10/13/2014 11:03AM

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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Richard Young More than 1 year ago
A weak 3 yr old weak crop including the best of the 3 yr old crop will show up as an average 4 yr old. If the dominant one is truly that great ,they will prove it at any age.
Blaine MacMillan More than 1 year ago
Another point Jay was making was in reference to how well 4yo's performed last year. Pet Rock was clearly the fastest 4yo pacer on harness racing history and Market Share and Uncle Peter were the most consistent trotters in the older ranks as 4yo's...
Kevin Montague More than 1 year ago
I feel that any owner who watches his horse, after realizing it is going to make a lot of money, avoid all the pitfalls of a 2yo and 3yo season, there is the obvious question. Do I press my luck or do I get my foot in the door of the breeding shed? Risk vs reward. Mares get booked on an impressive season that is still fresh in the mind of the breeder. That door will close quickly. Risk vs reward.
Philip Sporn More than 1 year ago
Spider BC is a gelding
Jay Bergman More than 1 year ago
That's correct Phil.
John Cicale More than 1 year ago
Contrarians are rarely wise or even clever. Of course, 3yo's who had great records face much tougher competition at 4, so it is an unsurprising given that their records will regress even as these horses mature and run even better. The hope and anticipation that these horses inspire that they might hold up against their elders makes this sport worth watching. Watching what an undermatched 3yo produces in 2 years is unbelievably boring, beyond any scholar's attention span, and is unlikely to result in anything better than the top 3yo already is showing on the track.
Walt Gekko More than 1 year ago
It's the right move long-term and is something we need to not only see in thoroughbred racing, but expanded on to make it so they have to race through age five. Making top thoroughbreds race to age five would force changes in the ways horses are bred to where they would have to be for stamina, soundness and durability as opposed to speed, precociousness and the quick buck. The breeders would howl and come in kicking and screaming, however, it would be in the best overall interests for it to happen.
Walt Gekko More than 1 year ago
Making top thoroughbreds race to age five would force changes in the ways horses are bred to where they would have to be for stamina, soundness and durability as opposed to speed, precociousness and the quick buck. The breeders would howl and come in kicking and screaming, however, it would be in the best overall interests for it to happen.
Billy More than 1 year ago
All it proves is what most of us knew beforehand, last year's 3 yo pacing division was weak. That's why Captaintreacherous was able to dominate. Nobody thought he was the second coming of Niatross or Somebeachsomewhere when he was winning all those races last year. He was just better than a bad year. That's going to happen and it will be interesting to see which years turn out to be good ones. It will actually help the breed, so nobody rushes to anoint Captaintreacherous or the next 3yo champion a superstar god when he isn't. Make them prove it on the track. The Bee A Magician thing is similar in that she kept beating the same horses on her win streak, but what are we really expecting in subdvisions like 3 yo fill trotters. For the record on my speed figures, Bee A Magician is running the same figures she ran last year, which might explain why she was so good in age restricted races. She just matured faster than the others. Isn't the point of having them run at 4 is to see if they are indeed that good or if they benefitted from certain circumstances. Don't whine about those who couldn't, celebrate Creatine ans the next 3yo champion who does conquer the older horses.
Jack H More than 1 year ago
Bingo.... spot on. If you want to write an article of substance perhaps take the top 5 older horses and track the earnings as 4yo's and compare that to the avg per year earnings yrs 5 6 and 7. Now talk about the challenges 4yo's face. Now your article has merit
Dante Sindori More than 1 year ago
Sorry, but I beg to differ. The point seems to be that he thinks Gural's rule is somehow regressive. I don't believe the 4yo rule for studs is an attempt at turning back the clock...it's an attempt at bringing the stars back for one more year for the fans...you know...the people the "free market" (subsidizing by slots is a free market?) treats mostly as a necessary evil. Great horses like Cam Fella come back as 4yo's and beat anybody, anywhere and prove their mettle. Others are managed to hide their weaknesses and are sometimes exposed when the crop they took on was sub-standard and they have to take on better competition at maturity. Take a look at the 4yo crop from last year and tell me with a straight face that they were not competitive and exciting.
Jack H More than 1 year ago
Can you explain the point of this article? I am at a loss to find any logical construct to it.