should be able to handle the pandemonium of a Derby day. It did seem to provide a glimpse into who he was, as an individual.

The controversy that went on to surround Medina Spirit, leaving the status of Derby winner on his record still in doubt, has been well-documented and I think on a day when the horse unexpectedly died of a reported heart attack after a workout is not necessary to rehash. I believe his life should be celebrated, and what he meant to people. That includes his breeder, and her colt deserves acclaim. 

What impressed me about Medina Spirit after his Derby was indeed his spirit. He is the epitome of heart, and the world needs individuals like that. It is inspiring. All he knew was he wanted to go out there and try each time. 

I know the questions surrounding Medina Spirit are likely to stay attached to his name, even when a legal conclusion is reached regarding his status as a Derby winner. And perhaps this will lead to real reforms, to benefit future racehorses, and be part of his legacy.

But today I remember him for that spirit. Who he was as an individual matters more to me than the rest.

Rest in peace, Medina Spirit.

Tesio’s Breeding the Racehorse

Breeding the Racehorse, by Federico Tesio

As one who has long had an interest in pedigree research, I was glad to discover my local library had a copy of this book, so I could peruse some thoughts a renowned individual had about top racehorses. While the preface said that the book would not provide any insights into some type of formula for producing top-notch racehorses (which, with certain nicks aside, may not be truly possible and is reflected in the adage “Breed the best to the best and hope for the best”), it was still interesting to read Tesio’s observations. He had attempted to investigate Thoroughbred production from a scientific standpoint. Therefore, he considered this book more about heredity’s effects and that the Thoroughbred was a perfect resource for that study, given how meticulously records about the breed have been kept.

The conclusion of his I found most interesting and had not yet considered was that the Thoroughbred can have a variety of colors and even physical appearances (within limits – no draft-horse types!) as far as build and height goes because they are hybrid animals, specifically bred by man, whereas animals who have always lived in the wild will not have such a variety of appearances. His example was brown bears will always be brown and polar bears will always be white. 

Tesio also examined how coat color is inherited, assessing which coat color is likely to be dominant and what colors are likely to be seen in horses of two different coat colors. As part of my degree curriculum, I took a course in equine coat color genetics and Tesio’s findings about what the progeny of horses of two different coat colors are likely to produce was in line with what I learned there. He also noted that Thoroughbreds with gray coats are less common than bays and chestnuts since the three foundation sires of the breed were bay and chestnut. He described a gray coat as “not itself a coat, but a pathological discoloration of the only two basic coats which are the bay and chestnut. It is a strange disease of the pigmentation.”

After that, Tesio often referred to a gray horse as one having a disease that resulted in its coat color. I don’t recall in my coat color genetics course what I learned about the likelihood a horse would be gray, as it’s been years since I was in that course, but I found Tesio’s reference to a gray horse’s color being a disease or a horse inheriting the disease of gray coloration an unusual way to describe it. What I have found with a little more research is that gray is definitely a result of the horse gradually losing pigment; but to call it a disease at times I found confusing as it doesn’t seem to fit the definition of a disease. He found that Brownlow Turk and the Alcock Arabian appear to be responsible for the gray color in Thoroughbreds. I have heard that the Alcock Arabian, born in 1722, did introduce that color to the breed.

Regarding markings, Tesio said they are also found in a multitude of combinations since the Thoroughbred is a hybrid largely shaped by people’s choices in breeding. He pointed to penguins as an example of how animals not bred for specific characteristics by humans don’t have this variety – that bird is always black with a white front that is centered. 

Tesio went on to discuss nicks he found success with or noted others found success with but also wrote that “generally this is first discovered by chance, then other breeders follow up the initial success until that particular cross becomes the fashion.” Therefore, while he noted he did find success with crosses following that pattern of nicks, his introductory sentence about that quoted above suggests that luck may have a greater role than formula. What he concluded truly led to success in the Thoroughbred as a racehorse was breeders giving more merit to horses that won instead of appearance, retaining only accomplished individuals for breeding. 

