12/16/2013 11:25AM

Jay Bergman: Retirement comes too soon for standardbreds

World Wide Racing Photos
Steve Smith campaigns many older horses, including 14-year-old Forest Vic A

As we approach the end of the year the clock is ticking on some. Since all horses share a birthday of sorts, January 1 marks the date that for record-keeping purposes all racehorses gain one year. All two-year-olds will become three on that date and others of racing age will advance and qualify for new races and fail to qualify for races for younger horses.

Some horses will get one year older and will be forced into retirement. While our nation and countries around the world have experienced increased life spans and therefore increased time at work, harness racing has an existing rule that does not allow horses at the age of 15 or older to race competitively (some Amateur Driving Clubs do permit older horses to compete). A U.S. Trotting Association rule proposal in place asks that this more than 40-year-old statute be amended or stricken for the purpose of allowing those caring for our “senior citizens” to show the horses more respect. An argument made was that trainers with horses close to mandatory retirement are likely to squeeze every drop out of a horse knowing that there is a finite future.

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To me that perhaps is the worst argument possible for extending the retirement age or abolishing it totally.

It should always be in the interest of any horseman taking care of any horse, of any age, to care for them in a manner that preserves their health. The “End-Is-Near” argument would hold true for any and all horses that suffer injuries from birth going forward as far as a racing career is concerned. So abolishing this restriction for that purpose would never change attitudes of those who wish to mistreat racehorses.

In the case of Forest Vic A, a 14-year-old that has spent his Saturday nights over the last seven seasons filling the entry box at Yonkers Raceway, the end comes at a time where this most accomplished horse is still, remarkably, racing at a very high level.

Here’s an example of a sound racehorse or athlete, if you will, forced to spend his Saturday nights away from the arena.

It makes no sense.

Why should harness racing limit the life of any athlete still fit, still vibrant, still capable of competing and healthy enough to do so on a regular basis?

“If you look at his legs only, he looks like a three-year-old,” said Steve Smith, his part-owner, driver and trainer over the years in the United States.

Forest Vic A, according to Smith, is not even the same 14 years of age that others born in North America are. “He was foaled in October, when he came here they made him a year older than his age Down Under,” said Smith, not trying to get by on a technicality.

“He didn’t race that much at two and three like they do in this country,” said Smith, giving rise to the thought that these horses can last longer on the racetrack because they don’t suffer injuries at a young age.

Forest Vic A’s racing career likely became reduced by one start this past Saturday when he was entered to race at Yonkers and the program was cancelled by the snow.

“I’ll race him Saturday night at Yonkers and then Pete Koch said he was looking to get a race for older horses put together at the Meadowlands,” said Smith during a rather adventurous Friday where he was driving from a day of racing at Freehold, to the Meadowlands to compete in a few races before driving again to Yonkers for another mount.

While Monticello Raceway annually tries to put together a race for retiring 14-year-olds, Smith thought the possibility of that race filling with Forest Vic A in the line-up to be remote.

Consistency has been the mark of Forest Vic A since he arrived on the scene in 2007. He’s started an average of 30 times a year. To prove he’s no worse for wear, the son of the exported sire Troublemaker has actually taken lifetime marks of 1:52 3/5 at Yonkers on two occasions at the ages of 13 and this year at 14.

Racing primarily over the half mile track at Yonkers, Smith says that he’s “taken care” of the horse on occasion. “There are sometimes spots on the racetrack where the surface has broken down. I try to get him around those,” said Smith.

Smith along with trainer Karen Garland has also made sure to stick to a routine that has worked for Forest Vic A for some time.

“We have maintained a schedule of racing him three weeks in a row and then giving him a week off,” said Smith, suggesting also that if the horse didn’t get in during one of those three weeks they wouldn’t break from the routine.

As for routine, Forest Vic A too knew what was happening and was ready for the races when called upon. “I would say he knew when the vet showed up the day before race day that he would be going to the racetrack the next day,” Smith said.

When Smith and company purchased Forest Vic A in 2007, he arrived with $65,000 earned down under. “We paid $65,000 for him delivered,” said Smith. Since then he’s gone on to earn nearly $835,000 for his connections.

Sadly in two weeks his earning potential goes away and so to does his racing career. Unlike the aged performers Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter and Kobe Bryant, who were permitted to return from injury to pubic adoration and not forced into retirement, Forest Vic A will spend the rest of his days away from a racetrack.

What’s disappointing is that athletes like Manning, Jeter and Bryant are heralded for their endurance. They are marveled at for still being competitive and revered for making it back after suffering severe, career-threatening injuries. There is no group looking to preserve their collective health for society’s sake.

Forest Vic A can’t speak out against his forced retirement, but there’s no reason this sport shouldn’t do something to keep our athletes on the racetrack for as long as they are healthy and can compete.