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Breeding adds to challenge
Health issues and owners eyeing one race, hoping their colt will earn millions at stud, play a part.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published April 30, 2007
[Times photo: Associated Press]
Smarty Jones had a full head of steam heading into the 2004 Belmont, where an opportunistic, well-rested Birdstone lurked.
Sunday Overview of how hard it is to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Today The business of breeding is muddling and weakening the gene pool.
Tuesday Travel, expanded schedule, tougher competition are taking their toll.
Wednesday A new track to the Triple Crown, via synthetic surfaces?
No horse has captured America's fancy in recent years more than the thoroughbred with the catchy name and blue-collar roots.
Raised on a small farm outside Philadelphia - later overcoming a near-fatal skull fracture incurred while training in the starting gate - Smarty became a media darling in 2004 as the first unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner since Seattle Slew, then ran away with the Preakness by a record-setting 111/2 lengths.
It looked to all the world that the Triple Crown drought was over when Smarty held the lead heading into the final turn at Belmont, only to be overtaken in the shadow of the wire by a colt who sat out the Preakness three weeks before, Birdstone.
"If you're fortunate to win the first two legs, that third leg you have a bull's-eye on your back, " says John Servis, who gained fame and acclaim as the popular horse's trainer. "Other jockeys, great ones, will ride unorthodox races just to try to keep you from winning, because they have nothing to lose."
So ended the legend of Smarty Jones, the 10th thoroughbred since Affirmed's sweep in 1978 who was on the verge of history and was denied in the Belmont.
Still, he is rightly remembered as a success story - one that stands in contrast to a trend in profit-maximizing breeding that dominates the industry and has, according to some experts, muddled and even weakened the gene pool of champion thoroughbreds.
In Smarty's case, the bloodlines were strong - the son of Elusive Quality, who set the world record for the mile on a turf track; sharing a pedigree with 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat and 1957 horse of the year Bold Ruler. "Smarty was an exception to the rule - he had that speed on top of speed pedigree, " Servis says.
His Belmont loss, however, illustrates another way the business of breeding has impacted the Triple Crown. In marked the third year in a row that a horse who sat out the Preakness played spoiler.
It's not just the more appealing purses at the Preakness and Belmont - $1-million, with the Derby at $2-million - that makes owners increasingly skip one to focus on another. A major goal is to enhance a horse's breeding value with one good performance.
"More people are becoming specialists and that's making it harder to win the Triple Crown, " says Doug Cauthen, president of WinStar Farm whose stallion, Distorted Humor, sired Funny Cide, who was denied by Empire Maker in 2003.
"If you win any one of those classics, you've really appreciated the value of your horse, " adds Cauthen, younger brother of Hall of Fame and 1978 Triple Crown jockey Steve Cauthen. "Empire Maker wins the Belmont and suddenly he commands a stallion fee of $100, 000."
That's 100-grand for every mating that results in progeny, making him a virtual multimillion-dollar corporation. Ditto for Smarty Jones, who matched that $100, 000 fee after his Belmont loss. Clearly, dollar signs dominate the sport.
Still, Smarty is an example of a horse not bred to be sold for a whopping amount or owned by a huge conglomerate. He was bred and nurtured in a modest, throw-back operation owned by Roy and Patricia Chapman, brought along slowly by a working-class trainer - two races in November 2003 as a 2-year-old and four Derby preps in four months - so he would reach his Triple Crown stretch in perfect stride. It was more about the victory margin than the profit margin.
Breeding a problem
"The most basic thing that's different today than 30 years ago is the breeding industry, " says Billy Turner, who trained 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. "The horses being bred today - unfortunately the majority of them - are being bred to be sold. And they're not being bred to run by the breeder."
For those breeders who aspire to produce a horse capable of reaching the Derby, it has become tougher than ever.
"You want a mare that has the pedigree to produce a good horse and in most cases was a good racehorse, " Turner says. "Then you breed her to a sire that crosses with her bloodline that will produce a promising horse. But now, the problem is the majority are bred for the market, and you really have to do your homework to know what kind of horse you're buying."
In large-scale sales, it is almost impossible to know if the mare had a common congenital lung problem, which causes bleeding from the immense exertion of a race. That condition has been increasingly managed though the use of Lasix, the only legal treatment in the United States. The drug is used to treat high blood pressure in humans, and reduces blood volume in the equine vascular system. But while Lasix can get a horse back into action, critics say it simply masks the problem and allows it to be passed on to offspring and their descendents.
"We're on the third generation of bleeders because of the use of Lasix in this country, " says Turner. "As a result, there are these fillies running very well, and we're putting them back as broodmares - and they're simply producing more horses that bleed. In times past, if you ever had a filly that bled, she was eliminated as a broodmare immediately. And with a sire that bled, they would never, ever stand at stud - but now we have dozens that do. So you've compounded the possibility of having bleeding problems - plus breeding horses with wind (breathing) problems."
Deficiencies in bone quality are passed along the same way, according to Turner, leading to the watering down of the gene pool - all to produce fast, flashy but flawed horses and the big dollars they bring at the market.
An elusive quality
Tom Hammond, veteran racing analyst for NBC, concurs.
"It's part of the broad, big-picture problem, " he says. "And so is the fact that a lot of the best bloodlines have gone overseas in the last 20 years, with the advent of Middle Eastern (owners) who race also in Europe and in Dubai. They've bought many of the best bloodlines in America and taken them elsewhere."
Japanese were major buyers at U.S. thoroughbred auctions before that, meaning potential championship lines have been funneled out of the country for more than two decades.
Yet the traditional challenge has remained as imposing as ever.
"It takes an extraordinary horse to go three different distances on three different track surfaces and, especially in recent years, overcome the additional traffic on the track at the Kentucky Derby, " Hammond says. "Many years, the best horse simply doesn't win at the Derby.
Does Hammond, 62, expect to see another Triple Crown winner?
"Last year, when Barbaro won the Derby in the biggest margin in 50 years and was unbeaten, he looked like another Seattle Slew - and you see what can happen, " Hammond says. "And I was certain that Smarty Jones was going to win, because he was the best horse. It breaks your heart - but like John Servis says, he had a bull's-eye on his back. Still, great horses overcome stuff like that. It's going to happen. I've just given up trying to predict when."