An exciting year is in the books for horse racing, with more to come in 2023

February 5, 2023 8:34 PM

An exciting year is in the books for horse racing, with more to come in 2023

Photo: CC BY 2.0) by Paul Kehrer
  • Bernard Kroviak, CDC Gaming Reports
February 5, 2023 8:34 PM
  • Bernard Kroviak, CDC Gaming Reports

The 2022 racing year ended on a very strong note. Wagering on horse racing is up, stud fees continue to be high, sale prices continue to also be fruitful, and the quality of the performances was outstanding. They were led by Flightline, last month named winner of the coveted Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. He was recently named the World’s Best Race Horse by a panel of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities in Europe, an annual appellation that this year saw Flightline tie for the highest overall rating ever given out by this distinguished organization. (To no great surprise, Flightline was, in fact, named Horse of the Year.)

Other outstanding 2022 performances were turned in by trainer Chad Brown, who topped the money earned list, and jockey Irad Ortiz, who led all riders in both monies won and Stakes races won. These individuals are also leading candidates for Eclipse Awards. Several one- and two-year-old horses have also sold for over $1 million. A colt named Hejazi, who sold for $3.55 million last year, just won his first race – broke his maiden, in racing parlance – and Forte, winner of the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Championship and current favorite to win the 2023 Kentucky Derby, are just two of many horses that will be exciting to follow in their progression in the upcoming year. Already in the 2023 early sales, mares to be bred this spring have sold for as much as $650,000.

In 2021, there were over 19,000 foals born. This crop of foals are now 3 years old, and many will be aimed at the big races, including, of course, the Kentucky Derby. Stud fees for the upcoming breeding season are also on the rise, with such prized stallions as Into Mischief standing for $250,000 for a single mare, and Curlin at $225,000.

As you can see, owners of these horses are primed to earn millions of dollars in the upcoming year. These top stallions, and others like them, will cover a hundred mares or more this year alone, so do the math at their current fees and one can see how lucrative breeding can become if you reach the pinnacle of this endeavor. (For the record, at a hundred mares covered, that’s a cool $25 million for Into Mischief.) Other top individuals include Tapit, long America’s leading sire, standing at $185,000, and the above-mentioned Flightline, who is heading to the breeding shed for the first time at $200,000. 2010 Woodward Stakes winner Quality Road is also slated to stand at $200,000. It seems pretty easy to conclude that this year’s racing, and its ancillary activities, is going to be met with great anticipation.

On the other side of horseracing, the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), passed in Congress in September 2020, continues to move forward with rules to help ensure the health of horses and set national standards for horse racing. Following several court challenges, a revised HISA bill was added to the omnibus package that passed in December, and changes in the language of the bill have made the law enforceable throughout all of racing, including both thoroughbred and standardbred competition. So far, rules like – for example – the number of times a jockey can strike a horse with a whip during a race have been in place in most jurisdictions. Already, jockeys have been fined, purse money lost, and suspensions handed down for overuse of the whip.  Probably more importantly, however, laws governing the types and amounts of drugs that can be administered to horses when they race are about to become uniform for all tracks.

Many of these new rules, especially those covering drug usage, can’t help but protect the integrity of racing, an issue which has lately been under significant scrutiny owing to recent revelations about a number of high-level trainers and veterinarians habitually dosing their horses with dangerous and illegal drugs in order to enhance performance. Many of these drugs were undetectable under current tests. HISA will also be the agency that licenses labs in the future, which should allow for better detection of such drugs. BloodHorse has reported that anti-doping measures are slated to begin March 27.

Legally, it is good news that several of the people using and distributing these drugs have already been tried and convicted. Among them are Florida veterinarian Seth Fishman, who recently was sentenced to 11 years in prison and fined $250,000. Trainer Jorge Navarro, a seven-time winner of the Monmouth Park trainers title, was sentenced to 5 years in prison and fined more than $25 million; another trainer, Jason Servis, notable for training disqualified 2019 Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security, will stand trial later this year. Navarro and Servis are the two biggest offenders, but there have been dozens of other trainers who have admitted to using Fishman’s products – and to receiving them from Servis. The integrity of horseracing will be in better hands thanks to HISA.