One other study Tesio wrote about that I found intriguing was about the possibility of success being able to be carried in a male line through generations, seen through the lens of the Epsom Derby. He believed energy (represented by winning this top race) had a limit at which it could be passed on, and that limit seemed to be three generations. While the Epsom Derby has a history tracing back to 1780, it still made me wonder (even with less possibility for three generations to have won), if our country’s own Kentucky Derby would show this theory to be true. But then, there are also so many vagaries of breeding (not the least of which is whims of breeders, which Tesio alluded to when writing of nicks), that maybe some horses never even had a chance to have three generations vie for Derby success, even if it’s not a reflection of them not being capable of three horses from different generations of the same male line being able to win the Derby. And really, it does seem extraordinary if any male line was able to have a winner of the race and sire a winner of it who sired the winner himself, statistically speaking. So maybe that is a real anomaly instead of an example of what energy transmission is possible. Worth a debate!

While some of Tesio’s book was a touch archaic, as may be expected given the time elapsed since it was written, overall I found his insights worth pondering and that they did add to my knowledge of horse heredity. I am glad my library carried this book; I had always wanted to read it someday but thought I’d have to seek out my own copy.

Biko and Hope

Keeneland kicked off the next to last day of its fall meet with weather that was better than expected. Rain didn’t begin until near the end of the day’s card. It was the last day I would attend until spring, and it was wonderful to be back after spectator attendance was off limits last October. I soaked in all the Keeneland ambience and atmosphere that always resonates, and yet there was one aspect of the day that had not been part of any other day there.

A horse I had invested in was racing. While he was running in a claiming race, the caliber of the race didn’t matter. The horse and what he represents did. When I invested in him this summer, it was because I was still here to do that, to look ahead to more days and more horse racing, soul’s passion.

When I stood in the paddock and watched him circle it before being saddled, it was the first time I’d been able to go to one of his races and it struck me how a horse can mean so much more than his monetary value or what he may do on the track. I will always think of him as a hope horse, with all the optimism my purchase fostered. When he did walk around near me, I had eyes only for him.

I talked to a few other investors nearby, and one of them spoke of how good a horse is for the soul. Ah, you see, he knew that the individual can mean so much more than his level of competition. It also was my first opportunity to hear about Biko in person, how he gets a little fidgety being saddled and how he was gelded after an injury.

We followed along as he went to the tree with the number four matching his saddle towel. He was calm again now that the saddling was over. As I watched him walk around the tree before Brian Hernandez, Jr. was given a leg up, it struck me how even with a small stake in a horse nothing can bring the feeling of excitement and anticipation like knowing a horse you’ve got an investment in is about to race. Again, that hope I was reaching for when I bought in back in July!

Moving to the rail near the winner’s circle, our group of investors watched the screen as the horse directly beside Biko on the inside broke through the gate early, and the woman beside me joked that they could eliminate them all and then there would just be Biko. She hinted at that since the horse who tried to start the race early ended up being scratched by the veterinarian. He may have just sustained some cuts but better to err on the side of caution!

Brother Brad was favored in the maiden claiming race and no other entrant was a match for him, as he won by daylight. However, Biko put in his best effort yet and it was exciting to hear track announcer Kurt Becker mention that Biko was still trying as he improved his position from about fourth fairly late in the race to slip up on the rail and take second.

Before the race, I tried to gauge the chance he’d be claimed and concluded it wasn’t likely as he had not been in the money yet in his career, but I was mistaken. Possibly his works had looked better than at any other time in his career; very possible, since he had been tabbed for a start at Churchill Downs but was training strongly enough to be ready before Keeneland wrapped up their meet.

I didn’t even mind that he’d been claimed and that my association with him was over in terms of financial investment, for the link of how he is an example of hope remains. And the stroke of luck of him being ready to race sooner than expected meant I got to see him and see him up close in the paddock, meet some nice people who also invested, and feel all the excitement of what might be and of experiencing his best race yet. That is priceless.

I can’t say yet what occurred that led me to need to reach for that hope to invest in him, but I am making strides and days like those and the spirit of an animal can move us beyond self and to the elemental forces of nature.

I am grateful to Biko and to Keeneland for the experiences they provide. And I will check in on Biko on Equibase from time to time. While my investment in him was only a few months long, I’ll still want to see how his story unfolds.

Secretariat Festival farm tour

The Secretariat Festival launched its final day of this year with a farm tour to Darley at Jonabell and Old Friends. While Darley doesn’t have ties to Secretariat directly, it still has the mission to produce top-notch racehorses like the Meadow Stable star. The woman in charge of stallion marketing (I didn’t catch her name) provided history of the farm and Godolphin in general before leading the group out to the stallion paddocks.

