Wednesday, June 10, 2015

American Pharoah Will Continue to Race, but Why?

Yesterday I wrote that American Pharoah would probably be retired and put out to stud now that he's won the Triple Crown, but I was wrong.  Apparently, he'll continue to race.

The owner of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah says plans are underway for his champion to race again this year.  (ESPN)

Ahmed Zayat, American Pharoah's owner, sold the breeding rights before the Belmont, but they don't kick in until Pharoah actually retires. 

 "They have zero say until he retires,'' Zayat said. "We owe it to the sport to do the right thing. Money plays an important factor in this game. I've already sold the breeding rights, but it is my genuine desire, as a fan, as someone who loves horses, to race him as long as I possibly can.''  (ESPN)

 But what if American Pharoah is injured in a race?
Should anything happen to the colt in future races, Zayat is covered by an insurance policy for which the rates are "incredibly high,'' Baffert said recently. (ESPN)
My first question was, "Why would they take this risk?"   So, I looked it up and, apparently, many other Triple Crown winners have continued to race.
 The first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, American Pharoah is in uncharted territory, with no contemporary peers. The last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978, raced 13 times after his Belmont Stakes, running a full season as a four-year-old; Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, ran eight times after the Belmont, through November of 1978. Secretariat raced six times after winning the Belmont and was retired at the end of the year. (The Guardian)

But still, "Why?"

“Purses these days are hefty,” he (Charlie Boden, stallion manager of Darley America, the breeding operation of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum) pointed out. “He’s got $10 million sitting there next March [in the Dubai World Cup]. That’s $6 million to him [if he wins]. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is $5 million. He stands to make another $10 million before the end of March next year.
 “If he’s going to the breeding shed, he could get 100 horses to breed to him at $100,000, but that’s a year down the road, assuming he’s fertile and if he wants to breed, and those are two big ifs. We know that we can run and beat just about every sumbitch that lines up next to him.” (The Guardian)
Oh, that's why.  Money.  Speaking of which, did you see the Burger King in American Pharoah's box during the Belmont?  So did we.  What the #@?  It turns out, Burger King paid $200,000 for that privilege.  The bright side?  The money is going to charity.  The down side?  It seemed creepy.

If all this is making you a little queasy, here's some good news to balance it.  American Pharoah's jockey, Victor Espinoza, who, by the way, was scared of horses at one point in his life, is donating his $80,000 winnings to City of Hope, a research and treatment center that aims to fight cancer and life-threatening illnesses.  Espinoza has always donated a percentage of his earnings to that same charity.  Kudos to Espinoza!

And, kudos to Bob Baffert (Pharoah's trainer) and Jill, his wife, for donating their winnings to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund; the California Retirement Management Account, a nonprofit that helps retired California racehorses; and Old Friends Farm, a thoroughbred retirement facility.


Triple Crown history was made, but if you, like me, are unable to rest easy until the hero himself is safe and sound, it appears we'll have to wait a little longer.

Monday, June 8, 2015

American Pharoah: A Triple Crown Champion In a Questionable Industry

I'd rather not write the post I'm about to write.  In fact, I'd rather write an entirely different post that celebrates American Pharoah and the win I thought I'd never see--the Triple Crown.  

I'm a horse lover.  I watch every leg of the Triple Crown to see the horses: Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont.

I watch in awe, and I watch in fear.

I'm in awe of the horses: their strength, beauty, and will to persevere and win (ie, SURVIVE).

I'm in fear of the industry that pushes them to win and what may happen in that pursuit as we sit watching.

Two things to consider about this industry outside of the nefarious gambling associated with it:

1.) As a horse lover, how can I not be heart-broken when I read about the orphaned foals whose mothers are rented out as "nurse mares" to the top bred Thoroughbred foals, their own dams shipped off to be re-bred?  Most people can't imagine this scenario, but for Thoroughbreds, a mare must be "Live Covered", meaning she has to be shipped to the stallion rather than artificially inseminated.  The top-tier-foal she leaves behind on her annual breeding (you have to maximize those breeding years) needs to be nursed.  Thus, the leased "nurse mare" who comes in to do the job.  The nurse mare, in order to have milk, also must produce a foal, but those foals are removed from the mare and sold to Last Chance Corral or, I assume, rescue organizations like them or shipped to slaughter.

2.) As a horse lover, how can I not be heart-broken when a horse is put down from injuries sustained in a race?  On the same day, same Park, as the now legendary American Pharoah Triple Crown win, another horse, a 4-year-old colt from France named Helwan, broke his left front cannon bone during his race and was put down afterward.

Oh, this wasn't an isolated incident. One week earlier, a 5-year-old horse named Soul House collapsed and died shortly after finishing seventh of 10 horses at Belmont Park. One day before that, a 5-year-old horse named Icprideicpower died at Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack in upstate New York after a training session. Since January, 43 horses have died in racing or training.
Died in New York, that is.
According to the New York State Gaming Commission, 10 horses have died since Jan. 16 at Belmont Park.
According to the Los Angeles Times, 186 horses died in 2011.
       Died in California, that is. 
So yes, I celebrate American Pharoah.  You bet I do.  What a horse.  If his feet ever hit the ground, I didn't see it.  He was flying!  He is a champion.  He is perfection.

But as he ran, I was less concerned about him winning than staying safe.  I didn't breathe easy until I saw him the next morning on The Today Show with his jockey and trainer.  He was, from what I could tell, healthy and gregarious.  He'll now spend his days breeding mares (Live Cover, of course), about a hundred times per year, for an estimated $100,000 per breeding.  The "Good Life," right?

Maybe not.  If you're curious, read about his sire's life, Pioneerof the Nile, and the challenges getting him to breed mares.

So, I didn't want to write this, but I did.  I didn't want to take anything away from American Pharoah, but I couldn't balance that with my hope that the industry is exposed for what it is at its worst--not just celebrated for what it is at its best.

I've lived to see what I never thought I'd see, a Triple Crown winner.  Maybe now I'll live to see something else I never thought I'd see, a humane Thoroughbred racing industry.

But is that possible?