10/13/2014 10:03AM

Bergman: Our four-year-old stars are underperforming

Balmoral Park
With the exception of the surging Creatine, the returning crop of four-year-olds have generally been a failure.

Who wouldn’t like to turn the clock back?

In the rearview mirror of life things always seem better and brighter. Perhaps that’s why some hope for future prosperity by looking at what worked in the past and bringing it forward.

The concept of making it mandatory for horses to compete during their four-year-old season was an admirable attempt to recreate the past. Great racing is something to be cherished. During a time when there was less money in retirement and more money in racing horses naturally raced at four, five and beyond and earned significant money.

It’s impossible to look back and somehow miss just how different the racing game was then than it is today. For the most part two-year-old racing in the 60’s and 70’s offered minimal purses and therefore horsemen had a long-term goal to bring horses around slowly and allow them to naturally mature before starting them.

Going further horses were traveling more than 15 seconds slower than they do today. All races were contested with horses allowed to relax at points in the mile and sprint short distances.

Drivers rarely, if ever whipped their horses early in the race.

Horses raced longer and lasted longer not because they were any more durable than they are today. They did so due to management and a less demanding style of racing.

There was a natural progression of horses improving with age and the likelihood of that occurring was real given the lack of significant two-year-old money to race for.

It would be nice if we could turn back the clock. It would be nice if we could lighten the load for young horses and put more incentive for owners and trainers to develop horses in a way designed to make them last longer and improve with age.

As nice as that sounds it is impractical to believe a shift of that nature is possible or achievable due to the current economics of this business.

A makeshift study of this year’s four-year-old pacers and trotters shows more of an erosion of talent than an improvement. Nearly all of last year’s top three-year-olds have come back to race in 2014 and performed well below the levels many had hoped.

There’s no need to point a finger at Captaintreacherous. Despite a season that lasted just 7 races the two-time Pacer of the Year didn’t struggle as badly for the most part as many of his contemporaries did. Just take a look at the past performances of his conqueror at three, Sunshine Beach, who to date has earned $25,000 with a scorecard that reads 10-1-0-1. That’s the same horse that paced in 1:47 4/5 as a three-year-old earning more than $900K with this 20-8-5-3 stat line.

The other brilliant sophomore of 2013, Vegas Vacation, didn’t even race this year after posting a 20-10-4-1 record and earning $971,632 last season.

On the trotting side it’s even more disappointing even with the recent advancement of Creatine up the ladder.

Hambletonian champion Royalty For Life earned $1.27 million with a 14-7-2-0 record as a three-year-old. He returned briefly this year and made two inconsequential starts before being retired.

Smilin Eli had a brilliant three-year-old season with $740K in earnings and an exemplary 16-6-4-3 record. He’s come back this year to earn a shade over $10 grand with a score line of 7-1-0-0.

What about Spider Blue Chip? Last year at this time he was emerging as a star. His late season run put him over $1 million in earnings for 2013 with a 20-10-3-2 record. This year he’s struggled mightily going 10-1-0-1 with earnings of but $22,000.

No one expected Bee A Magician to go undefeated again in 2014, but we certainly did expect her to rise up and dominate. That hasn’t been the case as the four-year-old edition has six seconds in a dozen starts with only three victories.

I’m not sure what kind of stallion offers may have come their way had Spider Blue Chip, Royalty For Life or Smilin Eli been given total freedom in making a decision whether to race at four or retire, but one has to think the three of them together could have earned more than $40K for their owners had the opportunity existed.

Sanctions are imposed on countries in order to encourage (force) a change in behavior. Sometimes sanctions need to be made severe to achieve the desired outcome.

While we can all assume that the owners of the three four-year-old trotters mentioned won’t have to make lifestyle changes because their prized horses lost money in 2014, at the same time we have to wonder what economic benefit was achieved by forcing them to return to race? Had any gone to stud no doubt the owners would have put money back in the sport immediately in the yearling market.

Past performances do not guarantee future success.

Sure, we’ve all read the warning when making investments and what’s near impossible to grasp is how, during modern times, can we expect horses to perform the way we want them to at any time in the future?

Great horses and great races do not follow a pattern.

And that’s a good thing.

What’s bad is making believe that because something worked 40 years ago it has to work today.

There is and will always be a random nature to great races. Sometimes we just get lucky and the right field meets at the right time. Sometimes horses remain sharp for an extended period of time and dominate.

Captaintreacherous was as dominant as a two and three-year-old could have been during modern times when so much is asked from the start of the freshman season.

Given what we have seen with our eyes over the course of this year are we expecting too much from any horse that they can maintain a high level of performance for three straight years?

Perhaps we should look to the example of Archangel. A horse that retired at four to breed because it was thought he wouldn’t be physically able to race. A year off the track may have been just what he needed since he’s been a solid five-year-old with a 1:50 mark.

Or better yet why not let nature and the “free” market system do what it does best?

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