The loss of star racehorses in training and the negative effect it has on the sport was a hot topic during a panel discussion Dec. 5 at the 33rd Symposium on Racing & Gaming in Tucson, Ariz.
A panel that included Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher and track executives Martin Panza of Hollywood Park and Georgeanne Hale of the Maryland Jockey Club fielded questions on a variety of topics from moderator Randy Moss, as well as those from a crowd of about 100 gathered for the session at the Westin-La Paloma Resort.
Panza, who is the vice president of racing at Hollywood Park, recalled that he and other racing officials jokingly kicked around the idea of a graduated age-based purse scale to try and keep horses in training longer.
"We got talking about a $250,000 cap for 2-year-old races, $500,000 for 3-year-old races, and bigger money in races for older horses," he said of a recent whimsical dinner-time discussion with colleagues. "We knew it would never work. The economics of purses in America are kind of out of whack.
"But can you put a salary cap on Keeneland sales?" Panza continued. "It's got to be hard. You got all of these million-dollar horses, and you have to win multiple grade-ones to try and recoup the money, and there aren't enough (races) to go around."
A questioner then asked how likely it would be for a horse to win the Triple Crown, and then continue racing beyond his 3-year-old campaign. He was told that the horse would probably never race again.
"The economics are not going away," said Pletcher, a 1989 graduate of the University of Arizona' Race Track Program, which sponsored the symposium. "We'd all be happy to see the racing continue, but we'd be foolish to think that horse is going to run much longer."
As a simple lesson of equine economics, Pletcher noted the case of one of his trainees, Flower Alley
, who came back this year to race as a 4-year-old after a sophomore campaign that included a victory in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and a runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I). After winning his first start in June, the Salvatore Mile (gr. III), Flower Alley finished well off the board in his final three starts of 2006, including a 10th in the Classic won by Invasor.
"He was probably worth $14 million to $16 million after the Breeders' Cup last year," said Pletcher of Flower Alley, who was raced by Eugene and Laura Melnyk. "But Mr. Melnyk is a sporting man, and wanted to give it a shot. This is a time when it didn't work out."
Pletcher, who said he had about 205 horses in training for more than 100 owners, politely took umbrage with a questioner that suggested he had some kind of monopoly on good horses.
"It's a free market place," Pletcher said. "Anybody that wants to get out there with a bunch of horses, go ahead. It definitely cuts down on your free time. I am doing it now because it works for me and my family, and for my clients. It works now. I may not do it for the next 25 years."
Panza was asked about the difficulty in filling races at Hollywood Park, particularly in wake of the more recent trend of giving horses extended time between starts.
"If you are trying to get a 2-year-old to the (Kentucky) Derby, I can't blame somebody for going slow," he said. "But if you got a barnful of (lower-class maidens), I got a problem with that. I understand trainers have to train horses like they think they should be trained, but at the same time, we have to fill races."
Pletcher was asked about the use of medication in racing, and said he felt the only way to cure matters is to have nationwide uniform testing. The trainer noted that he has spent the better part of two years fighting a 45-day suspension resulting from a 1.6 nanogram positive test for the nerve-blocking drug mepivacaine found in one of his horses.
"That's positive (test) there in New York, but no where else," said Pletcher, who claims the test was a result of accidental contamination. "As a trainer, we are hanging our heads out there every day. It's an imperfect system. Not everyone is trying to cheat. There are guys out there working hard every day, trying to win the right way."
Pletcher also gave the audience a positive update on Fleet Indian, who suffered a career-ending injury during the Nov. 4 running of the Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I).
The trainer said he recently spoke to Dr. Larry Bramlage, who performed surgery Nov. 21 on the left front suspensory ligament and that the patient is doing well.
"He said she came through it well, and that there is a chance that she will probably be bred this year," Pletcher said.