By Geir Stabell
Not too long ago, I saw a TV interview with Terje Haakonssen, three times World Champion snowboard rider. When talking about his lifestyle, and that of the general public, he made an interesting point; “Look carefully at what you eat, take it seriously”, he said, “People don’t. You know, a man is ever so careful about what quality of petrol and oil he gets for his new car. But when he has filled it up with the best he can find, the most expensive, he buys a full fat cheese burger and a large coke for himself.” Perhaps many of us value our cars more than we value our bodies. Look around you. It certainly appears to be the case, doesn’t it.
Haakonsen is a man obsessed with quality and image. In 1998, he boycotted the Nagano Games because he felt the Olympic image was not good enough for his sport. Can you imagine a leading owner boycotting a high profile race meeting, or a top thoroughbred breeder boycotting a leading sale, for similar reasons? Probably not. Haakonsen’s world is different to the horseracing world. He is a bit of a loner, but has many admirers way outside the circles of his minority sport, simply because he talks a lot of sense. The racing industry could do with someone like him.
Labelling of food products have become more of an issue lately, and when going to the supermarket I actually notice some reading these labels. On the other hand, I have also been stared at when taking a minute to compare the amounts of energy, fat, salt and sugar in, say, various breakfast cereals.
“Looks almost like he is studying a pedigree page”, I once heard a man say to the other as they passed behind me while I performed such a study. Living in Newmarket has its charms. I found the remark amusing too, until I began thinking about it on my way home. Actually, a pack of breakfast cereals costing less than three pounds is better labelled, by stricter regulations, than any million-dollar yearling passing through the ring at any public auction.
When studying sales catalogue pages, it strikes me more and more how much of the crucial information has been left out. It will never happen but I can assure you that if I did consider purchasing an expensive yearling, I would not base my decision on what has been printed in the catalogue. Of course, one has to do proper, independent research, but what exactly is the point of these sales catalogues, if they are not even able to give you half the story, half the truth, about this fragile four-legged product on offer? Using the sales catalogue as your source of information, you do not get the official ratings of horses that have run, nor of their relatives. You very seldom get any information about the races these horses have won or been placed in, such as distance, surface, were they handicaps or weight for age races, if in England were they ‘banded races’ and so on. There is no information on whether horses have raced with blinkers or cheek-pieces, or whether they have been bandaged when running. And, more importantly, there is absolutely no information on any use of any medication. Believe you me, that is the one piece of information that, according to common sense and law, absolutely should be included. Having run in blinkers has never made a horse less valuable to a future owner. A history of medication, and a pedigree elevated to black type status with the help of medication, certainly has. In particular in Europe, where one does not allow racing of horses on medication.
A friend of mine bought a horse at a public auction in Europe. The horse had performed well in Listed events, and he was going to Scandinavia, where his level of form would make him one of the top performers. Since the horse also had a nice pedigree, a good conformation and was consigned by one of the bigger operations in Europe, my friend was quite excited when getting the final bid. So was his trainer. Until he raced him. One run revealed why local bidders had not gone higher when he went through the ring; the horse was a bleeder. Could not win a race even in Norway, and how he had been able to perform so well for his previous owner on a few occasions remains a mystery. My friend wrote to the vendor, explaining the situation and suggesting that they should take him back. That never happened of course. So, my friend decided to send the horse to USA where, surprise, surprise, he won quite a few times, even in nice allowance races at principal tracks, when racing on Lasix.
At most major international sales, they have established a repository facility for x-rays, allowing vendors to lodge x-rays applicable to the sale of their horses. This is one step in the right direction. When you buy an expensive horse, or any horse for that matter, is it so much to ask, if one also demands accurate information on its medical history? I don’t think so. Nor do I think it is too much to ask, if someone wants the simple information on the horse’s closest relatives; did any of them, at any point in their careers, run on medication? Let’s get briefly back to the man with the car and the hamburger. Would he buy this expensive car, if he was informed that “this is a real classic, a beautiful car, with elegant interior, sexy seats and a powerful engine, but, mind, you, the engine tends to switch itself off from time to time… it seems to be genetic and we can’t do much about it.” When you buy a horse at public auction, part of the “engine” may already be a bit dodgy. If you buy a young horse with an American pedigree, the chances are very high that you also buy a horse from a family that has, for generations, been racing on medication. If you plan to race the animal in a jurisdiction where such medication is allowed, that may be just fine. If you plan to stand the horse at stud, in a jurisdiction where medication is allowed, that is also fine. If not, you could soon be in trouble with this horse. Thus far only Germany has taken a strong stand on medication in their breeding stock. No stallion is approved if he has raced on medication. That is some difference, compared to the situation in North America. Change may be coming there also though.
