Bottom line always important to Thoroughbred retirement decisions

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Wish all you want, racing fans, but owners are always going to make economic decisions when it comes to their horses’ racing careers. Racing is a business, even if it’s often played by people who don’t really need it to be.

And whether your name is Phipps, Janney, Ramsey, Whitney or Smith, Clancy or Muckenfuss, money matters. Roughly, an in-training racehorse costs $100 a day. That’s $36,500 and doesn’t cover everything. Granted, Orb had a chance to earn considerably more in 2014, but his earnings as a stallion should approach $3 million next year. Without setting foot on a racetrack, where it would take an exceptional campaign to get close to that number. A revenue line of $3 million will pay a lot of training bills for a racing stable.

Beyond the simple math, Stuart Janney and Phipps Stable are in the breeding business every bit as much as they are in the racing business. Making a top stallion means as much as making a top racehorse.

And that’s why Orb was retired at age 3 instead of 4, 5 or 6. Don’t blame owners for taking money off the table, and putting a horse in a relatively safe – and more lucrative – career as a stallion (or broodmare) instead of racing another season.

Individual owners aren’t responsible for the sport’s popularity, the sport is. And if the sport really wants to change the model, there is work to be done.

First, reward older horses. Purses should rise for major races for older horses, especially in the spring and summer. Make those races matter, even more than they already do. Yes, it’s easy to spend someone else’s money but here we go . . .

The $2 million purse on the Kentucky Derby is too high. People would run for half that (probably less), given the overwhelming prestige, history and (usually) future stallion value garnered by a win. Make it $1 million, like the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Split the remaining $1 million between the Stephen Foster and the Clark, Churchill’s two biggest races for older horses. Do everything you can to increase purses for other such races – the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga for sure, the Oaklawn Park Handicap, the Donn and any other distance race designed for older horses.

Second, reward older horses in a new way. I’m not sure the racing series idea will really work nowadays because there are just too many other opportunities, but maybe just a simple bonus for the leading 4-and-up horses. Base it on points or money, something – $500,000 shared by the top three. You’ll need a sponsor. The award is tailor made for a Scotch distillery or a winery, maybe an airline, Heinz ketchup – find something you have to wait for or something that gets better with age. 

Third, let’s get radical. In 2012, I wrote a column in Saratoga about this very topic and suggested making stallions wait until age 5 before they’re allowed to breed. I still think that’s an idea worth thinking about – calm down everybody – though I know it will never work and likely generate (as David Letterman would say) lawsuits aplenty. Got a better way to buy some time for horses? I’m listening. The idea is to slow the process of retiring horses with minor injuries in their 3-year-old seasons (see Hansen, Union Rags, Bodemeister, I’ll Have Another). If owners have to wait a year before the stallion payday, maybe they’ll let horses recover and race another season.

Orb’s retirement might actually help the cause as Janney experienced the problem first hand – and is in a position to do about it. The Marylander is vice chairman of The Jockey Club, and the company recently made a priority of fan development with the creation of America’s Best Racing. Building a following is difficult to do if the athletes don’t stay athletes long enough to let the following build.

“That’s something the industry needs to address if they’re going to have older horses that have significant stallion potential race into their 4- and 5-year-old years,” Janney said last week. “I looked at it. I would like to see races for older horses be a much more prominent part of what people are looking for in stallions. Those races should be bigger events, and more of them should be on television. I think that would help resolve a lot of this.”

That’s the thinking behind the Jockey Club deal with Fox Sports 1 to broadcast major graded stakes all year. The shows started last summer and the 2014 shows will commence with the Donn Handicap Feb. 9.

 

Positive Steps

Before Orb, before America’s Best Racing (mostly), before Fox Sports 1, positive signs were out there – and are out there.

Orb’s contemporaries at the top of this year’s 3-year-old crop, Will Take Charge and Palace Malice, will return to the races in 2014. That’s good news. It also probably made Orb even more valuable as a stallion prospect, now, because he’s the best of his class headed to the breeding shed for 2014.

Animal Kingdom raced until age 5, won the Dubai World Cup and increased his stallion value. The World Cup is surely a way to increase potential stallion value, but it’s also not for every horse. Mucho Macho Man won this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at 5 and appears to be headed to a 6-year-old campaign. Love it. Fort Larned won the 2012 Classic at 4 and raced in 2013. The son of E Dubai joins the stallion roster at Adena Springs next year. Trainer Bill Mott and his clients successfully campaigned older horses To Honor And Serve, Flat Out and Ron The Greek the past two seasons.

Making campaigns like that the norm, rather than the exception, must be the goal. We’ll all be better for it.