VERSAILLES, Ky. — Flightline had placed on 100 kilos in the 5 months since the finish of his temporary however astonishing racing profession. He was nonetheless gentle on his toes, although, as he high-stepped right into a breeding shed final month as if he had been on a pink carpet. A mare named Bernina Star shuffled earlier than him.
Her bloodlines had been aristocratic, her racing report spectacular. After her profession, she fetched $1.2 million at public sale to do what she was about to do.
Bernina Star whined. Flightline rocked excessive onto his again legs. The two tangoed and tangled, oblivious to the man holding the mare’s tail or the two different chaperones circling this tryst.
Soon, Flightline’s tail dropped like a flag on a windless day. He fell again to earth. It was time for a shower, after which an evening out in the bluegrass.
If the Kentucky Derby is taken into account the most fun two minutes in sports activities, this was maybe the most profitable 52.48 seconds in sports activities. Bernina Star’s proprietor paid $200,000 for (not fairly) a minute of Flightline’s time.
That payday explains why the biggest horses in racing — together with, in all chance, the winner of Saturday’s Derby — are destined to have brief careers, and why followers cannot get pleasure from the greatest horses for lengthy. The economics of recent horse racing virtually assure it.
On the racetrack, it took Flightline two years and 6 undefeated races to earn $4.5 million in purses. Doing what got here naturally twice a day in the breeding shed, he matched that whole in 11 days, doubled it in 22 and, with 155 mares in his date guide, could have generated $31 million in earnings by the finish of the five-month breeding. in July.
In a sport perpetually troubled by doping scandals, the frequent and mysterious deaths of its athletes, competitors from different kinds of playing and waning curiosity amongst followers, it’s a counterintuitive option to retire him. Just final November, at 4 years previous, Flightline was the most fun thoroughbred in the world. He had gained all of his six races by a mixed 71 lengths and introduced giant crowds to see him soar round racetracks like Pegasus.
Imagine LeBron James being pushed into teaching after his second season in the NBA. The racing trade has completed one thing like that with Flightline.
“You can work via it and justify it by recognizing that he is a particular expertise and also you hope he can replicate it and produce quick horses in the future,” stated Terry Finley, the founder and president of West Point Thoroughbreds, certainly one of the 5 entities. that owns Flightline.
But Finley conceded that this considering comes at a value to fan enthusiasm: “No, it is not good for the recreation.”
The Sport of Kings and Diamond Jim Brady
Thoroughbred racing in the United States has a wealthy and tawdry historical past that has typically mirrored that of the nation. In 1823, Eclipse met Sir Henry in a match race that pitted North versus South, an early window into the regional bitterness that might result in the Civil War.
The sport has produced people heroes like Seabiscuit throughout the Depression, ethereal wonders like Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, and Runyonesque gamblers like Pittsburgh Phil and Diamond Jim Brady and modern-day race fixers who obtained corralled by the feds.
If there’s a precept that unifies the sport, it’s the inclination — no, dedication — to at all times take the cash.
In Central Kentucky, the cash is atop purple-flowered bluegrass that’s framed by plank fences and pulled like a canvas over gently rolling hills. Farm roads weave between weather-vaned barns and stately properties. In between are horses so far as you’ll be able to see.
Foals determining the stilts which can be their legs. Hungry weanlings trailing after their full-figured moms. Broad-shouldered stallions languidly patrolling their expansive paddocks like beat cops lengthy after everybody has gone house.
Flightline lives at Lane’s End Farm in a five-acre paddock, a tiny patch of garden on a 2,000-acre unfold.
He takes his flip in the breeding shed with 20 different stallions. Seventy-seven yearlings zigzag in paddocks like the rambunctious adolescents they’re. More than 200 mares — some pregnant, others nursing new foals — deliver life to this horsy Brigadoon.
Lane’s End and its neighbors are at the middle of a $6.5 billion trade that places 61,000 individuals to work on greater than 831,000 acres. But for a way lengthy?
Horse racing has been declining for many years. In 2002, greater than $15 billion was guess on races in the United States; final yr, the deal with fell to $12 billion. In 2000, practically 33,000 thoroughbred foals had been registered, nearly double the quantity from final yr.
Still, the competitors to create a generational expertise like Flightline has by no means been fiercer.
Breeding to Race or Breeding to Breed?
Horsemen and horsewomen have tried for hundreds of years to breed champion thoroughbreds, counting on a mix of science, instinct and luck. “Breed the greatest to the greatest and hope for the greatest” has been the prayer murmured for generations.
In horse racing’s golden age, the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts and enterprise titans like the textile producer Samuel Riddle bred horses primarily to race. In 1919 and 1920, Riddle’s Man o’ War gained 20 of 21 races. When Man o’ War was despatched to the breeding barn, Riddle restricted his guide to about 25 mares a yr, most owned by him or his family and friends.
The 1941 Triple Crown champion, Whirlaway, made 60 begins in his profession. The first 11 Triple Crown winners collectively made 104 begins at age 4 or older, and gained 57 of them.
In 1973, certainly one of them, Secretariat, was syndicated for a then-record $6.08 million. He was retired as a 3-year-old after profitable 16 of his 21 begins, kick-starting the retail period of breeding.
The final two Triple Crown champions — American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018 — had been additionally retired at 3, however after operating far fewer races than Secretariat. American Pharoah’s stallion rights had been purchased for $30 million after the colt went 9 of 11 as a 2- and 3-year-old. Justify introduced $60 million after solely six races, all as a 2-year-old.
