Justifying retirement: a sign of the times in horse racing
Let’s start here before we get into the complicated matters and before we fight together in a swamp of anger and disappointment directed at both old traditions and new standards in the beautiful and nerve-racking sport of thoroughbred racing. On the second Saturday in June of this year, 46 days ago, a brown-colored racehorse named Justify won the Belmont Stakes and became the sport’s 13th Triple Crown winner. He led every leg of the race’s endless 1 1/2 miles and finished 1 3/4 lengths ahead of runner-up Gronkowski, although the result was not in serious doubt at any point in the race except may -be for dreamers and spoilers. . Justify became only the second undefeated Triple Crown winner, after Seattle Slew in 1977. Most notably, he set his unbeaten record in six races in 112 days, a feat of precocity unprecedented in the history of the sport. .
It had only been three years since American Pharoah won his Triple Crown, ending a 37-year drought between the Triple Crown winners, a scenario that both held the race hostage and defined it with a bow. reliable narrative that has become both more punitive and more dramatic with each successive failure of Belmont Day. A sport was released that day in 2015 and Belmont Park shook in celebration. It was unlike any sporting event I have attended or covered. We wondered if another, if soon, would be as meaningful, and let’s be honest here: it wasn’t. But it was damn good. The grandstand shook again and the race track was awash with the powerful feeling that comes with witnessing history. As I wrote before the race, there is no duplication of the desperation that comes with the 37-year wait, but the Triple Crown is a singular achievement that defines itself. June 9 was a good day. A memorable day.
Wednesday afternoon, to the surprise of a remote person associated with the racing game, Justify retired. He did not participate in another race after winning the Belmont and joined Count Fleet (1943) as the second of those 13 Triple Crown winners to retire without further participating. Apparently, Justify retired because shortly after returning to his home base in coach Bob Baffert’s California barn, he developed a filling – a swelling – in his left front ankle and had no not worked from the Belmont. The plan stated by majority owner WinStar Farm was that Justify would race two or three more times, including a start in the November Breeders Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, and then be retired. The ankle problem took too long for Justify to get in shape, do a pre-run or two, and then reach the Breeders Cup in great shape.
The key word here is conspicuously. The explanation makes perfect sense as far as it goes: Baffert says Justify is injured and missed too much practice to make the Breeders Cup for sure. But there’s a $ 60 million elephant – at least – in the stall: that’s the number Coolmore Stud would have agreed to pay for the rights to Justify’s stallion career. It was a prominent secret long before the Belmont that Justify might never race again, as he is worth several times more in the breeding shed than on the racetrack, and he could injure himself, possibly fatally, on the racecourse.
It’s instinctive to compare Justify’s triple crown to that of American Pharoah, but both share a connection to greatness.
This is not a new story in the race. If you are feeling outraged today that this majestic animal will now be spending its time in a large Kentucky stall, getting hoisted three or four times a day during breeding seasons to fertilize mares, you haven’t. attention to this sport for the last half century or so. (Also: this is where you might feel compelled to post a concise tweet about a stallion’s love life. Go ahead, but try to be original. And let me add this: there is a healthy debate in the racing industry over the practice of taking a three-year-old racehorse – an adolescent in human terms – and throwing him into a routine where he breeds up to 200 mares per year in both hemispheres. It’s exhausting and, as I was told, not nearly the dream lifestyle it might seem to a second year boy with a keyboard or smartphone. Anyway…)
Racing economics almost demands that a healthy and accomplished foal be retired as soon as possible. It’s an expensive game that ruins even rich people and if given the chance to cash in and turn a racehorse into an ATM most people jump on it. These economics are a painful reality for fans who just love watching gifted racehorses, but they’re as real as the dirt under their hooves. Retirement from Justify will be especially tough for fans who remember that three years ago American Pharoah returned after winning the Triple Crown to run three more times. First, he won the Haskell at Monmouth Park, New Jersey at the end of July that summer; that old seaside trail was alive that afternoon. Then he lost to Keen Ice in the Travers at Saratoga, but most memorable is that thousands of fans turned out to watch Pharoah gallop on the Friday morning before the race, an unprecedented day of worship in one of the real cathedrals. Sport.
