Feature Story

American Racing Churning as year heads to finish line

American Racing Churning as year heads to finish line Nov 24, 2022

As a tumultuous 2022 begins to wind to an end, there seems no end to the almost soap opera-ish storylines swirling in American racing. From the judicial strike down of the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) to accusations and a guilty plea by leading trainer Chad Brown to the collective groan at the immediate retirement of the world’s best racehorse, Flightline, after the Breeders’ Cup, the plots are thick.

Not to mention the possibilities of more records being set in the wake of jockey Irad Ortiz Jr’s new seasonal earnings mark and the ‘pay to pose’ scheme created for Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike, there are gifts for all under the holiday tree, although we might like to return some of them.

For instance, some people are still grumping about Flightline’s quick assignment to stud after only six races, albeit all of them blindingly brilliant, hence his highest ever assignment, as a dirt runner, of 139 on the World’s Best Racehorse Rankings. One veteran turf writer sent a petulant letter to a racing publication protesting that he was so offended by the Tapit colt’s brief career that he could not vote for him as Horse of the Year, although, tellingly, he did not offer up any candidate more worthy.

Instead, he attacked Flightline’s owners. “I’m not going to reward people – Flightline's ownership group in this case – who put their own interests ahead of the sport's. That's exactly what these owners did. They have the prevailing values of a pocket calculator,” wrote Gary West, a former racing columnist for two Texas newspapers, in declaring his refusal to acknowledge the horse others describe as possibly the best of all time.

Of course, that tantrum doesn’t take important issues into consideration. The day after the letter was published, Lane’s End Farm hosted a media day at which Flightline was paraded and officials indicated, considering the risk, there was little reason to race into 2023.

If they had chosen to do so, they would have been roundly roasted if the horse had been hurt, and insurance fees would have eaten up any track earnings. “There’s a certain stage you have to say to yourself, as sporting as we are, there’s too much risk to carry on,” noted David Ingordo, Lane’s End’s bloodstock specialist who put the large ownership group together that raced the colt and who is helping assemble his first book of 150 mares.

Lane’s End general manager Bill Farish pointed out that the owners also saw no reason to persevere into January with a race like the Pegasus World Cup Invitational, which, despite having a tidy $3 million purse, could not be imagined to draw significant competition.

“Would it be worth waiting that time and kind of bumping up against breeding season or is it kind of looking like a reach, a ‘go for the money’ type play? There’s really no reason to do that,” Farish said. “He’d beaten the best 3yos and the best older horses that are out there, who’s going to emerge to run against him, especially during most of the season?”

Farish asked. “There just really was no upside to keep him in training.” Sadly for those who respect Flightline’s ability, and who don’t dwell on what he did or didn’t do compared to horses who raced decades ago, as did West, Farish is correct. Regarding other stories shaking American racing, the federal appeals court order striking down HISA as unconstitutional has upset The Jockey Club’s applecart for now, although the American legal system of ‘justice’ has become so politicised there is no telling what will come next or how long it will take.

The only sure thing is that lawyers will make money and racing will suffer in an expensive war, just as owners already have suffered under HISA, with its rulings including depriving owners of prize money if jockeys are found to have used the whip too many times in a race.

As to Chad Brown, who currently leads all North American trainers with $30.23 million in 2022 stable earnings, he pleaded guilty to non-criminal harassment after earlier being charged with obstructing the breathing of a woman after an alleged choking incident at his home in August.

Winner of the Eclipse Award as America’s outstanding trainer four times, Brown has been ordered not to contact the victim for two years, to submit to an evaluation by a behavioral health professional and to avoid any arrests for one year. With Brown the current earnings leader and possibly within reach of his previous record of $31.1 million, the question naturally arises of how Eclipse voters will cast their ballot in the trainer category.

There is one certainty in this topsy-turvy season and that is that Irad Ortiz Jr will once again be king of American jockeys. His new seasonal record earnings, established after his three wins at the Breeders’ Cup, currently stands at $35.3 million and he will be the favourite to capture his fourth Eclipse Award.

Dollars seem to be the connecting dots in the headline stories, and so it is with Rich Strike, who is to be posed with fans who pay between $125 and $400 for the chance to have their photos taken with him on 26 November at Churchill Downs. The colt is expected to race the previous day in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at the track.

No details were released on how resulting funds were to be split among the track photographer, the track and connections of Rich Strike. The colt demonstrated he isn’t the most approachable racehorse when he savaged an outrider’s leg after the Derby, his only win in eight starts this year, and we have to hope he doesn’t take a bite out of any fans.