The following is a guest commentary from Rifat Hussain, MD, who has bred and raced horses on a small scale for more than 30 years. His best-known racer was the fleet Shimatoree, winner of the True North Handicap and Bay Shore Stakes (as well as second in the Wood Memorial and Gotham) and later sire of G1 winner Feel the Beat, among others.
Before new owners are recruited, racing should identify why it can’t keep the owners it already has.
I would like to make a few comments on a topic which seems to be on everyone’s mind these days in the Thoroughbred industry: namely, how to get more owners in the business. The many plans which have been put forth either by individuals in their comments or by organizations have failed to recognize or mention the problems before coming out with solutions. As one might expect, these solutions are not oriented toward correcting the causes behind the gradual disenchantment of owners in the Thoroughbred business. More important still is the fact that no one seems to want to analytically examine the problems while they keep coming up with various proposals to do a “quick fix.”
When one considers owners, we must separate owners who breed to sell and those who primarily race. The latter can be subdivided into those who breed to race and those who buy at the various auctions in order to get their racing prospects.
Let us start with the problems of the owners who breed to sell. This person is usually someone who owns a few mares which are kept at a boarding farm. Usually the owner makes arrangements to sell the progeny of his mares through the farm where he boards the animals. He pays for the stud fees or owns shares in one or more stallions. Now, since the market’s downward slide, his bloodstock has dropped in value quite a bit. He expects to take losses and he accepts that as part of the business. What he does not accept or does not like to accept is the fact that while the value of the bloodstock and his stallion shares has dropped, the other expenses have not. Perhaps they have gone up. The board has not dropped, the vet fees have gone up, the blacksmith fee has gone up, the price of hay has gone up, the stallion board bill has gone up, etc.
As thought this was not enough, in some cases the sales person who sells his horses may give him a rather optimistic evaluation of his yearlings/mares when they are placed or entered in the sale. On the day of the sale, the sales agent may appear somewhat grim, saying that the horses might not bring what he thought. The horses sell, but at less than half of what was expected. Right after the sale, the sales agent tells the owner that in his opinion the horses brought what they were wroth. If this seems a rather far-fetched story, it is not. It has happened far too often to too many people.
Like all military generals who have fought battles on a real battle front know, before you can advance, you must consolidate what you already have. As is obvious in this case, an important first step is to keep the owners we already have. If you lose just one owner, statistics have shown that he will prevent many others from joining in.
The owner who breeds to race gets the double whammy. He not only has to deal with all of the above, but he has to deal with the tricks and treats of the racetrack. There is no central clearing authority which provides any information to the racing owner as to whom to go to when seeking a trainer. It is not as simple as some may think, although you can learn through a few ups and downs at the school of hard knocks provided through the courtesy of the commonly described “unsavory characters.”
Owners do in fact pay the bills most of the time. If that is the case – which essentially means that they pay the trainer – then the simplest way around this obstacle would be for the trainer to educate the owner. Some trainers “train” the owner not to be a nuisance. Call them and they are rude, obnoxious, not available, and they never return your call. When one of the horses runs, the trainer might grant you the privilege of telling you what happened in the face, although the truth seldom gets told. Some trainers do not like to say that the horse was “no good.” Trainers always seem to tell a story; perhaps they like telling stories, and many owners believe these stories – for a time anyway.
It is high time that the sales companies stood up in a leadership role. It is, after all, up to them to sell a good product. No one is asking them to guarantee each yearling to be a Man o’ War, but everyone would like them to sell a sound product. They already do that to some extent in the summer sales. Don’t they have a group of vets going around and examining the yearling prospects for the selected sales? Do they accept yearling who are back at the knees or with shin splints and curbs. No, they do not. If they do not do that, then what, I may ask, is the idea of hiding behind the conditions of sales? It is a question of reputation.
The sales companies have failed in this respect. If Detroit tried selling cars with the same type of conditions of sales that the horse auction companies have, there would be no American cars at all. The people who buy Mercedes Benzes do not worry about warranties. Do you know why? Because the reputation of Mercedes is good enough. Now you would suppose that the sales companies would give the question of reputation some thought. Detroit has learned that now that they are making good cars, they still can’t compete with the Japanese, and the reason simply is “reputation.”
The problems that are facing this industry are many and complex, but there are some simple facts that should be noted, especially by those who have appointed themselves to the task of getting more owners:
- There is a great need for a central office or guiding agency that steers new owners to trainers who are interested on the overall welfare of the industry, and who know that without new owners this or any industry is dead.
- What is the one most attractive aspect of owning a racehorse? Simply stated, it is the ability or chance to compete on an even playing field with the big cats. It is only in this game that the Joe Blows have the same chance of coming up with the winner of the Kentucky Derby (G1) as do the fat cats. The industry should play this aspect of the sport to the hilt. I do not think the “elitist” theme that seems so dear to the press and to some others in this industry has done any good for attracting new owners. The great attraction of the United States for the people of the world is that they have the opportunity to succeed if they are willing to work hard. Why not use this as the theme of the racing industry?