Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Unbridled Unsoundness Redux

I meant to blog about this when it happened, but with one thing and another, it got pushed down my list of priorities, so I apologize that this news is a bit out of date.

In late January, a grey son of Unbridled's Song by the name of Winslow Homer won the G3 Holy Bull in his stakes debut. I wondered how long he would last before the inevitable. As a son of UBS, surely his chances of actually making it into the gate for the Kentucky Derby were slim. The predictability of such things would almost be funny if it weren't so maddening and tragic, too. Not surprisingly, only ten days later, the Blood-Horse reported that Winslow Homer had been sidelined with a stress fracture in his cannon bone and of course was off the Derby trail.

One of the more troubling things to me about WH's story, aside from the obvious, is his owner, Rick Porter. By my count, Winslow Homer is now the fourth major UBS horse that Porter has purchased and campaigned, and every single one of them has had a career cut short by injury. Rockport Harbor, beset by injuries, managed only 8 starts in three years. Eight Belles broke down catastrophically in the 2008 Derby. Old Fashioned retired with a slab fracture in his knee in April of his 3 year-old season. And now WH is shelved until at least April this year with a summer campaign in mind. I'll believe it when I see it.

So, Mr. Porter, please, for the love of the breed, STOP supporting unsound sires! Obviously you're not alone in spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in UBS offspring, but even one owner can make a difference.

And the saddest part of the WH story is that he was named in honor of the filly Eight Belles, a pun after the painting "Eight Bells" by the real Winslow Homer. What a sorry tribute.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Unbridled Unsoundness

The demise of Eight Belles in last year's Derby, the event that launched this blog, was in many ways the perfect storm of little things gone wrong, culminating in a catastrophic breakdown. Many factors contributed to her death---a punishing schedule too rigorous for such a young horse, her unusually large frame, the toe grabs on her shoes, and most importantly, her pedigree. It's a subject I've been meaning to discuss for ages now, and having observed the offspring of Unbridled's Song on the Triple Crown trail this year with interest, I think it's evident that many of his offspring are inherently unsound.

The first of the UBS horses in this crop to fall by the wayside was Midshipman, winner of the 2008 Breeders Cup Juvenile and champion 2 year-old colt. He made 4 starts, all of them as a two year-old, before being sidelined with a soft tissue injury in March 2009. He did not return to the track until this past weekend, and while he did win, it remains to be seen how many more starts he’ll make before re-injury and/or retirement.

The next to go was Old Fashioned, another of Larry Jones' charges. He made it through six starts, four of them wins, before being retired with a slab fracture in his right knee in April.

The last was Dunkirk who surprisingly made it all the way to June, running 11th in the Derby before coming back for a truly gutsy second place finish in the Belmont. He suffered a non-displaced condylar fracture in his left hind cannon bone in that race and is on the sidelines for the time being. (Despite being G1 placed, he has never won anything more than an allowance race, so it is likely he will be brought back to race if it all possible. Got to have that black type before he goes off to stud after all.) And despite actually making it through the Triple Crown, Dunkirk has only 5 starts to his name. Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra, by comparison, had each made 11 starts by that time.

These three colts are hardly the first of UBS's offspring to become injured on the Triple Crown trail. Over the last 10 years or so, it's become a frequent occurrence (for those UBS offspring who actually make it to the races). Buddha was a Derby favorite but retired just before that race with only 4 starts; Eurosilver managed 12 starts, but his career was plagued by injury; Half Ours fractured an ankle as a 2 year-old and was laid up for 19 months, only to return to the races at 4 where he fractured a cannon bone and was retired with only 7 starts; Rockport Harbor suffered regular setbacks in his career and made only 8 starts over 3 seasons. The list goes on and on.

To be fair, not all UBS offspring have shortened careers. Domestic Dispute raced 21 times in three seasons; Thorn Song has made 29 starts to date; and the Australian-bred gelding Grey Song made an astonishing 65 starts over 5 seasons. (Perhaps turf racing made the difference for Thorn Song and Grey Song?) Unfortunately, these horses are still anomalies when it comes to UBS offspring.

There is no doubt that horses sired by Unbridled’s Song are frequently fast and precocious. For breeders and owners alike, this often translates to a quick return on the stud fee ($125,000) or the purchase price. Or that is the hope at any rate. Dunkirk sold for $3.7 million as a yearling but has made only $393,200 in purses. Old Fashioned sold for $800,000, also as a yearling, and made $583,280. Given the high rate of attrition on the race track, buying a UBS horse seems like a very risky venture to me. Breeding to UBS with the intention of selling, however, appears to be a far more profitable venture. A quick scan of UBS’s page on the Stallion Register Online shows that his weanlings and yearlings on average bring two to three times the cost of his stud fee.

