How to keep racing's stars on the track
The news a few weeks ago that the breeding rights to Street Sense and Hard Spun had been sold to Darley Stud of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum was hardly stunning. Both are quality horses with good pedigrees, and they are worth a lot more as sires than as race horses. So, of course, their breeding careers have already been planned and, of course, they will be retired sooner rather than later.
Street Sense was a popular Kentucky Derby winner whose post-Derby career will probably amount to four more races before he is hurried off to Darley Stud. For a sport where top-level horse racing has become little more than a set of auditions for the breeding industry, it's another case of business as usual.
The industry continues to watch this happen, continues to see its popularity erode and continues to do nothing about it. That shouldn't be the case, and it doesn't have to be.
Here's how to solve the problem, quickly, effectively and easily:
Every race has conditions. The Travers is for 3-year-olds only. The Alabama is for fillies only. A gimmicky race run every year at the Meadowlands on Halloween is for gray horses only. Racetracks have the right to restrict their races and routinely make all sorts of horses ineligible to participate in all sorts of races.
There's no reason restrictions can't be extended to other areas, specifically the age of the sire when a horse is conceived. Imagine what would happen if every Grade I race in the country, or even just the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races, were restricted to horses whose sires were 5-years-old or older at the time the horse was conceived.
Any horse retired prematurely and rushed off the racetrack after its 3-year-old campaign would be severely penalized as a stallion, at least for one year. Knowing that the progeny of a 4-year-old stallion would be ineligible for the sport's major races would scare people away from breeding to that stallion.
Breeders and owners would have no choice but to keep their horses in training at least through their 4-year-old years. In most cases, that would amount to delaying a stallion's career by one year; eminently fair when considering how much money could still be made breeding a horse and racing's desperate need to keep its stars performing in front of the public.
There would be no exceptions. The horse that was legitimately injured during their 3-year-old careers and could no longer race would just have to sit out a year before entering stud duty. Fair or not, that's the way it would have to be to keep people from faking injuries.
This might be a Draconian measure but racing needs a Draconian measure to put a stop to a destructive trend that is really hurting this sport.
Churchill Downs can lead the way by immediately making this change to the conditions of the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks and its other Grade I events. With an industry leader like Churchill Downs taking the first step, other tracks should have little problem falling in line. The other possibility is to do nothing and sit by idly as horse racing continues to become less relevant with each passing day and each passing announcement that another young star has been retired.
Lakeman Assistance Fund
We're in the midst of an era when so many professional athletes are spoiled, overpaid prima donnas. Then there are jockeys. Every time they go out there, they put their safety and even their lives on the line, and the vast majority of them make relatively little money doing so.
The story of Andrew Lakeman is a tragic reminder of this. A struggling jockey on the New York circuit, he won just seven races from 2001 to present and his mounts earned just $415,275 during that time. That means his average income from riding was less than $6,000 a year.
Now, he spends his days in a hospital trying to put his life back together. Lakeman was paralyzed in a May 25 spill at Belmont. His many problems include crushing medical bills.
Through NYRA's Backstretch Employee Service Team, a fund has been established to help Lakeman and his family. You can send your contributions to:
The Andrew Lakeman Assistance Fund, c/o B.E.S.T.
Belmont Park, 2150 Hempstead Turnpike, Gate 6, Cottage 28B
Elmont, NY 11003
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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