Signifying Nothing

By Larry Levin -- People who run businesses hire various independent contractors -- lawyers, accountants, architects, builders. These individuals may or may not perform satisfactory work. If those footing the cost are not happy, one assumes that they'll find alternatives.

It would be odd to have a commercially successful person comment, "My lawyer doesn't talk to me. He has blatant disregard for the fact that I'm paying the bills." The logical question for someone listening to this complaint would be, "Why don't you get another lawyer?"

For whatever reason, some Thoroughbred owners like to talk about how in the dark they are. On their tax forms, they tell the Internal Revenue Service they're running a for-profit enterprise, but in conversation they'll volunteer that they don't know what's going on with their business. It's all the trainer's fault, you see. He can't communicate.

Running a business, however, means taking responsibility. Someone who blames others not only implies he can't manage, but also sounds like Captain Queeg during the U.S.S. Caine court martial, "I was one man against a whole ship without any support from my officers."

Unhappy with your trainer and looking for an improvement? Every major racing circuit has hundreds to choose from. But the average owner probably knows less than half by name, even fewer by sight. Important criteria such as a conditioner's methods or trustworthiness are often mysteries. As a result, some owners do more thorough research buying a refrigerator than in finding a compatible, competent individual to care for their valuable animals.

In other business contexts, the owner might interview candidates, review bids, or check references to determine the right person for the job. This approach can go out the window at the track, where some owners seem to select a trainer with about as much thought as what they're betting in the next race.

It's critically important for an owner to understand what he's getting. If he wants a well-known trainer with 100 horses in three or four widely dispersed venues, he shouldn't complain if one of the assistants actually cares for his horse. If he wants someone who has his hands on every one of his runners every day, then the owner needs to find a smaller, and perhaps more obscure, operation.

Trainers differ in how they bring horses along. Some push 2- and 3-year-olds hard to get a quick return on investment. Others are more patient and let the horses develop at their own rate. The same is true in dealing with the inevitable ailments all horses have. Do you want a trainer who races aggressively for short-term results or someone who will let the horse get over a problem, even if that means more time and expense in the hope of having a longer, more productive career?

Trainers have contrasting levels of client-relationship skills. But whatever such abilities the trainer may or may not have, the owner has to treat communication as a two-way street. The owner needs to let the trainer know what and how much information he wants. No business executive can process every facet of every task--it's not practical. Information needs to be filtered and prioritized to be useful.

For each owner, then, it's a question of how fine the filter is. Does the owner want to know every time the horse leaves a little grain, has some heat or swelling in a leg, kicks the wall, coughs, loses a shoe, has a rash, seems too complacent in the morning or too agitated, takes a funny step, gets a cut, or develops a sore? Some owners do, but most would not know what to do with such details. Upon receiving very thorough reports, many would become depressed over the endless stream of negatives and conclude that the trainer must be incompetent to have so many setbacks. Then the owner might go back to the silent type--no news must be good news.

In the investment world, there's a cryptic saying that everybody gets what they want out of the market. An owner with a noncommunicative trainer can tolerate the situation, criticize it, or correct it. But if an owner doesn't take the steps necessary to find a trainer with whom he can have a good working relationship, then the complaints, like Macbeth's sound and fury, will signify nothing.

LARRY LEVIN is an attorney and Thoroughbred owner.