May 11, 2009

Changes From Within - A Man You Should Know

So, as everyone knows by now Jess Jackson has bought Rachel Alexandra. I just wanted to take a moment to highlight how great this guy is -- he is doing what every good racehorse owner should be for the sport. I don't personally know him, and frankly I've only been reading up on him extensively for the past week, so I'm not considering myself an expert on him or anything. But his rhetoric is a step in the right direction and his actions speak for themselves.

I, for one, was extremely impressed with his decision to continue running Curlin as a 4-year-old. The norm for racing a colt for only a maximum of one and half years before retiring to the breeding shed is doing NOTHING for the sport. And, as I've said before and I'll say it again, this emphasis on early speed is having a detrimental effect on the types of racehorses being bred. We may indeed be churning out speed monsters, but they also have a overwhelming tendency to break down. Where are all the tough stayers that can have long, healthy careers?

You want to know why fans don't flock to racing anymore? A huge part of that has become inherent in the sport itself. Why would I get emotionally involved with a Kentucky Derby winner when I know that realistically that horse will, at a maximum, run 3 or 4 more races before being retired? There's no legacy, no basis of comparison to past runners. There are no career ups and downs that I can follow with abated breath.

But Curlin was an exception. And a great horse to boot. That is the type of change this sport needs.

In his testimony before a congressional subcommittee on drugs in horseracing, Jess Jackson encouraged the establishment of a national governing body to regulate the sport (as well as to ban all steroid use and other non-therapeutic drugs). He urged Congress to amend the law in order to allow the formation of "a legitimate national owners governing body with federally sanctioned authority to make and enforce consistent rules, regulations and standards. [...] [S]uch an organization could solve most of the industry's central problems, which [...] include a "lack of transparency of medical records and ownership, uniformity, accountability and enforceability (of rules)."

He continued, "The industry's 'broken business model' depends on profits from breeding rather than racing [...] noting that current estimates are that horseowners invest $4.3 billion a year for a chance to compete for approximately $1.1 billion in purses. "There is every incentive to shorten horses' racing careers, racing them too young and retiring them too soon, in order to get them to stud sooner [...] We used to breed to race. Now we race to breed. [...] The industry focuses excessively on breeding horses for early, brilliant speed at relatively short distances. Today too many breeders end up producing heavily conformed upper body muscled horses with relatively fragile legs. It's like having Arnold Schwarzenegger's body and Don Knotts' legs. We need stamina and durability as well as speed."

I could not have said it better. I do not care that the man is obscenely wealthy with nothing to lose by making such statements (unlike other owners). I do not care that it may be hypocritical of him to be saying this when he let his own trainer run Curlin on steroids. We all make mistakes; what sets him apart from other owners is that he is willing to find a new way forward. He is speaking out. He is trying better the industry from within. And, more importantly, he is doing exactly what he promised he would. His decision to run Curlin at 4 should be enough to silence his toughest critics.

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