Updated on 09/16/2011 8:15AM

Top horses racing at 4? Could be


NEW YORK - It sure would have been interesting to see War Emblem race as a 4-year-old next year and find out whether he is a champion for the ages or a colt who got good for a few weeks at the right time in the spring of 2002. Instead, we're down to a one-race verdict and he's down to one final career start, the Breeders' Cup Classic Oct. 26.

Truth as usual being stranger than fiction, it was on Sept. 11, 2002, that the estate of a late Saudi Arabian prince signed an agreement to sell War Emblem to Japanese breeders for a cool $17 million. The deal calls for War Emblem to begin stud duty on the Japanese island of Hokkaido next year, pre-empting any further racing by this year's Derby, Preakness, and Haskell winner.

There's nothing new or shocking about retiring healthy 3-year-olds. Secretariat was retired and syndicated for estate reasons in 1973. Point Given, who, like War Emblem, was owned by Prince Ahmed bin Salman's The Thoroughbred Corp., was retired last year even though he might have been able to attempt a comeback at 4.

Nor is sending a racing icon to Japan anything new. Some of Kentucky's bluest-blood owners have sold five previous Derby winners and several other champions to Japan, including Forty Niner and the late Sunday Silence, for whom War Emblem is considered something of a potential replacement.

It's hard to argue that anyone but a sportsman with absolutely no regard for money, much less a nonracing family settling an estate, could turn down $17 million for War Emblem. As Bob Baffert, the colt's trainer, told Daily Racing Form: "It's sort of sad because this horse had such a following, but business is business."

The sale to the Japanese must have come as particularly surprising news to readers of The New York Times, whose news (not sports) department reported only two weeks ago that the Saudi royal family was planning to donate War Emblem to the families of the American casualties of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, perhaps in a ceremony at Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2002.

It is unclear whether this page one story reflected any reality at all, given that everyone associated with the Salman estate immediately characterized the report as baseless, but it is at least morbidly interesting to speculate on the logistics of donating a racehorse to more than 3,000 families. Would he have continued to race as America's horse, or would the new shareholders have voted to take $17 million from Shadai Farm?

In any case, reports from Kentucky suggest there is movement afoot to do something to keep future star 3-year-olds in training a bit longer.

According to The Blood-Horse magazine, a publication of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, the TOBA is paying a consultant to write a business plan for a new racing series for older horses leading up to the Classic called the Thoroughbred Championship Tour.

Beyond that, the story and the politics get very confusing. Putting together a sponsored, televised series in each Breeders' Cup division has been a primary project for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which merged its operations last year with Breeders' Cup Ltd. The NTRA/BC, however, is not involved in the TCT undertaking, a project that sounds reminiscent of the old American Championship Racing Series, which was the brainchild of Thoroughbred owner Barry Weisbord. In fact, Weisbord was part of the TOBA group proposing the TCT, but then TOBA asked Weisbord to resign from the TCT committee.

"I was told the project had a better chance to succeed if I was not involved," Weisbord told The Blood-Horse. "I took it a step further and resigned from TOBA."

None of this sounds very encouraging. Just when it looks like the NTRA, with broad-based support, is making good progress in adding order and television exposure to the racing calendar under the banner of a road to the Breeders' Cup, owners are acting independently to create some other sort of series while shunning Weisbord, who accomplished more for the sport with the ACRS than a half-dozen alphabet-soup organizations had in a decade.

The ACRS was not only the best year-long series the sport has ever seen, but it can be seen from a distance as a watershed moment in the industry's development. It opened track operators' eyes and horseplayers' minds to the idea of national simulcasting, which now accounts for more than 80 percent of racing's business. It's a good and overdue idea to re-create and build on its success, but this seems astrange way of doing it.