She described Sheikh Mohammed as a lifelong horse enthusiast who started riding Arabians at a young age, and was inspired by the history of the Thoroughbred tracing to the three Arabian stallions from the Middle East, which led not only to his investment in Thoroughbreds but also to naming his operation Godolphin as a nod to the Godolphin Arabian and the farm in Kentucky Darley in honor of the Darley Arabian.

Bowman Mill Road which the Darley property sits on was named for its settler, a man named Bowman, who was a friend of Daniel Boone and built two homes in the 1800s that still stand on the farm. John Bell operated the farm from the 1950s until Sheikh Mohammed purchased it in 2001 and then the renovation began. Wooden barns were replaced and the office was built, which now houses an impressive collection of trophies. One of the more recent additions is Mystic Guide’s Dubai World Cup trophy, which was a trophy I think I had never seen before, even in photos. I also liked seeing the collection of saddlecloths from Essential Quality’s graded stakes races, especially as being at big races had largely been off-limits last year and I got to attend his Belmont.

The stallion marketing manager also mentioned that racing is Sheikh Mohammed’s hobby and they try to keep it fun for him, as he has a lot of responsibility in Dubai. It was interesting to hear about some of her marketing tactics for the stallions, which could include how to convince people to breed to a stallion they have in one price range instead of a lot of others in the same price range. Also, she mentioned that they would share information with breeders about mares in a stallion’s book to help them decide if they wanted to have a yearling who was among the top in a sale for that sire, where with another stallion that yearling could have been one of the lower tier horses.

Then we went out to the stallion paddocks, where they are turned out at this time of year from early morning until about noon, with the exception of Medalgia d’Oro, who likes to be inside and will let his groom know when he wants to come in, after only a few hours. It struck me that any older individual would probably like his indoor comforts better after a little while outside!

Street Sense was in a pasture catty-corner from Nyquist, and Hard Spun directly across from Street Sense. It was the first time I’d seen their stallions out in their pastures, and I like to see them in their leisure time for what it can reveal of their natures.

Street Sense was a little aloof until Nyquist got attention, and after rolling in the mud a few times he came over to the fence line. Nyquist was playful, grabbing the lead rope over his fence line in his mouth. Hard Spun was most interested in grazing.

Speaking of the fences, it was the only time I’d seen that type at any farms in this region, and it is essentially a rubber material made by Centaur Fencing. While more expensive than wood fences, it is practically maintenance-free and also safer if the horses happen to run into it than a wood fence could be. Each fence has an electric wire along the top so the stallions don’t chew it.

Moving along to Old Friends, the group went back to the mare paddocks to meet Groundshaker, the last racehorse bred by Penny Chenery. The mare by Quiet American, foaled in 2011, raced twice before bowing a tendon. For a while, she was a mascot at Meadow Stable; while they considered her being a broodmare, they decided to go the mascot route. She shares a paddock with Private Charm, a look-alike daughter of Silver Charm’s.

Speaking of Silver Charm, he looks great in general, but particularly for a 27-year-old horse.

Silver Charm

It was great to make some horse farm rounds again.

Setting the Stage at Keeneland

Keeneland hosted the first day of A Taste at the Races as the calendar page turned to October, designed to whet the appetite for the upcoming race meet. Any Keeneland aficionado doesn’t need extra incentive to look forward to that stellar meet but it’s still fun to get a hint of what is to come, and also spend time in one of my favorite places.

I received a reminder of a visit on this date to Keeneland last year via Facebook’s “memories” feature. The difference between now and then is that my only opportunity to experience Keeneland close to the race meet, since it was off-limits to most. I’m grateful this year, even with COVID restrictions still in place, that will not be the case.

Arriving at Keeneland today, I paused to soak in the ambience, helped by a lovely sky with an interesting cloud formation that seemed to mirror a tree near the sales pavilion. The track’s classic architecture sets the tone for a top-notch facility, every time, and never fails to capture my eye with its lines.

I walked through the entrance and noticed trivia questions related to horse racing had been placed around the trees in the paddock, the first time I’ve seen this there. I loved that, too, as it aligns so well with Keeneland’s motto of “racing as it’s meant to be,” by honoring the history of the sport. The first question I happened to see was about 2020 Horse of the Year Authentic, asking who the most recent Derby winner sold at Keeneland is. Given my association with Authentic through MyRacehorse, that made me smile.