And then, on a gray and windy afternoon at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, he played with the pitch and won the Breeders Cup Classic. It was a fitting and moving coda for a historic career. Only the most greedy among us asked for more.
But it was different. Pharoah was a valuable stallion, but his owner, Ahmed Zayat, had sold his breeding rights months before the Kentucky Derby, a hedge that left millions on the table that Zayat was trying to scavenge on the racetrack. Yet Zayat also held reproductive stocks that generate millions; his decision to continue racing with Pharoah was pragmatic, but also generous. Look at other examples. In 2004, Smarty Jones was an immensely popular horse who was beaten in the Belmont and then never raced again. Likewise in 2005 with Afleet Alex a year later, after winning the Preakness and the Belmont.
Others continued. Curlin was a brilliant three year old in 2007 and has continued. Secretariat was famous before winning the Belmont in 1973 and raced until the fall, even in the pre-Breeders Cup era. Seattle Slew and Affirmed continued. Most recently, Gun Runner finished third in the 2016 Kentucky Derby, but continued to develop and for the second half of 2017 was the best racehorse in the world. There are countless examples of both sides of this equation.
Here’s what’s potentially troubling about Justify: He’s the best horse to be born in the dawning era of super owner groups. The majority owner (60%) of Justify is WinStar, a Kentucky ranch that is full of horse lovers but operates a lot like a Fortune 500 business. Buy, run, sell. On Justify, they’ve teamed up with the very young China Horse Club, whose public face is Teo Ah Khing, a sympathetic, low-key man who faces what remains largely a mysterious operation. There were two minority owners who did not have breeding rights and at least one former owner who did. WinStar had pieces from three starters in the Kentucky Derby and the China Horse Club was on two. There is a distinct feeling that these groups will be an increasingly powerful presence at the highest levels of the game and they will make the decision they made on Justify every time. Buy, run, sell.
The math is relatively straightforward about this: If Justify stayed on the track and won three more races, he could rack up around $ 5 million in extra earnings. As a stallion, guessing carefully, he could make up to $ 150,000 per mating, breed up to 150-200 mares, and generate between $ 22.5 million and $ 30 million per year (most for Coolmore). You can play with the numbers, top to bottom, and those stud fees might go down in the years to come, but you won’t get to a point where continuing to run makes financial sense. This is simply not the case. The exceptions will only come if the owner of the super horse of the day is a wealthy philanthropist of the type that once dominated the game. That guy, or that woman, might choose to keep a big horse on the racetrack, for the people, because that they already have a lot of money and why not take the risk for the love of the game.
(You can also argue here that WinStar and Coolmore also have a lot of money, and you wouldn’t go wrong. Good luck with that argument).
Another thing: I believe Justify has some sort of injury. Four days after the Belmont, I was texting with Baffert.
Me: “I hope he runs a few more times.”
Baffert: “He will.”
So there is that.
But here’s another approach: drop it. And ask yourself a question: Putting aside your anger at the institutional greed that envelops great racehorses, what more did you want from Justify? Here’s what he gave us: the most breathtaking race to greatness imaginable – 112 days from an inaugural Triple Crown race. He gave us a end-to-end Kentucky Derby victory down the slope, ending the Apollo Curse, then dug to win the Preakness, emerging from the fog of clam chowder (apologies for the pea soup, but let’s give a shot at another dense liquid here) to win when he wasn’t at his best.
And then he made history in the Belmont Stakes. He was supposed to get tired, but he didn’t. It was supposed to wear out from the compressed schedule, but it didn’t. He was supposed to lose. But he did not do it.
Some would say that two or three more races for Justify would have been good for the sport. Please. The American Pharoah’s Haskell, Travers and Breeders Cup were good for the sport, sure, but they were fleeting. Nothing has changed. Horse racing still has issues that no horse will solve. Fans who make this argument are as selfish in their own way as WinStar and Coolmore in their own way. (And don’t get me wrong. If Justify had kept running I would have been there with my laptop and plenty of cool adjectives handy. Sign me up.) But the American Pharoah peak happened on the Belmont Day; the rest was a long reminder. Peak Justify also performed on Belmont Day. We were lucky to have it, even for only six races.
Remember this. Embrace it. Take that. Let the rest go, at least for a day.