08/03/2009 5:30PM

Kindest Cut


It could have been a great weekend for geldings, and I was all set to extoll their many virtues. Then Mine That Bird came up short in the West Virginia Derby, and Well Armed fired a blank - pun apologetically intended - in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, and I felt chastised. Maybe geldings ain't so hot after all.

Baloney. The fact that neither animal has his original equipment had nothing to do with those setbacks. Mine That Bird could not have looked more uncomfortable on the Mountaineer surface when he was sent chasing after the fleeing Big Drama, while Well Armed sulked like a moody stallion and trundled home last, in a replay of his flop in last year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.

They'll both be back to fight again, which goes without saying, since racing is their only business. As the winners of both the world's richest race (the Dubai World Cup) and the world's most famous race (the Kentucky Derby), Well Armed and Mine That Bird have earned a loyal following, as well as the right to be taken seriously.

They have company this season, at the highest levels. The gelding Bribon won the Metropolitan Mile, a race that always has breeders salivating. Better luck next time. Battle of Hastings, a British gelding, is mopping up grass races for 3-year-olds on both coasts. Rail Trip, gelded at age three, is now four and reigns as the Hollywood Gold Cup winner. Commentator, America's boss gelding until Nick Zito says otherwise, will try to win his third Whitney on Saturday at Saratoga.

Even the most observant horseplayers might not know a gelding from full service stallion. Ever get a look at Forego? The act of gelding, however, is a key piece of information, and racing jurisdictions should be serious about enforcing first-time gelding rules. Trainer Ron Ellis, in fact, was fined $500 for failure to inform authorities that Rail Trip was a gelding prior to his first start, on Nov. 7, 2008, at Hollywood Park.

"He'd been gelded at the farm, before he came back in," Ellis said this week at Del Mar, where Rail Trip is training for the Pacific Classic. "Even though he'd never run, I guess they considered him a first-time gelding since he'd worked at the track as a colt. But it's not like he had any form he was going to reverse.

"I do think knowing when a horse was gelded is a very important piece of information, though," Ellis added. "In fact, I think the Racing Form should carry a line or some kind of symbol noting when it happened. Gelding has a whole lot more impact than nasal strips, for example."

In many ways, there remains a stigma attached to geldings. And I promise that will be the last time I use the words "gelding" and "attached" in the same sentence. Despite the astronomical odds of a particular young male Thoroughbred going on to become a first-class racehorse with the pedigree and conformation to improve the breed, castration is an option of last resort rather than first response.

This is attributable to any of several issues, not the least of which is the cringe factor among men when the surgery is mentioned. In less emotional terms, the modern breeder breeds with an eye more toward the market than the racetrack, which makes castration an unlikely farm policy. The Euros are no help, either, with their exclusionary policies regarding the participation of geldings in their 3-year-old classics, as well as the Arc de Triomphe. Here is what John Magnier of Coolmore said this past spring, just prior to the Epsom Derby and a few weeks after Mine That Bird rocked the breeding world at Churchill Downs:

“In the United States, they permit geldings to run in their Derby, but that’s giving the geldings an unfair advantage. They have usually been gelded because there is a mental frailty there. After gelding they are easier to train. Theirs is not a pure Classic like Epsom."

So, to follow Magnier's logic, geldings, having been relieved of not only their testicles but their inherent mental frailty, should either be banned from despoiling the classics because of their level-headedness, or perhaps be assigned a "mental handicap" in the weights, to bring them back to the scatter-brained colts in a given field. Geldings, to Magnier et al, are not simply altered male Thoroughbreds. They are a sub-species of Thoroughbreds altogether, fit only for the depths of the handicap ranks, end-use steeplechasing, or export to Americans, who have demonstrated they'll fall for anything with a British accent or a Union Jack attached (Hugh Grant, for example. And tea).

Believe it or not, there was a time American breeders had to be encouraged not to geld their horses. Check out this clip from the New York Times:  http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9F0CE4D8143EE433A25754C2A9619C946996D6CF. The Belmont Stakes contiuned to bar geldings until 1957, but there did not ensue the feared epidemic of neutered winners. Had Mine That Bird succeeded in the Belmont this year, he would have joined Creme Fraiche (1985) as the only gelding to take the third jewel in the Crown. But he didn't.

"Gelding is the best thing that could happen to the Thoroughbred industry right now," said Jack Robbins, a founder of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and president of the Oak Tree Racing Association. "I think it's great we've got some good ones around."

As a breeder, owner and farm manager, Robbins practiced what he preached. As a vet, he literally - and again I apologize - altered history. Robbins gelded Hall of Famers Native Diver and Ancient Title, as well as the Calumet Farm star Bardstown, who was nothing special as his 4-year-old season approached in 1956. Robbins tells it this way:

"Jimmy Jones said one morning, 'You cut that sonofabuck Trusting, and he's only won a couple three hundred thousand since you gelded him. Cut this dude - he's by Alibhai, too."

Lester Holt, who went on to train horses and own taverns, was helping Robbins at the time. Holt took one look at the halter that read "Alibhai - Twilight Tear" and said, "Doc, I think we're in the wrong stall." They weren't. But that's how it was, at a time when Thoroughbreds were brought into the world to race and race well, and not simply to win a couple stakes and then flood the market with mediocrity. As a gelding, Bardstown banked more than $600,000 and won two Widener Handicaps. When he retired, in 1959, only 17 horses had earned more.