Commentary: The Problem With ... The Race To The Breeding Shed - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Commentary: The Problem With … The Race To The Breeding Shed

Flightline at Keeneland in the days leading up to his final career start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of commentaries, all of which will begin under the premise of “The problem with …” Rather than to complain, however, as the introductory phrase might suggest, the purpose of these articles will be to present the big picture of a major racing issue and create a dialogue about what is best for the sport's future.

The problem with horse racing at its highest level in the United States is that it has become a marketing tool rather than a sport and that the people with the most power to help the sport grow don't make the actual sport their priority.

In a span of 24 hours, Flightline's victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 5 showed both the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge American horse racing faces.

First, the greatest opportunity …

Before the Breeders' Cup, the comparisons were already starting to fly between Flightline and Secretariat. “Is Flightline the Greatest Thoroughbred Since Secretariat?” was the headline of a New York Times article published the day before Flightline's Classic victory.

Flightline's resume entering the Breeders' Cup: five wins from six furlongs to 1 ¼ miles by an average margin of victory of more than 12 lengths, with his most recent race being a 19 ¼-length defeat of 2022 Dubai World Cup winner Country Grammer in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

“Take a good look at this because you're not gonna see this too often,” announcer Trevor Denman said in the homestretch of his race call of the Pacific Classic.

Trevor was right in the most literal way. We'd see this exactly one more time at Keeneland in Flightline's win by the largest margin of victory in the history of the Breeders' Cup Classic, 8 ¼ lengths, made even more impressive because it came as part of one of the best fields in the history of the Classic. All eight runners were Grade 1 winners.

With Secretariat already on people's minds, the race played out like the 1973 Belmont. Life Is Good, a generational talent in his own right, pressed to the lead in the Classic like Sham did in the Belmont. These pairs had their respective dance floors to themselves. Secretariat rose to another level because of Sham, and Flightline did the same because of Life Is Good to produce a victory that will be talked about for decades to come. Announcer Larry Collmus punctuated his race call by exclaiming that it was a “Secretariat-like Breeders' Cup Classic win.”

Then, less than 24 hours later, Flightline would be retired to stud, and now horse racing is faced with its greatest challenge …

Just when the sport presents its best to the world on one of its biggest stages before an audience that could include potential new devotees, those stars fade away. The previous five horses of the year – Gun Runner in 2017, Justify in 2018, Bricks and Mortar in 2019, Authentic in 2020, and Knicks Go in 2021 – raced a grand total of two times in the calendar year after they won the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. Gun Runner ran in the 2018 Pegasus World Cup and Knicks Go in the 2022 Pegasus World Cup.

That's it. Everyone else was a “candle in the wind.” Imagine if Elton John retired after his first No. 1 hit. Or, if Muhammad Ali hung up his gloves after winning the heavyweight title. Or, if Michael Phelps never swam in a race after his first Olympics. Or, if (pick your favorite sports team) disbanded after its first championship.

Why did Flightline retire so suddenly? We all know the answer, and, sadly, we've become numb enough to accept it as inevitable whenever there's a truly great racehorse in America. Flightline's value is too great as a stallion to risk. On Nov. 7, a 2.5-percent interest in Flightline sold for $4.6 million in a unique auction at Keeneland. That doesn't make him worth $184 million as some have suggested, but he's worth a great deal more than the $1 million he brought at a 2019 yearling sale. His initial stud fee has been set at $200,000 for each foal he sires.

Horse racing now exists for owners of historic horses like Flightline or Justify or American Pharoah to cash in on their value after they finish racing. In that sense, racing exists to bring out the value in these horses and market them for what their real end goal is, the breeding shed. I lost count of the number of commercials for stallions that aired during NBC Sports' coverage of this year's Breeders' Cup.

After one year of racing brilliance – whether that comes at age 3 during a Triple Crown run like for American Pharoah in 2015 or Justify in 2018 or at age 4 like for Flightline in 2022 after a stall accident delayed the start of his racing career – owners choose to retire their superstars at a time when racing could grow from the fans these horses attract.

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We (speaking as a fan that became hooked as a teenager in the 1990s and 2000s by horses like Silver Charm, Daylami, and Skip Away) understand that horse racing is a business, but it's also a sport in need of stability and a message for the future. The owners of the recent horses of the year that could captivate current and new fans have instead made the highest level of the sport a stock market for cashing out their investment and then repeating the process by investing big at the next yearling sale.

