Eric Mitchell: Executive Editor Digital Media

Eric Mitchell: Executive Editor Digital Media

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Commentary: More Horsemanship

The drumbeat to regulate steroids in sale horses is loud and growing. But if the industry only implements a ban on steroids and moves on, then it’s missed an opportunity to address other important issues.

In the 2-year-olds in training market, for example, steroids have been defended as an important therapeutic tool. Juvenile consignors have said for horses to be ready to breeze early in the year, then a little medication goes a long way toward maintaining appetites and getting through the rigors of training. Unfortunately, getting horses fit doesn’t just mean race-ready.

Not so long ago, a horse that breezed an eighth of a mile in 11 seconds created some buzz. Today, a horse clocked in :11 is likely to get overlooked. Why? Because faster times get the most attention. But it’s not just fast times; it is an irrational emphasis on fractions of a second.

A 2004 study done by The Blood-Horse MarketWatch that looked at 2-year-olds sold between 2000 and 2002 showed horses that breezed in :10 during an under-tack show averaged $478,273, while horses that worked in :10 2⁄5 averaged $171,846. The average price of these two groups as yearlings only differed by $4,132 ($87,947 vs. $83,815).

If buyers pay that much for :10, then what will they pay for a horse that works in :9 4⁄5—like one did during an under-tack preview in Ocala, Fla., March 9? Probably more—and without considering that it’s just one work on one afternoon, and in a time that horse is highly unlikely to repeat on a racetrack.

The bigger question is whether it’s wise long-term to allow young horses to be pushed so hard. Medication is just part of the problem. One bloodstock agent said consignors are trapped by a tight time schedule. A horse that may be only four months out of a yearling sale has to be breezing by late December if it is to sell in February. It has been described, by some, as an unnatural regime.

Perhaps we can learn a lesson from the yearling market. Keeneland has not had its July select yearling sale since 2002. One roadblock to this sale’s return has been the continued growth of Keeneland’s select sessions in September (they grossed nearly $145.4 million last fall). Consignors gush about how much they value the extra time to let yearlings mature.

Yearlings don’t endure the same rigors as 2-year-olds, but steroid use sheds light on this market, too. Just like juveniles, premium prices are paid for yearlings that are the whole package: good conformation, clean radiographs, good scope, and a top-notch pedigree. A horse that falls short in any of these areas will see a marked decline in value.

Don’t misunderstand; the best horses should bring a premium. That’s capitalism. But the decline in value is often disproportionate to the flaw. Under these conditions and with the Thoroughbred commercial market starting to cool off, we should expect sellers to feel more pressured to ensure their horses are as eye-catching as possible. For some sellers—like some professional human athletes—that means getting pharmaceutical help. What are the risks? Alienating new buyers by selling them a grand-looking horse whose musculature “shrinks” after the sale and still not knowing enough about the long-term consequences of steroids on young horses.

The solution is complicated, but boils down to a need for more horsemanship on both sides of the commercial equation. Banning steroids and creating consequences for positive tests in sale horses are good first steps. Cheaters exist even during the best of times and should face as many obstacles and consequences as possible. But buyers and their agents also share some responsibility.

Forgive the flaws that are forgivable and pay a fair market price. Without balance in the market, the federal government may use the steroid issue to insert its own brand of regulation, and no one wants that.