Professional golfer and Thoroughbred breeder Gary Player has a message for horse owners, especially the connections of Rachel Alexandra and Sea the Stars, the soon-to-be respective champions in the U.S. and Europe who are not participating in the Nov. 6-7 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita: Race your horses and don’t dodge competition.
"We need more horses like Rachel Alexandra and Sea The Stars to come and compete," Player said Nov. 5 while accepting a Steuben glass trophy as the inaugural recipient of the Breeders’ Cup Sports and Racing Excellence Award. "Don’t hide them away. Don’t make excuses about tracks. We need these champions to compete against each other."
Sea The Stars was retired to stud following his victory in the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I), Europe’s most prestigious race, and Rachel Alexandra’s connections announced she was not running in the Breeders’ Cup because majority owner Jess Jackson eschews artificial surfaces such as the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita.
Referring to his successful career as a professional golfer, in which he won nine major international championships, Player said he never considered backing off from competition.
"I never in my life said I’m not going to play against (Jack) Nicklaus or (Arnold) Palmer because the course is too long or is too windy or doesn’t suit me. If you’re a champ you get in there, and you play against the whole damn lot and beat them. That is the real sign of a champion."
"Don’t put them away," Player said of top horses that can still compete. "Don’t put them to stud too early. We need Sea The Stars out here. We need Rachel Alexandra running against Zenyatta. That stimulates the business. So what if you get beat? You’re going to win, and you’re going to lose. And if you’re a competitor, you must prepared to win and lose."
Player, who owns the 20,000-acre Gary Player Stud in South Africa, also implored those involved in horse racing to come up with innovative ideas that would generate interest in the sport.
"We have got to get the people in the horse industry to come up with ideas — a stimulus plan in our way, not with money but with ideas. There are so many capable people in the business around the world. Winston Churchill, my all-time hero, said ‘the youth of a nation are the trustees of prosperity.' We have to get young people interested in this business...Once you get them out here and see these beautiful animals, they will love it."
Although he travels extensively (12 countries in 31 days on his present worldwide trip), Player said he remains a hands-on horseman, tending to the duties at his large farm as much as possible.
"I am involved in two of the best sports businesses in the world," Player said of racing and golf. "I am not a gentleman farmer. I get up at five o’clock. I shovel horse manure, and I do the whole damn lot. The horse business to me is a disease."
In presenting the award to Player, Breeders’ Cup president Greg Avioli said the "concept behind the award was to recognize somebody who was a major figure not only in the world of sports but who also made a contribution throughout their whole life to horse racing and breeding."