For there to be a thriving racing industry in both Britain and Europe it is incumbent on all sectors to do everything they can to promote the sport and to provide the racegoer with exhilarating sporting action. Unfortunately, as in all walks of life, vested interest can be a stumbling block to achieving the noble aim, with the bloodstock industry a prime offender.
Now I plough a lone furrow, I suspect, in my condemnation of the big owner/breeders for packing off their best horses to stud with undue haste. I accept that the big outfits such as Coolmore, Godolphin and others, breed to race to produce stallions. My argument is that the bloodstock industry seems to collectively believe that it has no other responsibility to the sport other than to breed stallions and produce yearlings for the sales ring.
Yet the B.H.A. and all other organisations within the sport are striving to bolster interest; to get new-blood through the gates at racecourses, and with the new I.T.V. contract to increase the numbers following racing from the comfort of their armchairs.
But what efforts are being made by the bloodstock industry to help this campaign?
It is the commonly held view that National Hunt thrives because of the ‘narrative’ it provides, with star horses returning year on year, greeted as old friends that the public want to protect and savour. Yet this year’s Derby winner will not be racing next year, will he? To all extent and purposes Derby winners are not horses with personality and quirks but equine investments that must be protected. Classic winners, especially Derby winners, are worth too much money to risk racing as four-year-olds in case they should get beaten and prove to be not as ‘superlative’ and ‘awesome’ as previously described. It would be as worrying for investors in a classic winner racing beyond its three-year-old season as hanging a Rembrandt in a school corridor would be for the National Portrait Gallery.
All the bloodstock industry allow racing is a succession of colts who were the best of their generation. These horses are useless for the marketing and promotion of the sport. It is why iconic films are re-made with a new cast rather the original re-released. You cannot market a movie if all the cast are dead or gone doolally. A retired racehorse might as well be dead to the public and the marketing arm of the sport as serving mares at five-figures a pelvic thrust in the shadowed environs of a country stud.
When Sea The Stars retired at the end of his three-year-old season his trainer John Oxx said ‘What else is there for him to prove’? Well for one thing, to see if he was capable of winning a race giving weight to the best of the succeeding generation. I have the same quibble with Golden Horn, Dancing Brave and most of the Coolmore Derby winners. All they ever were was the best of their generation, yet time after time they are included in the lists of all-time greats. How does anyone know the extent of their abilities? None of them were allowed to strut their stuff as four-year-olds, to race against the succeeding generation.
Of course there are no incentives or disincentives to help persuade the big owner/breeder outfits to keep their top horses in training after their three-year-old season. But there should be. Perhaps colts should not be allowed to stand as a stallion until they are in their fifth year. If a colt is injured and cannot race as a three or four-year-old rest and recuperation should be the by-word, not the getting-out clause of the moneyed road to the stallion shed. At the moment as soon as a three-year-old wins a Group 1 or 2 all thoughts seemingly turn to finding it a place at stud, with no thought given to actually determining what heights the horse might achieve. This self-interest is no use to those whose job it is to increase attendances at racecourses. Indeed this self-interest is more like selfishness. How can anyone market a product where the true stars are here today and gone tomorrow?
With the proliferation of big money races around the world racehorses are establishing reputations and ratings that are as meaningful and truthful as a political party’s election pledge. I know weight-for-age is meant to even the playing field between three-year-old and older horses but in truth the younger horse will inevitably have an edge, especially come the autum. And keeping a horse in training as a four-year-old and beyond will establish whether a horse is truly sound, a variable that must be of importance to the owner of broodmares.
Something must done to encourage the big owner/breeders to keep horses in training beyond their three-year-old season. Racehorses should race when fit and youthful and retired to the stallion shed to pass on their genes only when their true merit is established. Perhaps instead of being weight-for-age, races like the Arc and the King George should become more like handicaps, with weights determined by racecourse performance and not age.
Perhaps the top three-year-old races, the classics included, should have reduced prize money with the weight-for-age Group 1 given significantly increased levels of prize money, so to incentivise owners to keep their horses in training in order to win the biggest purses.
I know one thing: in Britain something needs to be done. Because the stars of the sport are the horses and flat racing just does not have enough. Or indeed any.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.