VERSAILLES, Ky. — Flightline had placed on 100 kilos within the 5 months for the reason that finish of his transient however astonishing racing profession. He was nonetheless mild on his toes, although, as he high-stepped right into a breeding shed final month as if he had been on a crimson carpet. A mare named Bernina Star shuffled earlier than him.
Her bloodlines had been aristocratic, her racing report spectacular. After her profession, she fetched $1.2 million at public sale to do what she was about to do.
Bernina Star whinnied. Flightline rocked excessive onto his again legs. The 2 tangoed and tangled, oblivious to the person holding the mare’s tail or the 2 different chaperones circling this tryst.
Quickly, Flightline’s tail dropped like a flag on a windless day. He fell again to earth. It was time for a shower, after which an evening out within the bluegrass.
If the Kentucky Derby is taken into account probably the most thrilling two minutes in sports activities, this was maybe probably the most profitable 52.48 seconds in sports activities. Bernina Star’s proprietor paid $200,000 for (not fairly) a minute of Flightline’s time.
That payday explains why the best horses in racing — together with, in all chance, the winner of Saturday’s Derby — are destined to have quick careers, and why followers can’t take pleasure in the most effective horses for lengthy. The economics of recent horse racing virtually assure it.
On the racetrack, it took Flightline two years and 6 undefeated races to earn $4.5 million in purses. Doing what got here naturally twice a day within the breeding shed, he matched that complete in 11 days, doubled it in 22 and, with 155 mares in his date guide, can have generated $31 million in earnings by the top of the five-month breeding in July.
In a sport perpetually troubled by doping scandals, the frequent and mysterious deaths of its athletes, competitors from other forms of playing and waning curiosity amongst followers, it’s a counterintuitive option to retire him. Simply final November, at 4 years outdated, Flightline was probably the most thrilling thoroughbred on this planet. He had received all of his six races by a mixed 71 lengths and introduced giant crowds to see him soar round racetracks like Pegasus.
Think about LeBron James being pushed into teaching after his second season within the N.B.A. The racing trade has carried out one thing like that with Flightline.
“You may work by way of it and justify it by recognizing that he’s a particular expertise and also you hope he can replicate it and produce quick horses sooner or later,” stated Terry Finley, the founder and president of West Level Thoroughbreds, one of many 5 entities that personal Flightline.
However Finley conceded that this considering comes at a value to fan enthusiasm: “No, it’s not good for the sport.”
The Sport of Kings and Diamond Jim Brady
Thoroughbred racing in the USA has a wealthy and tawdry historical past that has usually mirrored that of the nation. In 1823, Eclipse met Sir Henry in a match race that pitted North versus South, an early window into the regional bitterness that will result in the Civil Warfare.
The game has produced folks heroes like Seabiscuit in the course of the Melancholy, ethereal wonders like Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, and Runyonesque gamblers like Pittsburgh Phil and Diamond Jim Brady and modern-day race fixers who acquired corralled by the feds.
If there’s a precept that unifies the game, it’s the inclination — no, dedication — to all the time take the cash.
In Central Kentucky, the cash is atop purple-flowered bluegrass that’s framed by plank fences and pulled like a canvas over gently rolling hills. Farm roads weave between weather-vaned barns and stately houses. In between are horses so far as you may see.
Foals determining the stilts which can be their legs. Hungry weanlings trailing after their full-figured moms. Broad-shouldered stallions languidly patrolling their expansive paddocks like beat cops lengthy after everybody has gone residence.
Flightline lives at Lane’s Finish Farm in a five-acre paddock, a tiny patch of garden on a 2,000-acre unfold.
He takes his flip within the breeding shed with 20 different stallions. Seventy-seven yearlings zigzag in paddocks just like the rambunctious adolescents they’re. Greater than 200 mares — some pregnant, others nursing new foals — convey life to this horsy Brigadoon.
Lane’s Finish and its neighbors are on the middle of a $6.5 billion trade that places 61,000 individuals to work on greater than 831,000 acres. However for the way lengthy?
Horse racing has been declining for many years. In 2002, greater than $15 billion was guess on races in the USA; final 12 months, the deal with fell to $12 billion. In 2000, practically 33,000 thoroughbred foals had been registered, nearly double the quantity from final 12 months.
Nonetheless, the competitors to create a generational expertise like Flightline has by no means been fiercer.
Breeding to Race or Breeding to Breed?
Horsemen and horsewomen have tried for hundreds of years to breed champion thoroughbreds, counting on a mix of science, instinct and luck. “Breed the most effective to the most effective and hope for the most effective” has been the prayer murmured for generations.
In horse racing’s golden age, the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts and enterprise titans just like the textile producer Samuel Riddle bred horses primarily to race. In 1919 and 1920, Riddle’s Man o’ Warfare received 20 of 21 races. When Man o’ Warfare was despatched to the breeding barn, Riddle restricted his guide to about 25 mares a 12 months, most owned by him or his family and friends.
The 1941 Triple Crown champion, Whirlaway, made 60 begins in his profession. The primary 11 Triple Crown winners collectively made 104 begins at age 4 or older, and received 57 of them.
In 1973, considered one of them, Secretariat, was syndicated for a then-record $6.08 million. He was retired as a 3-year-old after profitable 16 of his 21 begins, kick-starting the retail period of breeding.
The final two Triple Crown champions — American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018 — had been additionally retired at 3, however after operating far fewer races than Secretariat. American Pharoah’s stallion rights had been purchased for $30 million after the colt went 9 of 11 as a 2- and 3-year-old. Justify introduced $60 million after solely six races, all as a 3-year-old.
