Updated on 09/17/2011 1:51PM

The price of racing Smarty


NEW YORK - Smarty Jones's owners have every right in the world to take the money and not run, to retire him at year's end rather than race him as a 4-year-old. Let's all stop pretending, though, that this decision would reflect the unreasonable cost of equine insurance or be a proper sporting decision because the colt has nothing left to prove on the racetrack.

If he is retired, it will be only another example of how the stallion-making industry has become the tail that wags the dog in racing, by offering riches so vast that mere race purses look like pocket change by comparison. We have seen it in recent years with Fusaichi Pegasus, Point Given, and Empire Maker, all of whom could and should have returned to the races at 4 but who instead had been syndicated and retired by then.

"Smarty Jones's total stud value is widely expected to be in the $30 million to $40 million range," Glenye Cain wrote in Friday's Daily Racing Form. "Farms making such high-priced offers for the young stallion prospect may well call for an end to his racing career, both to preserve his future stud value and to protect him from the possibility of injury."

There had been reason to hope it might be different this time. Smarty Jones's owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, genuinely enjoy running their colt and sharing him with an adoring public. Retired and wealthy, they don't need the syndication money to save the family farm. Also, there's the offset of the $7.5 million Smarty Jones has already earned, including a once-a-century $5 million gift from Oaklawn Park in the form of a promotional bonus.

Yet the Chapmans' son Mike told the Associated Press Thursday that no decision had been made about a 4-year-old campaign, primarily because insurance premiums could exceed $1 million next year. There may be nothing easier or more unfair than telling someone else how to spend $1 million, but the amount does not exactly seem an impossible hardship given the colt's earnings to date and the imminent syndication proceeds.

The problem is that the people dangling those $40 million offers do not particularly want to see him run even three more races this year, much less a full campaign in 2005. His value can't go significantly higher even if he runs the table, and further losses after the Belmont Stakes can only cool the market. Also, a 4-year-old campaign means deferring for a year the immediate windfall of stud fees.

A generation ago, this was not as big an issue because a new stallion of this prominence was more closely held and conservatively bred, typically syndicated among just 36 to 40 shareholders. Now, in an era dominated by international breeding factories, cross-hemisphere stallion shuttling, and books of as many as 200 mares, a stallion begins generating cash a lot more quickly and efficiently than ever.

There are millions of reasons to retire a hot commodity such as Smarty Jones before his time and only one to keep him in training - the sheer sport of it. Imagine Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid without their 4-year-old seasons - excellent 3-year-olds but not the revered, immortal heroes their final seasons made them. It's hard to put a pricetag on that - and this, sadly, may be exactly why we are unlikely to see such campaigns again.

Where handicaps don't belong

Southern Image's perfect season came to an end last Saturday in the Stephen Foster Handicap, where he was beaten just a nose after a tough trip over a sloppy track. Whether you pay much attention to weight, the fact that he was forced to carry 11 pounds more than the winner might have accounted for the few inches he was beaten, again raising the question of why Grade 1 races are still run under handicap conditions.

If there is a place for handicap racing, it is not at the Grade 1 level where champions are crowned and the best horse should not be given an additional obstacle. No other sport tilts the playing field to prevent its best players from winning its most important events.

The Graded Stakes Committee is taking a hard look at the issue and there is a growing consensus among track operators and racing officials that the time has come to make most of the 38 remaining Grade 1 handicap races weight-for-age events. The sole argument against this change is that there might be smaller fields and thus less betting handle, but we are only talking about 38 races a year out of 60,000 parimutuel events. The game can easily afford to do the right thing.