While we’re talking about legal issues, Bob Baffert’s appeal of the disqualification of 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit rages on. Baffert is still under a two-year suspension in Kentucky for all racing, which includes the 2023 Kentucky Derby, and the courts are now in the process of appointing a new hearing officer to rule on this painfully protracted situation. This officer’s recommendation, when it comes, will be submitted to the Kentucky Racing Commission for a final decision.

January brings some of the most exciting parts of horse ownership: the birth of new foals. Pregnant mares have a gestation period of “around 11 months, a week, and a day,” according to our old trainer Andy. Thus, females that were bred last February are now coming to the end of their gestation cycles. Imagine the anticipation, having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a stallion, standing in the stall awaiting a healthy foal, with all the excitement and trepidation of any expectant parent. And, of course, being there to witness the foal’s live birth is exhilarating.

A foal’s first steps are telling, an indication of the newborn’s health and viability, and when the mare licks the foal, it demonstrates it willingness to care for the newborn. This is especially vital with first-time mothers, who might be somewhat reticent; older mares usually have this part down pat. Other signs that must be observed are the conformation of the baby, to see if all legs and body parts are correct and healthy, thus avoiding corrective procedures by a vet. Following this, of course, the foal must nurse.

Specific vitamins are an essential part of the mare’s milk and vital to the foal’s health. One of the beauties of nature is that foaling can occur outside, in a pasture, or, more commonly, inside, in specially designed stalls. Most births take place at night, another gift from Mother Nature that allows the mare to deliver her foal with less fear of predation. Remembering that in some areas, the weather is quite cold this time of year. Here, again, nature has provided: horses have a terrific ability to withstand the elements.

So the waiting for the event usually means less sleep for those humans in charge of this process.  Of course, when one has an expensive mare, and a pricey stallion who provided the fathering for the pregnancy, precautions are taken above and beyond just letting nature take its course. Many births are viewed by care takers and with vets on hand. Cameras watching every minute are often employed and some foals are greeted with warm heated stalls, depending both on the temperature outside the barn, and the expense account of the owners!

I was fortunate to have bred several foals in my career, none of them by top notch stallions, alas, but I suspect the experience was much the same as it would have been otherwise. Our favorite mare was the illustrious Martha D. You might remember me telling a story or two about her.

Upon her retirement from the track with a lifetime record of 12 wins, 5 places, and 9 shows, we sent her to Florida to be covered by a young first year sire named Wheaton, half-brother to Storm Cat, a leading sire at the time and, in his day, one of the better two-year-olds in the game. (Half-brother, in this context, means that Wheaton had the same mother as Storm Cat, Terlingua – by Secretariat – who was covered by a different stallion, in this case Alydar. A full brother means the same mother, or dam, and the same sire).

I was often reminded that only about 60% of bred mares get pregnant. Of those, about 60% carry to foal; of those foals, about 60% make it to race; and of those, only about 60% of those ever win a race. These figures were provided to me by Andy, our longtime trainer, who always advised against breeding. Partners in tow, however, we threw caution to the breeze and bred her anyway.

Martha got pregnant, carried the foal to term, and delivered a little filly on a cold February. Excited, proud, relieved, and hopeful, we were off on the new adventure. But it was bittersweet: sadly, our trainer, advisor, and friend, Andy, passed away right before Martha delivered her first foal, a lovely filly we dubbed All For Andy in his honor. The breeding odds finally caught up to us, as Andy made it to training as a two-year-old, but never could stay sound as a three-year-old and never did wind up racing. So we retired her and sent her to a new home, where she became a training horse and spent her days teaching young children to ride.

We decided to take a chance on breeding Martha again, this time in Ohio. The luck held, and she again quickly became pregnant and was doing well.  But breeding racehorses, while exciting and rewarding, can come with all sorts of downsides. Later that summer, Martha was found dead in her pasture, along with the foal she was carrying, victims of anaphylactic shock. Needless to say, we were heartbroken, both at losing the foal and at having to say goodbye to our beloved racehorse, broodmare, and friend, Martha D.

It took some time to get over Martha D’s loss. But as true lovers of this odd, wonderful horseracing game, we eventually figured we’d again try to beat the odds and took another shot at breeding. A good thing we did, too, because the next mare we bred wound up giving us more thrills than we could have ever imagined.

As always, to be continued…