Briefing #3: Our Options
With the help of our new ace bloodstockng agent, we learn the different pathways to owning our own horse.
Claiming horses are the blue collar laborers of the track. They compose the lowest level (and vast majority) of racing, and are for sale in most races. Every time the starting gun goes off, anybody with a license can buy (“or put a claim”) on a horse, whether they win, place, come in last or wind up with an injury.
Claiming horses are among the most cost effective ways to purchase a horse. The upside is that the breeding and breaking process are over, the horse is ready to race and earn purses, which can in turn cover training costs. It’s the easiest way to get into the game, and a system designed to prevent sneaky trainers from dropping faster horses down in rank to win purses.
The downside is that claiming horses have limits. It is very unlikely a claiming horse will ever make it very far, and evolve into higher quality allowance or lucrative stakes races. These horses are often destined to be workhorses, getting bought, sold, shipped around. They are claimers for a reason, and owners often use the races to get rid of horses with medical or other problematic issues they try and mask.
In rare cases, claiming horses, under the right care, can become break out stars. Take Stymie. In the early forties, Stymie was such a poor horse he came in last or close to last in his first two starts and his owners were desperate to get rid of him. In his third start, he was claimed for $1,500 by Hirsch Jacobs, a leading trainer in New York who saw potential in Stymie, and put the horse under his program.
Stymie’s progression was not quick. He lost his next two starts, then the next two. In total, ten losing starts passed. Finally, Stymie broke his maiden (horse slang for winning a first race) and got a few months rest. In 1945, with the war raging in Europe, the government shut down racing. After the break, Stymie became the most wealthy racehorse in the country, jumping up to allowance and stakes level races, and earning more than $900,000 in his career in the forties. Here’s Stymie, the claimer turned champion, pulling off another come from behind win.
TWO YEAR OLDS IN TRAINING
Racing Proverb: “Nobody Ever Committed Suicide With An Unraced Two-Year Old In Their Barn.”
Perhaps the most tantalizing purchase for an owner, Two Year Olds In Training might be the fastest way for a new owner to earn serious prize money. By the time these horses appear in a sales catalog, they have survived the farm (at another’s expense), been broken for riding at a training center (also on someone else’s dime), and emerge at auctions across the country as race-ready prospects.
The upside is timing and intelligence. After two years, trainers and owners and bloodstocking agents can tell so much more about a horse and how fast he or she can race, how he or she can handle a starting gate, the pressures of a rider on his or back.
There’s value in knowing these things about a horse before a purchase, and for these reasons two-year-olds in training can be costly and competitive buys at the sales, which happen in spring, before the summer racing season kicks off.
The most expensive horse ever purchased—The Green Monkey, for $16 million back in the spring of 2006—was a two-year old in training, for instance, and embodied all the prized elements but also dangers of these sales. The colt’s pedigree was outstanding, the training speeds were fantastic. See the auction video below. But even despite the impressive numbers, the Green Monkey’s performance on the track was dismal. He raced only three times, and failed to come in even second during a race.
Intangibles aside, many blood stocking agents, veteran trainers and others advise against horse shopping at the two-year old sales. The downside is profit. In order to increase the purchase price of a horse, trainers often train and work their prospects hard to achieve fast speed times. The wear and tear though, and during the early growth stage of a baby horse, many say, only lead to costly, health problems. Bones don’t form and develop as strong as they could. Early fractions and tears occur. While the timing is right to get on the track quickly, trainers complain about early shin sprains and other injuries that force them to send the horses to recover on farms for months.
The other downside to two-year olds is control. While owners can tell the condition of the horse at the sale, the months prior and breaking in period are mysteries. Some ailments go undetected. How do they know there isn’t something wrong?
YEARLINGS & WEANLINGS
The yearling sales have long been a sweet spot for owners with capital and breeders looking to take risk and cash in on a great value. The upside for owners is that the critical barriers have been passed. The horse has survived birth, grown and perhaps shown resiliency on the farm; the conformation of body is perhaps sound or flaws can be detected; and the time is ripe to have the horse broken in with trainers the owner prefers.
The critical time of breaking in can be controlled, monitored, and by the time the racing season comes along in about a year’s time, an owner and trainer will know their horse and make decisions on how best to strategize training for the races.
The downside to yearling sales is cost. Horses here tend to fetch such high prices that owners with limited capital simply cannot compete here, nor can they afford the annual cost of training to break the horse in and the next year to prep for racing.
Weanlings are horses that are even younger, sold at the age of six months. And while they have yet to develop, they’re considered good bargains for owners that have a stable in place and can afford to gamble on a young diamond in the rough. Here’s Nyquist, this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, getting picked at auction as a weanling.
The oldest, most pure and perhaps risky way to get a horse is to breed one. You find a stud. You find a mare. You put them together in the breeding shed and, after an elaborate mating ritual (spurned on and monitored by experts at the breeding farm) the miracle of life is made.
The upside of breeding is upfront costs are low. While stud fees for top sires are high as well costs for top mares, there is a lower, more affordable class in breeding, and there’s always the chance that a horse can be created for little. Moreover, the first year on the farm is cheaper than paying for training expenses.
Another upside of breeding is that the horse is yours. There are no prior owners, no prior history. You are on the books, and will know this horse unlike any other.
The downside is time and risk. By the time the mare gives birth, nearly a year has passed and then two more will pass until he or she can race. This process is a slow burn, and yet perhaps the most pure and satisfying of all, witnessed here in this video below.