There is a will in USA to do something about medication. As explained in Trainer, Spring Issue 2007, the Jackson’s Horse Owner’s Protective Association is lobbying hard for a marketplace which would allow buyers of horses to return the horse and demand a full refund, if veterinary records are falsified or information is omitted. Any administration of drugs would have to be disclosed. The association’s lawyer Kevin McGee says: ”The actual buyers and sellers of horses would like to see this in Kentucky because it would strengthen the integrity of the business. This would be an excellent way to encourage new owners to come into the business because it reduces the mystery of buying a horse.”
Exactly. Three key words; “reduces the mystery”. These words can hardly be used too often, in too many contexts, in this industry. Where better to start, than with the sales catalogues?
Achieving a better image, that of a clean, honest, open and transparent bloodstock market place, will not be quick process. There can be little doubt, however, that addressing the problem with medication in a serious way, and make some progress in this field, will help speeding up such a process. If you believe fallers and fatal injuries at Aintree and Cheltenham creates about the worst possible publicity horseracing can get, think again. In the wake of any death on the track in North America, one often sees a flood of letters, articles and opinions posted and published on the internet, almost exclusively pointing the finger sharply at the use of medication.
Too many bad write ups will make it even harder to recruit new investors to the game, but bringing the issue of medication into the sales rings, might help a lot. What does a bloodstock agent reply, to the wealthy ‘newcomer’ at the sales, if he expresses a wish to bid as a yearling enters the ring and says, “I like this one, let’s go to 200,000 or so, but, by the way, does this family have a history of use of medication?”
Print it in the catalogue and, provided the man has a copy of it and that he can read, he will know the answer. Regardless of where the lot was bred or has been raced. This is not at all a problem exclusive to the US market. American bred horses, and horses with American pedigrees, fill many a page also in many a European sales catalogue. When I was asked to do this article, posing the question, “should information on medication be included in sales catalogues”, it is was so tempting to give a reply like; “Yes, do it” or perhaps one like; “Should health warnings remain on the tobacco packaging?”
Common sense does not always win through in this world, especially not when up against commercial interests. Horseracing and breeding is a global industry, and herein lies the problem. Not that it is global, but that it is an industry. More than it is a sport. It may have set out as a sport, but commercial factors are at the forefront and more and more dominant these days. Therefore, some breeders, consigners, sales companies, perhaps even bloodstock agents, may be opposed to the idea of publishing information on medication in catalogues.
In one corner of Europe, there is no need for any catalogue information on any use of medication for any of the country’s stallions. Germany is the nation where you cannot stand a stallion at stud if he has been raced on medication. That’s a good policy, and it should help improve the breed. Provided, of course, that none of these stallions have been trained on medication. And provided that all the mares bred to these stallions have also been trained and raced without the aid of medication. Not trying to complicate matters even further here, only trying to point out what a jungle this actually is.
Racehorses are bred from sires who raced almost exclusively with the aid of medication. Horses are being bred out of mares who also raced on medication, but a vast number of horses are out of mares that never raced. Disclosing the reason why these mares failed to make it to the racecourse, is probably quite impossible. One thing can be said for certain though, that any man or woman who spends a considerable amount of money on a yearling, is hoping that the animal will one day be physically capable of taking part in a race.
Everyone who buys a yearling should know that about one in five yearlings actually never become racehorses. Therefore, deciding how good the chances are for one particular individual is important. Disclosing all information about any use of raceday medication in the family, gives the purchaser a better chance of assessing a yearling’s chances of making it to the racecourse, than information on, for example, how many races a couple of grandsons of the third dam managed to win.
I would suggest that information about any use of medication, going back three generations, should be included in all sales catalogues, even if it means pushing some information low on the page off the page. With catalogues published online, even that should not be a problem – an extra few lines, or even an extra page, means nothing in this way of publishing. “Still not possible”, I hear some say.
I see. How about this line of thought then; that such steps would actually help the thoroughbred industry in its so-called strive at “enhancing the breed”.
The way things are going now, that is not exactly the case is it.