08/07/2014 8:47AM

Marks: The Gural Rule

Nikki Sherman
Sweet Lou has seen his breeding potential grow with a spectacular 5-year-old year.

If nothing else, the “Gural Rule” that is designed to keep 4-year-olds racing allows professional observers an opportunity to better formulate more realistic ability assessments than they would have with more limited competitive exposure.

Basically under the Gural rule, stallions that do not race past their 3-year-old seasons will find that their progeny is ineligible to race in selected Hambletonian Society-sponsored stakes in addition to major stakes held at Jeff Gural-operated tracks like The Meadowlands, Vernon Downs, and Tioga Downs.  This mandates that champion colts and obvious stallion prospects like Captaintreacherous , Father Patrick, Trixton, etc. race through their 4-year-old seasons unless physically incapable.

This ruling has been unpopular in some circles, especially with breeders who feel that horses should have the option to keep racing if properly incentivized instead of being compelled to do so under the current stakes eligibility statutes. Undoubtedly there are legal issues in place here and there’s been talk that the mandate will be revisited in the very near future (the original plan called for a two-year trial ending this year).

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Until that happens, we’ve been able to see some different generational head butting that we might not have seen under previous circumstances.

For example, Sweet Lou, 2-year-old champion of his age group and among the leading contenders at ages 3 and 4, has thus far proven a fantastic 5-year-old and is clearly the leader of the 2014 Free-For-All class.

It has since been argued that “Lou” himself was part of an exceptional crop (2009), so evenly-matched that no one colt could thoroughly dominate.  This year, with many of his crop-mates no longer active, Sweet Lou has emerged as the dominant older pacer in North America.

But at ages 3 and 4, Sweet Lou had to contend with the likes of A Rocknroll Dance, Pet Rock, Warrawee Needy, Heston Blue Chip, Michaels Power, Bolt The Duer, Thinking Out Loud, Hurrikane Kingcole, and State Treasurer. It should be noted that in last year’s U.S. Pacing Championship, seven of the 10 entrants were members of Sweet Lou’s 4-year-old class.

In this year’s just completed U.S. Pacing Championship at the Meadowlands, only two of the starters were 4-year-olds—Captaintreacherous and Sunfire Blue Chip. Meanwhile, Sweet Lou’s age was represented by three starters as Thinking Out Loud and State Treasurer accompanied the victorious Sweet Lou.

Thus far, few of the Captaintreacherous’ age group classmates have been prominent in the Free-For-Alls at age 4, although it remains to be seen just how Sunshine Beach will ultimately fare.

At this point some erudite observers might question if the overall strength and depth of the Captaintreacherous crop was on a par with that of Sweet Lou’s crop. If they did not continue racing, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion!

As mentioned, there is already a clamoring amongst breeders to repeal the rule. They are convinced that expanded exposure can and will negatively impact stallion service fees. From that standpoint there is indeed justification, although conversely one has to wonder how many early retired freshman and sophomore champions who were but marginally successful as studs were indeed all they seemed to be given that limited racing exposure. This does not include so many who were forced to stop early due to physical issues.

While it can be argued that “The Captain’s” ultimate stud value may be negatively impacted by his performances this year, it can also be argued that Sweet Lou’s ultimate value has been positively upgraded by his performance as a 5-year-old. It also cast a favorable light on the overall depth and strength of his peers.

Back in what may or may not have been “the good ole days,” we saw these former 3-year-old stars compete as older horses often, and actually could categorize them on a year by year basis. For example, the well-remembered pacer Overcall went undefeated in the Free-For-All class as a 6-year-old, though in his younger days was but a minor player on his contemporary age group stakes scene, especially in races at 2 and 3.  

A similar fate was in store for Whata Baron, a dominant Free-For-Aller as a 6-year-old, who was  just one of the boys in his younger days.

The immortal Bret Hanover was arguably the greatest 2-year-old pacer of his time, though at ages 3 and 4 it could be argued that he wasn’t much if at all better than Overtrick or Romeo Hanover.  Once again, the relative strength of the age group crops came into play as Overtrick had to contend with the likes of Meadow Skipper and Country Don while Bret for the most part was not seriously challenged until Adios Vic came of age on the Midwestern mile tracks as a late 3-year-old. It might also be noted that Romeo Hanover’s constant but unsuccessful 3-year-old tormenter, True Duane, did indeed upend the 4-year old Bret Hanover in the American Pacing Classic at Hollywood Park in 1966.

While it’s difficult to measure one crop against another, things tend to become more clarified when different age group members can actually compete against each other on a more frequent basis.

However, what’s good for the historical observer in terms of pure sport, may not be popular with those who put up their money to play the game in terms of pure business.

Thus it’s likely there will be much further discussion both pro and con concerning the continuation of what has come to be known as the Gural Rule. 

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