Craig Bernick, president of Glen Hill Farm in Ocala, Fla., is from a distinguished racing household. He tries to stick to his grandfather’s mannequin: Breed your mares, hold and race the fillies and promote the colts at public sale.
“He was a standard sportsman,” Bernick stated of his grandfather Leonard Lavin, who based the sweetness merchandise firm Alberto-Culver, which Unilever purchased in 2010. “I want there have been extra like him and I may very well be like that right now. However now I should be extra industrial. I have to spend money on stallion shares and take a few of my yearlings to public sale in Europe.”
The hurry to get horses to the stallion barn has had unintended penalties in an agribusiness that’s contracting: accelerated inbreeding.
Whereas the variety of broodmares has remained constant, the stallion inhabitants has dwindled. In 1991, Kentucky had 499 stallions whose books averaged 29.9 mares a 12 months. Final 12 months, Kentucky had 200 registered stallions who averaged 84 mares a 12 months. Many argue that this isn’t sustainable.
Three years in the past, the Jockey Membership, which retains the breed registry, cited scientific research that confirmed the thoroughbred gene pool was getting too shallow, endangering the breed. It tried to cap the variety of mares a stallion might impregnate at 140. The rule was challenged in court docket by three farms that collectively stood 16 stallions that bred greater than 140 mares every in 2020. One of many farms, Coolmore, additionally shuttles a few of its stallions to Australia to breed one other 50 to 100 mares within the Southern Hemisphere.
Final 12 months, the Jockey Membership deserted the rule after the Kentucky legislature, swayed by lobbyists for some industrial breeders, proposed a invoice that prohibited the cap and would have put the state racing fee in command of the registry for Kentucky-bred thoroughbreds.
Invoice Farish, the proprietor of Lane’s Finish, supported the rule despite the fact that the farm stands stallions that breed greater than 140 mares.
“It’s simply simple arithmetic to me,” stated Farish, who additionally has an curiosity in Flightline. “Possibly my mind works too merely. However in case you have half the variety of stallions breeding an analogous variety of mares, it’s acquired to be shrinking the pool.”
‘We All Know We’re Screwing It Up’
Mike Repole was on the cellphone. No, make that two telephones.
On one, he was barking orders at his bloodstock agent, who was in Ocala, bidding on a filly in a 2-year-old-in-training sale.
“Go to 280K,” Repole instructed the agent. “Good.”
Somebody bid $290,000.
“Hit them proper again,” Repole stated, his voice tightening. “Be faster. Present them we wish this one.”
Quickly, the gavel dropped at $310,000 and Repole Secure owned one other horse.
On the opposite name, with a reporter, Repole tried to clarify the dysfunction of horse racing.
Repole grew up in Center Village, Queens, and spent ample time on the rail at Aqueduct, the bluest collar of racetracks. He acquired into the beverage enterprise, constructing first Vitaminwater after which BodyArmor sports activities drink into manufacturers enticing sufficient for Coca-Cola to buy for practically $10 billion.
Repole has spent greater than $300 million shopping for horses. He has received dozens of probably the most prestigious stakes races — together with the Belmont on Lengthy Island and the Travers in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He developed a colt named Uncle Mo into one of many sport’s most achieved stallions.
On Saturday, he’ll host 75 members of the family and buddies in Louisville, Ky., on the 149th operating of the Derby, the place Forte — a colt he co-owns — is the 3-1 favourite.
Repole is confounded by horse racing’s resistance to vary and its unwillingness to embrace greatest practices. For instance, if Forte wins the Derby — the primary of the Triple Crown races — he’ll race two weeks later within the second leg, the Preakness in Baltimore. If he doesn’t, he’ll skip the Preakness to get some relaxation and return to the monitor 5 weeks later at Belmont Park.
“I’m all for custom, however wouldn’t or not it’s higher for the horses if there was extra time between races?” he requested. “If the Derby was in Might, the Preakness in June and Belmont in July, you’ll have greater fields with higher horses to get followers excited.”
He has in contrast horse racing to a poorly run restaurant with a wonderful menu.
“You realize the service is unhealthy and also you don’t just like the room, however when you get there the meals is simply so good,” Repole stated.
He has campaigned for a nationwide league workplace — a government that might convey racetracks, homeowners, trainers and breeders collectively on necessary points.
“Everyone knows we’re screwing it up,” Repole stated. “Horse racing is sort of a board recreation with no instructions. I’m one of many largest homeowners and I don’t know the place to go when I’ve an issue. There’s a selfishness constructed into the sport. Everybody treats it like a secret membership after we needs to be sharing and celebrating it.”
In six months or so, Repole and Forte’s co-owner, the Florida Panthers proprietor Vincent Viola, will determine whether or not to maintain Forte on the racetrack or comply with the game’s unifying precept and take the cash by sending him to the barn.
A Comfy Retirement
For Flightline’s homeowners, there isn’t any trying again. By the point Flightline’s first offspring hit the racetrack in 2026, he can have generated greater than $120 million in income.
If they’re quick and win races, his stallion charge is more likely to rise. America’s main sire, Into Mischief, is eighteen years outdated and instructions $250,000 a mating. If Flightline is unable to constantly go on his extraordinary pace, his worth shall be adjusted down.
Both means, if Flightline stays wholesome, he shall be an equine A.T.M. for the ages.
In Flightline’s racing days, he was so excited to run that his coach needed to take him to the monitor at 3 a.m. every day so he wouldn’t kick down his stall. Realizing this, the horse’s homeowners went to nice expense to place thick pads in his retirement stall so he wouldn’t harm himself.
The pads don’t have a mark on them.
Flightline likes what he does — a lot in order that within the first couple weeks of his new profession, he refused to depart the breeding shed lengthy after goodbyes had been exchanged.
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