From the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, to the cheapest of claimers at the cheapest of tracks, owners, trainers, and breeders are looking on, hoping to see their horse hit the wire first. Some are looking for immortality, some are looking just to pick up a check and pay the bills, but without question the main goal is a winning horse. In her latest book, The Home Run Horse, Daily Racing Form bloodstock business writer Glenye Cain goes behind the scenes of the Thoroughbred racing industry, beyond the product one sees at the track and on television, to reveal the billion-dollar backbone of racing.
To a casual fan, racing is all about purses and wagering. Money is made on the track through purse money and winning tickets at the mutuel windows. Through exhaustive research that has taken her to farms and auction houses around the world and in-depth interviews with the many of the players involved, Cain sets the record straight, showing that the real money is not made on the track, but in the breeding shed and the auction ring, and that the racing business is less of a sport and more like the stock market, powered by cold-blooded investors who invest millions hoping to get the proverbial "home run horse". This tradition has held true through the generations, even as far back as Eclipse.
Cain's definition of the "home run horse" is not simply one that wins the Kentucky Derby or wins a million in earnings, although that may be the definition used by most owners. To the cold-blooded investors, the home run horse is one that wins enough stakes races, preferably Grade 1, and parlays that into a very profitable career at stud. Clearly the home run king of racing is Coolmore, who purchases horses at prices upwards of $1 million each at the sales, sends them to win a few Graded or Group stakes, then promptly retires them and charges stud fees as high as the market will bear. Coolmore may have the worst return on investment of any owner, quoted as around negative 80%, when simply comparing how much money was spent buying horses versus purses earned by those horses, but they more than make up for that shortfall when those horses retire. Purse money has suddenly become insignificant in this grand scheme.
Cain starts off examining the auction business, where most of the money in racing changes hands. Using the example of when Satish Sanan won the bidding war at Saratoga to buy the colt, later named Vindication, who would ultimately go on to win the 2002 Breeders' Cup Juvenile she shows us how scientific and impersonal this side of the business has become. The horses are no longer animals, but are simply raw data: pedigrees, veterinarian reports, conformation, and X-rays. A horse with good conformation and a stellar pedigree with no obvious flaws found by a veterinarian will sell at a high price, as did Vindication. But this modern technology can fail too. A potential buyer and his veterinarian might see a flaw in an X-ray and decide not to bid on a horse who goes on to a profitable stakes-winning career for a different buyer.
Cain gives the reader a very entertaining history of the sales business, starting first with the stories of how the three foundation sires came to England and how they collectively started the breed. Obviously the breed was solely the domain of nobility initially, but as if to foreshadow today's environment where "commoners" such as Sackatoga Stable can defeat the establishment, she takes the time to tell the story of Eclipse, the sire whose pedigree appears in some 90% of modern Thoroughbreds. Eclipse's owner, Dennis O'Kelly, had a criminal record, had served time in prison, and was never invited to the Jockey Club.
The remarkable steps taken by farms, breeders, and consignors to protect these potential jackpots are explained as well. But as was experienced by Kentucky two years ago, you can have a mare in the safest environment for a horse in the world abort her foal, in the tragedy that is known as mare reproductive loss syndrome. But even if a foal survives, there is still room for danger. Two chapters, one covering the foals heading to auction, another covering horses in training to race, outline the seemingly paranoid stance horsemen take. In the latter, she examines Tapeta Farm, custom-built by trainer Michael Dickinson who truly believes that tracks are unsafe and that he has found a better, safer way to train his horses.
An entire chapter walks the reader through the 2003 Triple Crown run, where Funny Cide's bid to win the Triple Crown was thwarted by Empire Maker. The tale of two horses who could not be more different was demonstrated, one a regally bred son of a Derby winner owned by a prince and trained by a Hall of Famer, the other, of modest breeding, gelded as a yearling, owned by a group of high school buddies from upstate New York and trained by a relative unknown. Both Funny Cide and Empire Maker qualify as home run horses for their respective connections, but for totally different reasons.
This book is an eye-opener to racing fans who do not understand the "other side" of the sport. It is strongly recommended to followers of Thoroughbred racing, especially long time fans who have never attended a sale or visited a farm, and who want to read first-hand what it takes to get a horse from conception to the winner's circle. At the same time, new fans will appreciate Cain's useful history of the breed and the flashback to the exciting 2003 Triple Crown bid by Funny Cide. Cain's writing style is entertaining to read and her use of interviews with current racing luminaries such as Michael Dickinson further enhance the learning experience.
The Home Run Horse has a list price of $24.95 but can be purchased from Amazon.com, for $16.97.
If you would like to sample the book, you can read a free sample of Chapter One online.
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