12/10/2012 12:25PM

Jay Bergman: Horses not faster, but are picking up their gait quicker

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Bob Marks says current horses are a more purified breed, but not necessarily faster.

The sport of harness racing continues to breed faster horses.

Or does it?

There’s no question races today go at a much higher rate of speed than they did 30 years ago.

There’s a school of thought that says the breeding has become more refined and that has produced a pacer more inclined to go faster.

Bob Marks was a breeding aficionado long before he joined with Perretti Farms. Marks studied pedigrees while a top-notch handicapper at Roosevelt Raceway. When he moved his tack to Perretti, he brought a wealth of pedigree knowledge and a keen understanding of the racing business.

“I don’t think the breed has advanced in that way,” Marks said. “I think what we have today is a more purified breed. By that, I mean that there was a time not long ago where you could look back two or three generations in a pacer’s pedigree and find trotting blood.”

Marks continued: “Back during that period [1950s through 1970s] there were also plenty of examples of trotting sires that produced pacers with regularity and double-gaited horses.”

Contrast that with today’s breeding, and it is difficult, if near impossible, to find trotting blood in any of today’s best pacers or pacing stallions.

Where Marks differs from some breeding experts is that he doesn’t believe we’re breeding a faster horse.

“You look at a horse like Golden Receiver, he has a pedigree that you may have seen in a horse 20 years ago, yet he’s pacing in 1:48 in January,” Marks said.

While Golden Receivers do pop up on occasion and go fast enough to believe that little has changed, Marks does believe there’s an acute difference in today’s horses, something that wasn’t there in the past.

“Our horses come to their gait much faster today than in the past. We film our yearlings each year, and you can actually see pacers pacing in the field,” Marks said.

All horses are natural trotters, so when you see a yearling pacing in the field it certainly says something.

What it also conveys is a message to trainers that when you buy a yearling, there doesn’t need to be a lot of work done to make a horse pace freely or trot freely.

This evolution has been sampled on the racetrack, where 2-year-olds are just going faster right from the outset than they ever could before.

Location, location, location

Marks and Perretti Farm didn’t shock anyone in the industry with last week’s announcement that leading pacing stallion Rocknroll Hanover and top trotting stallion Muscles Yankee will stand in Pennsylvania in 2013. The farm had remained as loyal to New Jersey as any nursery could, but too many yearlings selling at a Garden State-enforced discount was something they could no longer absorb.

Pennsylvania has become the destination of choice, with former New York stallion standout Bettors Delight moving to the Quaker State after just one year north of the border in Ontario. Also on the move will be Crazed, a trotting stallion who showed plenty of life with his first crop in the New York Sire Stakes program this year.

While Pennsylvania may become overcrowded with the new blood, one thing remains a certainty, fewer and fewer mares will be bred in 2013 than were in 2012. This is a trend that goes counter to purses and racing opportunities that have trended upward over the years.

While racetracks continue to heavily support racing for aged horses, there is little incentive for those not currently in the business of breeding standarbreds to join in the fun. What has been happening is a contraction and the appearance of certain farms looking to get smaller but finding difficulty in achieving this outcome.

In short, there aren’t enough buyers in the market willing to take on a large amount of mid-range to low-range broodmares, no matter the sire they are in foal to.

Marks confirmed that while Perretti has maintained its level of broodmares from last year to this year, they are extremely selective in adding new ones.

“The cost of bringing a yearling to market is between $15,000 and $20,000, and that’s without the stud fee included,” Marks said.

Thus, Marks noted that he recently had to turn down a pacing mare that had raceway earnings of near $300,000 because he just wasn’t sure she would produce the type of foal necessary to profit in today’s difficult terrain.

“They’ll pay six figures for a horse that looks a particular way,” said Marks, “but they’ll pay very little for one that doesn’t.”

The recent mixed auction at Harrisburg pretty much confirmed that mid- to low-end broodmares were undesirable.

Bill Perretti made much of his money selling cars for a living, and Marks uses that parallel to describe what the current marketplace has become.

“I would look at the aged horses the same way I’d look at used cars. The horses have been through a number of owners and they have a lot of mileage,” Marks said. “The big difference between the two is that at least the dealer got paid for the new car when he originally sold it. Today, we’re not getting paid enough for the yearlings.”

The irony about the breeding business today is that by breeding fewer horses they may eventually give racino owners what they have been hoping for behind the scenes – less racing days.

The last breeding boom that attracted widespread interest in the nursery business was when the Meadowlands, under Joe DeFrank held a series of races for 2-year-olds that promised high purses in the early- to mid-1980s. But sadly in 2013 the Woodrow Wilson, which once held a purse in excess of $2 million, won’t survive. It has been scrapped with management looking to shift 2-year-old races to the fall with the renewal of the on-again, off-again Governor’s Cup.

And even those optimists from Pennsylvania will still need to hope that the government doesn’t step in to change the game when these new stallions sell horses bred in that state for the first time three years from now.

History tells us that politicians can give opportunity and they can take it away just as easily.

Let the breeders beware.