Before leaving the track, with the complimentary brown butter popcorn and a few new additions to my racing memorabilia collection, I paused at the new painting commemorating 85 years of racing at Keeneland and noted the fall colors had begun to make their appearance in some trees in the parking lot. Here’s to more lovely days and a stellar meet, kicking off in one week!

Requiem for Arlington Park

I read today that the Arlington Park property was sold to the Chicago Bears, and the Churchill Downs Incorporated CEO  Bill Carstanjen was excited about what that would mean for Arlington Heights. Perhaps a stadium coming to that region will be more lucrative than a racetrack. I won’t debate that or if it’s true or not.  Carstanjen further commented on the sale of the property by saying the proceeds might be used to build another racetrack in Illinois. Build another racetrack in Illinois when a beloved track is already in existence there? I admit I don’t know the whole story since I don’t live in Illinois about Arlington Park’s continued operation being feasible without assistance like slots. I’ve heard hints it may not be. I do know that CDI is adamant that will not happen so there won’t be competition with a nearby casino it has invested in, and that is what is the track’s death knell. 

Even if CDI has branched beyond the racing industry, racing is still their primary business. To hear that they will let another track be demolished so a casino can operate is a travesty. It doesn’t sit well to hear a CEO of this company say he is “excited” about a move that will be the end of Arlington. But to hear that the proceeds will be for another track, just so it is far from that precious casino? How could one think anything but that there isn’t much thought for racing if it becomes a hindrance to their other plans. That would be more understandable if they weren’t the operator of these tracks by design, if they operated in another industry and had a chance to acquire land racetracks are on. I can’t fathom selling lovely historic tracks to the highest bidder and undermining a racing circuit in the process.

But enough of that. First, the vent; and now to honor what Arlington will always mean to me.

When I visited, I was enamored immediately. I explored every bit of the track I could that was open to the public. I even went down to a basement level floor that seemed a bit more utilitarian that contained primarily offices. Yet even there the love of the sport and the homage to racing history shone. There was a large hand-made collage on one of the walls there filled with photos of horses. 

Touches of elegance, like embossed decor reminiscent of a master sculptor’s work, were also found throughout the facility.  There was so much charm and ambience. 

I watched some races at the head of the stretch, and a band played there between races, and kids ran around in the open grassy field. It was a thoughtful touch, providing entertainment beyond racing to hold the attention of those who may not be enthralled by an entire day of racing but would still like to see it. It was one more example of attention to detail that can make a day out memorable, for it shows people considered the whole experience from beginning, middle, and end. And that is what made me think of wanting to share this track with my nephew in late July this year.

I looked back at my photos from that visit today. That’s the first time it hit me strongly what this track being gone will mean when that becomes reality. 

I’ve faced some challenging times lately. I haven’t paused to think of this track’s end more than fleetingly because there was already enough I was working through that was less than ideal, and that would hit me with another sense of loss. 

So I know what will remain are the memories of one perfect day there. No amount of corporate greed or demolition equipment can take that away. I will always be grateful I got to experience what Arlington Park was all about. It was everything a day at the races should be.

Fly from Montgomery

After an incredibly illustrious career that spanned years in a time when it is common to see budding talent in the racing world retire when they have only begun to come into their own, Monomoy Girl walked onto a van to begin the journey from Brad Cox’s barn at Churchill Downs to Spendthrift Farm in Lexington. But she gave every impression of not wanting to leave the racing environment, hesitating at the barn entrance and even retreating momentarily. It added a bit to the poignancy to the curtain call of her racing days, because a quick look at her stats shows if ever a horse loved to race it was her. Further study reinforces that, given that her competitive fire didn’t dim from one season to the next, and even long layoffs after setbacks didn’t alter her stepping right back into competition like she hadn’t left, most notably in 2020.

And it is a testament to the care of everyone involved with her, as has been noted elsewhere, that giving her breaks from racing contributed to her being able to stay at the top of her game, in addition to how racing was in her veins like one would hope it would be with any promising horse that arrives in a barn.