Craig Bernick, president of Glen Hill Farm in Ocala, Fla., comes from a outstanding racing household. He tries to stick to his grandfather’s mannequin: Breed your mares, preserve and race the fillies and promote the colts at public sale.
“He was a conventional sportsman,” Bernick stated of his grandfather Leonard Lavin, who based the magnificence merchandise firm Alberto-Culver, which Unilever purchased in 2010. “I want there have been extra like him and I may very well be like that immediately. But now I should be extra industrial. I would like to take a position in stallion shares and take a few of my yearlings to public sale in Europe.”
The hurry to get horses to the stallion barn has had unintended penalties in an agribusiness that’s contracting: accelerated inbreeding.
While the variety of broodmares has remained constant, the stallion inhabitants has dwindled. In 1991, Kentucky had 499 stallions whose books averaged 29.9 mares a yr. Last yr, Kentucky had 200 registered stallions who averaged 84 mares a yr. Many argue that this isn’t sustainable.
Three years in the past, the Jockey Club, which retains the breed registry, cited scientific research that confirmed the thoroughbred gene pool was getting too shallow, endangering the breed. It tried to cap the variety of mares a stallion may impregnate at 140. The rule was challenged in court docket by three farms that collectively stood 16 stallions that bred greater than 140 mares every in 2020. One of the farms, Coolmore, additionally shuttles a few of its stallions to Australia to breed one other 50 to 100 mares in the Southern Hemisphere.
Last yr, the Jockey Club deserted the rule after the Kentucky legislature, swayed by lobbyists for some industrial breeders, proposed a invoice that prohibited the cap and would have put the state racing fee in cost of the registry for Kentucky-bred thoroughbreds.
Bill Farish, the proprietor of Lane’s End, supported the rule regardless that the farm stands stallions that breed greater than 140 mares.
“It’s simply simple arithmetic to me,” stated Farish, who additionally has an curiosity in Flightline. “Maybe my mind works too merely. But in case you have half the variety of stallions breeding the same variety of mares, it is obtained to be shrinking the pool.”
‘We All Know We’re Screwing It Up’
Mike Repole was on the telephone. No, make these two telephones.
On one, he was barking orders at his bloodstock agent, who was in Ocala, bidding on a filly in a 2-year-old-in-training sale.
“Go to 280 Okay,” Repole advised the agent. “Good.”
Someone bid $290,000.
“Hit them proper again,” Repole stated, his voice tightening. “Be faster. Show them we wish this one.”
Soon, the gavel dropped at $310,000 and Repole Stable owned one other horse.
On the different name, with a reporter, Repole tried to clarify the dysfunction of horse racing.
Repole grew up in Middle Village, Queens, and spent ample time on the rail at Aqueduct, the bluest collar of racetracks. He obtained into the beverage enterprise, constructing first Vitaminwater after which BodyArmor sports activities drink into manufacturers enticing sufficient for Coca-Cola to buy for practically $10 billion.
Repole has spent greater than $300 million shopping for horses. He has gained dozens of the most prestigious stakes races — together with the Belmont on Long Island and the Travers in Saratoga Springs, NY He developed a colt named Uncle Mo into certainly one of the sport’s most completed stallions.
On Saturday, he’ll host 75 members of the family and associates in Louisville, Ky., at the 149th operating of the Derby, the place Forte — a colt he co-owns — is the 3-1 favourite.
Repole is confounded by horse racing’s resistance to alter and its unwillingness to embrace greatest practices. For instance, if Forte wins the Derby — the first of the Triple Crown races — he’ll race two weeks later in the second leg, the Preakness in Baltimore. If he would not, he’ll skip the Preakness to get some relaxation and return to the observe 5 weeks later at Belmont Park.
“I’m all for custom, however would not it’s higher for the horses if there was extra time between races?” he requested. “If the Derby was in May, the Preakness in June and Belmont in July, you’ll have greater fields with higher horses to get followers excited.”
He has in contrast horse racing to a poorly run restaurant with a superb menu.
“You know the service is dangerous and you do not like the room, however when you get there the meals is simply so good,” Repole stated.
He has campaigned for a nationwide league workplace — a government that would deliver racetracks, house owners, trainers and breeders collectively on necessary points.
“We all know we’re screwing it up,” Repole stated. “Horse racing is sort of a board recreation with no instructions. I’m certainly one of the largest house owners and I do not know the place to go when I’ve an issue. There is a selfishness constructed into the recreation. Everyone treats it like a secret membership after we needs to be sharing and celebrating it.”
In six months or so, Repole and Forte’s co-owner, the Florida Panthers proprietor Vincent Viola, will resolve whether or not to maintain Forte on the racetrack or observe the sport’s unifying precept and take the cash by sending him to the barn.
A Comfortable Retirement
For Flightline’s house owners, there isn’t a wanting again. By the time Flightline’s first offspring hits the racetrack in 2026, he could have generated greater than $120 million in income.
If they’re quick and win races, his stallion payment is more likely to rise. America’s main sire, Into Mischief, is eighteen years previous and instructions $250,000 a mating. If Flightline is unable to persistently move on his extraordinary pace, his value can be adjusted down.
Either approach, if Flightline stays wholesome, he can be an equine ATM for the ages.
In Flightline’s racing days, he was so excited to run that his coach needed to take him to the observe at 3 am on daily basis so he would not kick down his stall. Knowing this, the horse’s house owners went to nice expense to place thick pads in his retirement stall so he would not harm himself.
The pads do not have a mark on them.
Flightline likes what he does — a lot in order that in the first couple of weeks of his new profession, he refused to go away the breeding shed lengthy after goodbyes had been exchanged.