And therein lies the rub. So long as buyers continue to support UBS as a stallion by keeping his offspring in demand, he will continue to produce brilliant but unsound horses. Not only is this a bad idea in terms of investments, it is also extremely damaging to the sport---witness the media storm after Eight Belles broke down. Accidents like that drive fans away, both casual and die-hard, and even the non-fatal injuries that lead to premature retirements turn fans off. It’s hard to follow and get excited about a horse that only starts 4 or 5 times. It’s also not fun to watch a race and find that you’re more worried than excited and just hoping all the horses will come home in one piece.

The worst problem, however, with breeding unsound horses is the obvious one, the toll on the animals themselves. Is it not cruel to breed an animal with a greater risk of injury or fatal break down? Is it not a disservice to the American Thoroughbred to perpetuate unsoundness and fragility? What becomes of the UBS sons and daughters who did not accomplish enough on the track to be viable breeding animals and who are too unsound to have secondary careers as riding horses? (A long, cramped truck ride and then a bolt through the head...) The horse market is glutted already with poorly conformed, ill-bred, untrained equines of any breed and of no breed. The last thing we need is to add fragility to that equation, no matter how beautifully pedigreed.

So what's the solution? Short of gelding UBS, I'm not really sure. Breeder incentives for proven durable bloodlines? Bigger purses for races for 4 year-olds and up? Importation of new blood from Europe or South America? It's going to be an uphill slog no matter what, and I worry that it may take several more Eight Belles-like accidents before the American TB breeders get the message. Speed and precocity are so deeply entrenched in the mind set of so many breeders, pinhookers, and owners that I fear for the future of the breed.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Why I still like Rachel Alexandra despite Jess Jackson

A number of my racing fan friends have expressed an extreme dislike of Rachel Alexandra lately ((largely because of Jess Jackson), but I can't help but love this filly. We so rarely see fillies who race against the boys here, let alone beat them, that I have to embrace her whole-heartedly. It's a weakness of mine. (Along with cute markings and Sadler's Wells blood, making Rachel pretty much the whole enchilada for me.)

I dislike Jess Jackson for a number of reasons, but I refuse to let him spoil this filly for me. Since I don't have TVG anymore and I avoid certain racing forums, all I get to see are the races themselves. I don't hear or read any of the bragging and hyperbole. I let the filly's performance speak for itself.

So that said, the Woodward was a brilliant performance even if it wasn't as visually impressive as the Haskell for example. How many other horses can burn through a fast first quarter and a pretty quick half and still have gas in the tank to hold off a hard-closing rival? Rachel wouldn't even let Macho Again pass her in the gallop out. That's one determined filly.

Her time of 1:48.29 was respectable if average. Interestingly, her time was faster than that of Curlin (1:49.34), Lawyer Ron (1:48.60), and Saint Liam (1:49.07), all notable recent winners (and all older than three when they won).

But we know Rachel can cover 9 furlongs 5 to 10 lengths faster that she did in the Woodward when she's allowed to sit off the pace as witnessed by the Haskell (1:47.21) and Mother Goose (1:46.33) respectively. It should be noted that Rachel now owns the record in the Mother Goose and she is the second fastest Haskell winner of all time, only a fifth of a second behind the tied records of Bet Twice and Majestic Light.

So, to summarize:

* Rachel is the first filly of any age to win the Woodward
* the first 3 year-old to win the Woodward in 15 years
* one of a handful of 3 YO fillies to beat older males in open company
* one of only 2 fillies to win the Haskell
* ran the second fastest Haskell in history
* owns the stakes record and margin record in the Mother Goose
* first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness
* only horse to win the Preakness from the outside post
* second fastest Kentucky Oaks winner
* owns the margin record for the KY Oaks

And if she wins HOTY, she will be the first 3 YO filly since 1945 to do so, and one of only a handful of fillies/mares of any age to win HOTY.

So I think that makes her pretty damn special.

Lest I seem like a hypocrite, I disliked Curlin for much the same reasons that people seem to dislike Rachel---namely, his owner was being an ass and crowing about how Curlin was one of the all-time greats. Excuse me while I gag. When the horse can back up the hyperbole, like Rachel has done as bulleted above, that's great. But Curlin couldn't. If he hadn't broken Cigar's earnings record, he'd be a bit of a "what have you done for me lately? nothing" kind of horse. (And the earnings thing is a farce anyway with the huge purses for the DWC and BC Classic.)