While 2021 did not play out as hoped, it didn’t matter, for it was wonderful to see the mare who had become known around her barn as the Queen return to the track.

She last ran in April, on the comeback trail once more after another break for minor setbacks. While she wasn’t going to be in the gate for the Breeders’ Cup, I eagerly awaited the news of where she would race and hoped it would be close to me. I had followed her career since she was a 3-year-old awaiting her turn to run in the Ashland at Keeneland and see if that led her to Kentucky Oaks glory, which it did. It was thrilling to see her victorious in her first race after her layoff last year, coincidentally on my birthday, and then finish that season with a resounding Breeders’ Cup Distaff win. Then Spendthrift bought her at auction and worked out an arrangement to lease a portion of her 2021 racing rights to My Racehorse to make available to shareholders. I jumped at that chance to be even in a small way involved with the horse I’d admired for years. And that is why I couldn’t wait for her next race this fall, to try to have the perks My Racehorse offers for shareholders that would probably mean more with Monomoy Girl than any other horse, like lotteries to be in the paddock prior to her race and other race day hospitality.

But then, it was over. While it was unfortunate her attempted return was cut short by a non-displaced fracture, the main takeaway was she would not need surgery and her connections did the right thing by her as they always did. Though they noted she may have been able to come back from that, she had raced longer than many of her contemporaries ever did, and she didn’t owe anyone anything. There is a moment, when retirement is sudden, that adjustment from hopes of what might be achieved yet have to be slowly released. It is bittersweet. But above all, there is gratitude for seeing such a bright star.

On a balmy fall day, when the wind blew briskly through the trees, Monomoy Girl walked forward to the van she had initially hesitated to approach. I have no doubt she had felt that competitive fire again and was not ready to walk onto another van without a race to help quell it. And when I saw that, I thought of the line from the song “Angel from Montgomery”:

“Just give me the one thing that I can hold on to”

That has been the racetrack for Monomoy Girl, and for those who admire her, know her, and care for her, she has been there “to hold on to,” about as sure a thing as the racetrack can have. And maybe in a uncertain world facing a pandemic, “one thing to hold on to” means even more.

This is not meant to sound like a eulogy for the star mare, though it may have veered to that territory. It is more that the emotion of seeing her leave the track caught me off guard for how she was reluctant to go. It is not a requiem for Monomoy Girl, at all. It is a gentle goodbye to the career she had.

She arrived at Spendthrift in the afternoon, looking phenomenal, fit and gleaming with health and appearing to crave the grass before posing tall and proud like the Queen she became known as. It will be a beautiful retirement, in the lush pastures and in the sun, running for her own whim.

And I look forward to meeting her when she acclimates, as Spendthrift has graciously offered to those who bought lease shares through My Racehorse. The curtain rises on the next chapter, which will include an Into Mischief foal if all goes as planned.

Racehorse breeding theories

In a 1970 interview, Peter Burrell spoke of his observations about racehorse breeding. As the director of the National Stud in Newmarket, England, for seven years by that point and a Thoroughbred owner and breeder himself, Burrell was well-qualified to remark on solid theories for successful breedings and even why the formula to create a top-notch racehorse was difficult to formulate or duplicate, even as many breeders attempted that feat.

I once visited a farm in central Kentucky where the stallion manager mentioned that every attempt to produce a top racehorse is breeding for an outlier. Even knowing how tall the odds are stacked for a horse reaching the upper tier of racing just to be competitive at that level, alone become a graded stakes winner, I had still never considered it in terms of breeding for outliers but of course that is what is happening. And that is why any breeder involved long enough realizes the element of luck has its role as much as good planning, given that even full siblings to top horses may not have anywhere near the talent of a more illustrious horse produced by the same sire and dam.

Burrell elaborated upon that outlier thought I heard a stallion manager express, and it was interesting to read his observations from his 1970 interview. The question posed to him in the interview was specifically about difficulty in breeding a Derby winner, which is 1 1/2 mile race in England.

Burrell answered, “The Derby distance and course require a very special kind of horse. It is the distance, really, I think, that is so crucial. The nub of it is this: it is comparatively easy to produce horses that can go really fast for distances up to a mile, even up to a mile and a quarter. It is also comparatively easy to produce horses which will stay distances of two miles or more at a good pace. But what you are asking here in a Derby winner is a horse who can go very fast for more than a mile and a quarter. A good Derby winner can sprint and can stay a mile and a half. You are asking, therefore, for a very special, a very peculiar type of animal.