The bait will be there for the taking. Another inexperienced youngster will emerge in their stakes debut, and we'll wonder if that horse is the next Flightline or Justify or American Pharoah. In that sense, horse racing has become about having a one-night stand with its superstars.

So, what solutions are out there for developing a longer-lasting relationship? Here's a far-fetched one: allow breeding of Thoroughbred racehorses to model other racing breeds with artificial insemination and embryo transfer. That could allow for simultaneously reaping breeding revenue while still extending a racehorse's career.

I get that any attempt to tamper with the Thoroughbred breeding status quo, such as The Jockey Club's limiting stallions to covering 140 mares in a year, will be met with the same reaction as to New Coke, but just consider this stat. Remember how the last five Thoroughbred horses of the year have collectively run in two races after being voted that award. The last five Arabian horses of the year have run 72 times since their first year achieving the sport's highest honor. Two of them – Paddys Day from 2015, 2016, and 2017 and Quick Sand AA from 2018 – are scheduled to race against each other in the Arabian Stallion Stakes at Lone Star Park on Dec. 10 and are contenders for horse of the year once again.

Paddys Day now has offspring running and has even raced against one of his sons. Paddys Day's connections were collecting on him in the midst of his three-straight horse of the year seasons, and that doesn't seem to have affected his racing ability.

Seeing familiar Arabian racing stars has increased the popularity of the sport, including among Thoroughbred racing fans. For instance, the first time Paddys Day ran in the UAE President Cup, the richest Arabian horse race in the United States, in 2016 at Churchill Downs, the race handled $207,869. On the same Downs After Dark card the next year as the same race number with the same wagering menu and one fewer betting interest, the 2017 UAE President Cup handled $275,330.

When Paddys Day and Quick Sand AA matched up in their first UAE President Cup when the race moved to the Preakness in 2020, the race handled $1,163,255. The next year, the handle for the race increased to $2,367,749 in the same position as the last race on the card with the same number of betting interests. The 2021 race was run in May instead of October, and the handle did include $502,973 for a Daily Double and a Pick 3 that was not part of the wagering menu in 2020.

Another solution could be to put more of a spotlight on the state-bred stars that return to their home tracks and develop a fan following year after year after year. For example, the Colorado-bred Collusionist capped a five-for-five season at Bally's Arapahoe Park in 2022 with an eye-catching win in the Butch Gleason Classic on Oct. 4. It was his 13th career stakes victory in his home state since 2018.

After not being part of Arapahoe's closing day card in 2020, Collusionist has run in the Butch Gleason Classic, the meet's final stakes race, in 2021 and 2022. Handle on that race in 2021 was $55,184 and in 2022 was $88,305, although the 2022 amount does include $10,133 for a Pick 4 and a Pick 5 that were not part of 2021. Total handle for the two closing day cards featuring Collusionist increased from $303,963 in 2021 to $327,444 in 2022. Those are positive trends.

Sure, Collusionist can't hold a candle to Flightline. His success has been confined to Colorado. However, he brings fans out to Bally's Arapahoe Park to watch a local star. I challenge you to watch his “Silky Sullivan” debut and tell me that's not a cool horse that you'd want to continue watching.

Other major racing countries also keep their stars around more frequently than the six times Flightline ran in two years. Anamoe, also 4 years old and based in Australia for Godolphin, has made 21 starts and won 11 races, including seven Group 1s. He lost his most recent race on the same date as the Breeders' Cup. It's alright to lose, unless you're worried about maximizing stud value, and unfortunately, that's what mainly influences whether we see American racing stars.

Hopefully, owners and trainers in America might take the approach like Bjorn Nielsen and John and Thady Gosden did with Great Britain's champion stayer Stradivarius. Stradivarius finally retired to stud in 2022 at 7 years old.

“He still loves his training and racing, and it's exciting for everyone to have him for another year,” Thady Gosden told Racing TV at the end of 2021.

Hopefully, an owner and trainer of an American horse of the year will have the guts to say that in the future.

Jonathan Horowitz is a longtime racing fan who is now a track announcer and an off-track Thoroughbred eventer.

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