The only records Curlin came close to, besides the money, were:

* equaled stakes record in the Preakness (as did Street Sense)
* third fastest DWC win

The rest of his times were average or even slow, so even though he was winning, he was beating up on weak fields (barely) and not even remotely challenging the clock. Nothing he accomplished on the track even remotely approachs those of true all-time greats like Spectacular Bid, Secretariat, Citation, etc. Rachel may have slaughtered some weak horses, too, and I'm not saying she's an all-time great yet, but at least she was running to beat the band.

She's earned her bragging rights. Curlin never did.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Rachel Alexandra saga

The Kentucky Oaks, run the day before the Derby, is often overshadowed by the glamour of that race and the hopes of a Triple Crown winner in the making. This year, however, despite the enjoyable underdog story of Derby winner Mine That Bird, the filly Rachel Alexandra still came out looking like the better horse:


Granted, with the scratch of Justwhistledixie and the absence of Stardom Bound, the Oaks field was on the light side. The way Rachel won though is what made her look every inch the superstar. Her jockey Calvin Borel never touched her with the whip or shook the reins at her to ask her to run; she just went on by the field at cruising speed and still came within a fifth of a second of the stakes record while winning by the biggest margin in Oaks history. Had Calvin cranked her up and really asked for speed, one can only imagine what she would have done. Just for starters, I'd think the stakes record would have fallen by a full second.

Rachel's undeniable brilliance makes her an easy horse to cheer for, but until yesterday, her connections were also a large part of her story. Her trainer, the likable Hal Wiggins, has been in the racing game for 40 years and has waited all his life for a horse like Rachel. The Oaks was his first Grade 1 win.

Her jockey Calvin Borel won many fans with his infectious high spirits after winning the Derby in 2007 with Street Sense, and he did so again with his excitement and praise of Rachel after the Oaks. “She is the best horse I’ve ever been on, and I don’t know how good she is,” said Borel, who won the Kentucky Derby on Street Sense. “Street Sense was a good horse; he had a good turn of foot. But until I really have to ask her, I don’t know how good she is. She’s incredible.”

Rachel has never been beaten with Calvin in the saddle.

Even before the Oaks, many pundits and fans thought the filly would have had the Derby all her own way had she been entered, and naturally after the race, those thoughts were even more prevalent. When asked, Wiggins said, "We're not going to look back. We're going to enjoy this. We're not going to have any regrets."

Her owner went one step further and expressed the belief that fillies should run against fillies and leave the boys to themselves (which I feel is rather sexist, but I'm not sure the horses care one way or the other).

All that changed Wednesday, only days after the Oaks, when it was announced that Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables had purchased Rachel Alexandra for a rumored $10 million. The filly now resides in Steve Asmussen's barn. Hal Wiggins has put on a brave face for the press, but I can only imagine how devastated he must be. To have a filly like that in his barn with such a bright future, and then overnight, nothing.

IEAH receives a fair amount of fan ire for buying champions instead of making them, but at least when they purchased I Want Revenge earlier this spring, they kept him with the trainer who knew him inside out. Why mess with a good thing after all? The same thing applies here. Asmussen has had and still has good horses in his barn. He had Curlin for 2 years for pity's sake (another horse yanked away from the original trainer). Does he really need Rachel on his resume more than Hal Wiggins? I think not. Especially given Asmussen's history of suspensions for doping his horses...

Though it has yet to be confirmed, rumors are flying that Rachel will be entered in the Preakness and possibly the Belmont. While it is exciting to think of her facing the boys, it puts Calvin Borel in one hell of a predicament. Does he ride Mine That Bird, the horse he won the Derby on, or does he throw away the chance at a Triple Crown and ride the filly, the best horse he said he's ever ridden?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Legs of glass

I admit I haven't followed the career of Wanderin Boy at all, though I was aware of him. I was sorry to hear that he broke down in the Cigar Mile this past weekend. The Blood-Horse hardly mentioned his demise in their recap of the race, but I was pleased to see a piece by Steve Haskin today entitled "Wanderin Boy a Fighter to the End." I expected a story of human and equine hardship, fighting together from the bottom rungs of the sport to G1 competition, etc.

Not quite.

Wanderin Boy's career was a fight alright. A fight against extreme unsoundness and against people who refused to acknowledge it. As a foal only a month old, he fractured his sesamoids. As a young horse in training, he fractured a cannon bone. Then he bucked his shins. Then he broke his other cannon bone...

You'd think maybe by this point his owner, trainer, or vet would have said enough already and let Wanderin Boy retire to an easier life. You'd think fractured sesamoids and TWO broken cannon bones might have been a clue that Wanderin Boy was not cut out to be a race horse.

Nope. Hancock, Zito, et al, sent him right back to the track.