Now this is where the natural processes insist on coming into the breeding process. With all animals, nature is always trying to produce a norm. When the breeder mates a sire and a dam whose combined qualities give him the peculiar progeny he requires to win the Derby, nature, as usual, steps in and tries to arrange that the progeny are not peculiar but revert to normal type. This is the probable reason for the disappointing results from mating Derby winners with Oaks winners. A possible method of breeding for the Derby would be to put a sprinting mare, let us say, to a staying stallion, hoping to produce a great intermediate. The records show that overwhelmingly the chances are that those two animals will produce stayers like the sire, sprinters like the mother, or something not very conspicuous between.

…In your quest for a Derby horse, which is in a sense a freak horse, nature is working not with you, but against you. This is the process known as ‘retrogression to the mean.’ “

Reading Burless’ comments, which he said had basis in scientific principles that could have been elaborated upon further but basically boiled down to the retrogression statement above, it made it more evident how extraordinary it is when a horse like Man o’ War or Secretariat comes along, given nature’s “preference” for a horse to be ordinary. Perfect still, to be what the species is intended to be, but not necessarily what a racehorse breeder may have hoped for. And yet, some breeders have still found better than average success with certain crosses in producing a fairly consistent number of outlier horses. As a pedigree enthusiast, it is intriguing to read of insights into breeding like this.

Another point I found worthy of reflection was made by James Gill to conclude his book Bloodstock: Breeding Winners in Europe and America. He wrote, “People engaged in the breeding, training and riding of horses are forever telling the punter that his sport is really an industry, as, indeed, he knows it must be, when, year in, year out, he sees all the good three-year-old colts syndicated by their prudent owners and packed off to stud in the hope that they will sire other horses too good for all but the briefest racecourse careers. Yet, not so long ago, Paul Mellon and John Hislop showed that it is still possible for sporting owners of great horses to achieve on the track a glory which will live in the racing man’s memory long after he has forgotten the dreary succession of half-tried colts dispatched, on accountant’s orders, to the stud. The day the grey men convince the public that racing is an industry, pure and simple, is the day that it will die. And then there will be some hard-up breeders.”

Reading Gill’s comment, it is definitely more common that top horses are retired young to perpetuate the breed, hopefully. Those will naturally get noted more because they attract media and fan attention. With racing at all levels, from claiming to graded stakes, there have to be horses running beyond age 3. No immediate future for them in breeding, supposing they are not geldings. So, it does not seem that this trend of retiring many top horses young is creating hard-up breeders. I’ve also seen evidence of how slim the profit margin can be even in top stables from race earnings alone; it is not an easy business to make ends meet in and it is possible standing a promising young horse will pay greater dividends than racing him.

And, as much as fans identify with top racehorses to feeling a marginal sense of ownership borne of affection, it must be remembered these horses are private commodities and owners don’t owe it to racing to keep them in training if insurance costs and risk outweigh reward. I too greatly appreciate when horses have long careers like Whitmore, Cigar, Monomoy Girl, and Zenyatta, purely from a fan standpoint. It is truly one that seems to identify racing more as a sport than an industry (especially given that often such moves as racing horses beyond age 3 can be referred to as a “sporting gesture”); even so given the value of horses at the top level there is no doubt it is an industry. Most owners love to see their top runners have fan followings, but economic realities dictate having horses race beyond three is not always practical. Still, I identify with what Gill wrote. When a horse appears to just be coming into his own and enthusiasm has built with each race, it is hard not to miss that horse on the track and wonder what further heights he might have reached. I always look forward to progeny of horses I liked but it is still hard to top getting to cheer on a favorite horse through more than two seasons of racing.


The Faber Book of the Turf. Edited by John Hislop and David Swannell.

Bloodstock: Breeding Winners in Europe and America. James Gill.

An Ode to a Visionary: B. Wayne Hughes

When I read today in horse racing publications of B. Wayne Hughes’ formative years, it was easy to imagine his ambition and work ethic gave rise to dreams of what his life might be. He parlayed that work ethic into tremendous professional success, and then turned to horse racing. The revitalization of Spendthrift Farm, the rise of Malibu Moon and Into Mischief, the success of Beholder and the Derby victory of Authentic were dreams anyone involved in horse racing would love to see realized. But more than that, Hughes brought as many people along for the ride as he could, people who perhaps otherwise may have been on the sidelines of involvement in racing. It seems one from modest beginnings, such as Hughes, was ideally suited to realize what a gift that could be, to share his success and see it grow into dreams for others.

