Updated on 09/16/2011 8:15AM

Racing stuck taking backseat to breeding

Email

POMONA, Calif. - Any lingering delusions that horse racing is a sport first and a business later have been dashed by the sale and imminent retirement of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem.

Apparently seduced by comparisons to Sunday Silence, the sons of the late Zenya Yoshida decided that War Emblem could be a genuine replacement for their recently departed superstud.

Well, to borrow from Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, I knew Sunday Silence, and War Emblem is no Sunday Silence . . . unless you think Proud Citizen is another Easy Goer.

But good luck to the Yoshidas, who will pay their $17 million for War Emblem and take their chances. In the meantime, American racing is once again left high and dry without a marquee 3-year-old to carry the torch into his 4-year-old season.

The trend, by now, has gone way past alarming. We've got a full-blown red alert. Over the past decade, the winners of Triple Crown races have been disappearing like Chinese dissidents. True, some of them were injured and could no longer compete. Yet others were sound as brass, or retired with merely a flesh wound.

A.P. Indy, Tabasco Cat, Timber Country, Thunder Gulch, Grindstone, Charismatic, Fusaichi Pegasus, Point Given. We blinked and they were gone. Monarchos made one start at age 4 and followed.

There have been exceptions to soothe the pain. Skip Away made up for his unlucky Triple Crown experience with grand campaigns at 4 and 5. Classic winners Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Lemon Drop Kid, and Victory Gallop were all major winners beyond their 3-year-old seasons. Good for them. And good for the people who kept them going.

More fans watched War Emblem this year than any other Thoroughbred. His appeal helped expose horse racing to more television viewers than any other Thoroughbred of 2001.

Now he is gone, or at least he will be soon. If he starts in the Breeders' Cup Classic it will be a surprise. After losing two other stallions this year besides Sunday Silence, the Yoshida family is not likely to take a chance with their newest acquisition.

Racing fans are resilient, though. They have learned to cope. Ever since the day Secretariat walked away - hale and hearty, still ready to play - a certain cynicism has pervaded the game. Each time a fashionably-bred young runner jumps up to win any combination of Triple Crown events, an over-under is immediately laid. Will he make it to the Breeders' Cup? The Travers? The next morning?

American racing is not alone. Europe's best 3-year-olds are retiring at the same rate, as the economics of the breeding business make it too costly to race. The latest star on the way up and out is Rock of Gibraltar, owned in part by the knighted Manchester United soccer coach, Alex Ferguson.

"The speculation is that Rock of Gibraltar could be syndicated for $50 million," said Tim Smith, commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. "How can you combat that? We can all lecture Sir Alex on his obligation to the game. Or suggest gelding. Instead, I think we should turn to ambitions that have a greater chance of paying off."

Smith's advice is to face facts and accept the nature of the racing business as irrevocably intertwined with the breeding side. War Emblem may be the latest big name to face early retirement, but he won't be the last.

"This industry beats itself up more than just about any I've ever seen," Smith said. "And the self-flagellation extends to this issue. I hear, 'What other sport loses its superstars?' After we're through admitting all that, what do we do? I don't think any of us has a solution to the economics."

But if racing can't cling to its best horses and promote them accordingly, what is left? Smith sees hope in the concept of renewal - sort of like the fascination over NBA and NFL drafts.

"There's a whole new crop, a whole new story every year," Smith said.

And the more people understand about the process, the more interesting it becomes. It's the process that needs more marketing.

"I'm a new resident of Kentucky, and you can go online for hours and read about ninth- and 10th-grade football players being recruited," Smith went on. "After two or three years of stardom, the process renews itself, and football fans turn to the new crop coming in.

"Sure, if golf had the same pattern as racing, Tiger Woods would have been long gone from the links," Smith added. "I'm more of a mind to focus on what we have, and do more with that, rather than lament the economics."

Unlike golf, however, racing has a competitor in its own house. And horse racing is unable to compete with horse breeding when it comes to cold, hard cash. No one is stepping up to offer the owners of colts like War Emblem, Fusaichi Pegasus, or A.P. Indy purses of $17 million.

"But suppose you could?" Smith said. "Suppose through a combination of account wagering, sponsorships, alternative gaming at racetracks, if there were to be, say, a 50 percent aggregate purse increase, then it would stand to reason that more stars might stick around."

It's at least worth a try. In the meantime, fair warning: Don't fall in love with a Derby winner.