Wanderin Boy suffered through a bad foot abcess and then a large stomach ulcer before his sesamoids shattered again on the turn at Aqueduct. He was 7 and remarkably had held together for 24 races and $1.2 million in earnings. He undoubtedly would have been sent to stud had he not broken down. And in that respect only, it's a blessing he did not pass on his genes, but no horse deserves a fate like his. He should have been retired after that second fractured cannon bone, if not after the first one. Why his connections to continued to race him absolutely boggles my mind.

And people wonder why horse racing is losing its fans...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Breeders Cup wrap up

Hooray for the European runners!!! They have put an end to the excessive, ridiculous, over-the-top hyberbole about Curlin at long last. My gods, I thought I was going to puke listening to all the nonsense about Curlin being the greatest horse of all time. Give me a break already! He's a nice horse, but he's not an all time great. I wouldn't even say he was the best of this decade. Give me Point Given, Ghostzapper, Medaglia D'Oro, or Invasor anyday. Oh, and Jess Jackson is so full of it about keeping Curlin in training because he's a sporting kind of guy. BS! No farm will touch Curlin with a 10 foot pole until the lawsuit with his minority owners is over. How dumb do they think we are?

So anyway, here's my BC wrap up. In the Classic, Raven's Pass was superb, coming home in 1:59.27 which I believe is third only to Ghostzapper's 1:59.02 and Skip Away's 1:59.16. Beautifully done. And I'm really glad to see Frankie Dettori win the Classic. How can you not love him? Henrythenavigator roared home to be second, Tiago closed gamely to nab third, and Curlin regressed a bit in the stretch, only getting fourth, having briefly had the lead. The Duke of Marmalade could only manage 9th and Casino Drive finished dead last in 12th. His lack of conditioning destroyed any chance he had, it would seem. I hope he'll be back as a four year-old so we can see him at his best for once.

Conduit was magnificent in the Turf, winning in a stakes record time of 2:23.42. What a good looking horse he is. I hope he'll run at four. It was a bit sad to see Better Talk Now strung out sooooo far behind the field. He managed 8th, but I really think the G1s are several years behind him.

I didn't have ton of interest in the Sprint, but it was interesting to see Midnight Lute make the same move as he did last year, circling the field on the turn and sweeping to the lead. Street Boss managed third, and though it wasn't a win, it still emphasizes how extraordinarily versatile Street Cry's get seem to be---good as juvis, good as older horses, able to handle sprints and routes, dirt and synthetics. Pretty cool.

I don't have anything intelligent to say about the Juvi Turf, but I'm a nerd for horse color genetics, and I do love Donativum's Tetrarch spots. :-)

The Juvenile was a good race. My man Square Eddie ran beautifully to be second, and I wonder if he might have squeezed up for the win if Midshipman hadn't drifted in on him in the stretch. I guess his jockey didn't think so because there was no inquiry. And Street Hero, yet another Street Cry horse, was third. That guy's on fire. I suspect Midshipman will suffer an injury sometime next spring and be whisked off to stud. The Unbridled's Songs don't hold together real well (EightBelles, Buddha, even UBS himself). Square Eddie and Street Hero ought to only impove with age however. I expect they'll be quite interesting to follow next year.

It was nice to see a filly score in the Mile again. The French fillies seem to be predisposed to winning that one. Kip Deville, last year's winner, as a game second, but there was no catching Goldikova today. What a lithe little filly.

The Dirt Mile wasn't one I was watching closely. Albertus Maximus ran his eyeballs out for the win and Well Armed, the favorite, never fired.

I had no picks in the Turf Sprint or the Marathon, but it sure is fun watching those horses roar down the hill. I bet that's a fun ride!

As for yesterday, Ventura was a star in the F&M Sprint. Indian Blessing was just no match for her. Maybe next year. No real thoughts on the Juvi Fillies Turf other than I suspect the best of them will race in Europe next year.

Stardom Bound was of course sensational making her patented last-to-first move on the turn in the Juvi Fillies. She is filly to be reckoned with though I do wonder if she's going to want more than 9 furlongs. Most filly races aren't any longer than that though, so I guess she'll probably be fine.

I was very pleased to see Sealy Hill close from the clouds to get up for second in the F&M Turf. A great way to close out her career, and I'm thrilled that Point Given is having such good success as a sire.

As for the Ladies Classic (F&M Classic sounds better, I think), what's to be said? Zenyatta is a queen among fillies. With Curlin's loss in the Classic, I really hope she'll be Horse of the Year. She deserves it.

And best of all, every horse came home safely today. There wasn't a single incident, and I think that speaks well of the pro-ride synthetic surface and the Santa Anita turf surface. This has been one of the most enjoyable Breeders Cups for me, and I'm pleased it will be back at SA next year. The Euros should come over in droves after all the success they had this year. Should be fantastic!