While I never knew him personally, I have seen firsthand what his influence in the racing industry meant. I went to the University of Kentucky in pursuit of a degree in Equine Science and Management, spurred by a deep-seated passion for racing. During the course of earning that degree, I was an intern at a smaller breeding farm where a client’s mares were boarded and managed. No doubt this client had dreams of racing success, even as she had to pursue them with only a few mares. Spendthrift Farm’s innovative breeding incentives made it a clear choice for several of the mares she owned to visit and that was my introduction to what such an approach meant to breeders who wanted to make a go of being involved in racing but couldn’t buy the top mares or visit the A.P. Indys. I accompanied one of those mares to the Spendthrift breeding shed. It had been the first day of spring, more than a handful of years ago.

More recently, I paid a visit to Spendthrift’s training division, Silver Springs, to meet a yearling American Pharoah filly out of Keertana, who would be named American Heiress when the time came to select a registered name. The occasion of meeting her was part of the continuing evolution of Hughes embracing ideas that would bring racing involvement to greater numbers of people. He made a commitment to MyRacehorse and from that time of it involving a few yearlings, it spread to encompass involving people in microshares of Authentic, already a top 3-year-old when Spendthrift acquired an interest in the colt by their own stallion Into Mischief. From there, Hughes further dove all in to supporting MyRacehorse, offering a multitude of yearlings they purchased at auction in partnership.

The chance to be involved even in a small manner with the progeny of American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in my lifetime, was irresistible. But more than that, the photos of the filly sold her. Yes, I was smitten and the lure of what could be was strong.

That same lure – of what may be – drove the interest in Authentic, and when he won the Derby it was elation of a rare type, and now that I think of it, which most often were brought to me by the highs of racing. And the other side of that is, as for many, 2020 was a rough year. Authentic was the only bright spot of that year, and I will always be grateful to Mr. Hughes for thinking yet again of how to make the dream accessible.

When Authentic went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and then arrived at Spendthrift shortly after to begin his retirement from racing, I watched on a live stream as Hughes stepped forward to greet his Kentucky Derby winner and his pride was evident. It was another shining moment of what that horse and this sport mean to many.

I think what a good life that would be to have lived, one where lofty dreams were realized that brought immense joy and where there was a commitment to share that joy.

It was a beautiful summer evening as I thought of these things. I went outside with my cat and he chased a stick I dragged along the ground. His exuberance at simple pursuits reiterated that we don’t need much of what advertising and so many other forces try to tell us we need. I found joy in his joy, in the moments in nature and away from phone or computer screens where so often people just seem to bicker and spread negativity more often than not. And those things, like seeing him chase the stick and finding joy in his joy because it was born of caring for him, and seeing Hughes’ happiness in taking in Authentic as he arrived at Spendthrift late last year, are simple but also real life. I need reminded to unplug from the wired world as many do but it is so much more meaningful when I do. Seeing Hughes’ dedication to racing and spreading the thrill of it to others, and seeing my cat delight in playing and how it uplifted me, reminded me that the best thing we can ever do in this life is love and share that love. That is the best impact a life can make. I know when my time comes, I will be glad people and animals I shared my life with will know that I was there for them and I will be grateful to have known what it means to feel that in return.

So, though I did not know Hughes personally, his love for racing and wanting to share that love made his life have a deep impact upon people he never met. I think of his family this evening, and how they are without him in the living world. Such a loss must reverberate deeply if he left such an impact on those who never knew him, and it is sad. But there is an indelible legacy such a life has left, and there is no doubt people’s lives were enriched because of him.

Heartfelt condolences to his family and friends, and those who were impacted by him professionally; I’d imagine they will feel this void for a long time. I’ve gone through the grief journey myself several times in the past few years, and when I thought I’d never get past how all-consuming it is initially, time gradually made happy memories of times shared eclipse sadness. Never fully, no, but more than once seemed possible, and I wish that for all who knew Mr. Hughes, too. In due time.