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Thursday, August 16, 2012

It's not easy to do the right thing

Won The West, one of the richest standardbreds of all time has been retired. That is great news.
Anyone who saw him race the last few months can see he doesn't have it anymore. Can he still beat non winners at some tracks? Sure.
Can he win the preferred at Pocono, or Saratoga or Batavia? Sure he can.
Why would there be any reason to do that?
Well, Won The West is just 25k short of 4 million in lifetime earnings. That is a very significant achievement. There are hardly any horses who have done that, and with the ever increasing chance that overall purses are going to take a very significant drop in the next few years, not many will achieve that.
In 1984, when Nihilator won the two year old race called The Woodrow Wilson, it carried a purse of more than 2 million dollars. To this day it is the richest harness race ever run. In the following years, many horses were raced in the Wilson, only to fail and never be successful again. They were shooting for the pot of gold, but many of (some would say most of) those horses were not ready to compete on that level and were ruined. It was not the right thing to do to race a young horse at that stage against that kind of competition. This is nothing new, but it was a trend of the time. People will always do the wrong thing when big money and fame is at stake. It usually backfires.

As mentioned in the video, Nihilator was a superstar. Most horses are not. Won The West was. He won the Breeders Crown for older horses two years in a row. Again, not many horses ever do that. Even Nihilator did not.

 Won The West was a winner. He won 36 out of 109 lifetime starts. Unraced at 2, since his debut in February of 2007 as a 3 year old he has been a consistent money machine. While not one of the top horses at 3, although he did compete at that level, since his 4 year old season he has been the top horse overall in those 4 years. That is good by any horse racing standards. It is phenomenal over the 7 years Won The West raced against the highest of all competition. He did it year in, year out for 5 or 6 years.

But this year, in 2012, he has not even hit the board in 6 starts and in fact only eked out a fifth place finish in one start. In his last 3 starts he has not even been remotely competitive. It was time. In fact, it was probably time a few months ago.
 Being a gelding, there is no Stallion future at the end of the racing rainbow for Won The West. But at almost 4 million dollars, he has more than earned a lifetime of pasture for himself. He has nothing left to prove and his owners have no expectation of earning from him anymore. He has done all he needed to do and then some in his career and it was time to hang them up. That is the right thing to do. However, it is not an easy thing to do.
Won The West can still earn money. In fact, if raced in certain spots at certain tracks, he could probably earn another 200k this year, and maybe even the next. He has enough talent and ability to pull that off.
But...that would be the wrong thing to do. Yes, horse racing is a business, and many horses of much lesser talent than Won The West race every day at every track to squeeze every last ounce of earning potential out of them. That is just the way it is. Most of those horses are owned by owners who are barely breaking even or losing money and trained by trainers who are living month to month based on the earning of their horses. They need the money to make ends meet. For better or worse that is the reality.

The trainer of Won The West, Ron Burke, is not in that situation. He has the biggest stable of high class horses in the world and more coming if he wants them. He doesn't need Won The West to do anything for him. His owners are likely in the same boat. The only reason to keep racing him would be to get him to 4 million in lifetime earnings. That would be a great achievement. But only if he did it in the flow of actual honest racing. To go out and beat up much lesser horses than himself so he can reach that level makes no sense and detracts from the actual achievement. Good for the trainer and owners to realize that and stop.

 I have been very critical of Ron Burke lately. His horse, Sweet Lou, looked like the second coming of Niatross just 3 months ago. When he won his elimination of The North America Cup in world record time he seemed unbeatable. However, somewhere between that race and the final something went wrong with him and he has not been the same since. Not even close. He did win an elimination of the Meadowlands Pace and The Adios, but only because he got his own way and won them on sheer class and trip.

 In both finals, when he had to work for it, you could see him clearly labor and at times, looking very bad and hard to steer. He now survives on sheer guts and determination. The right thing to do after the Adios (and maybe before,  depending on your opinion) would have been to stop with him, shut him down for the year and possibly see if they can pinpoint the problem. That hasn't happened. They continue to send him out and devalue him and possibly hurt him to the point that he is a lifetime cripple. That serves no purpose. In this case, with Won The West, they have decided to do the right thing. With Sweet Lou, they have not.

There aren't many Niatross horses out there. A horse that can simply dominate to the point that very few horses can compete with them. In that sense, you probably would not even know if Niatross wasn't 100 percent. He can overcome that even on his worst day, or week or month. Even the top horses that compete on a day to day basis cannot get away with that when they face level competition. In those cases when you push them to race when they should not, many times you ruin that horse.

 Back in 2009, a trotter named Federal Flex seemed to be heading into the Hambletonian in top form. He had just won the prep for that race,  the Stanley Dancer Memorial impressively and decisively. He was in top form. In his Hambletonian elimination however, something wasn't right and he finished fourth. A bad fourth. In this case, fourth meant he could still race in the final. Should he have raced in the final. Absolutely not. He clearly was in distress, finished well back and was never the same again. 

Somewhere in between the Dancer and his Hambo elim, something went wrong. Because they raced him anyway his career was effectively over. That is my opinion, but is also the opinion of his trainer Jeff Gillis, in hindsight.

 “We were obviously disappointed with his performance,” Gillis told Trot Insider. “Obviously he wasn’t himself, but we’re addressing that and we expect him to be better.”With the top three finishers in each elimination advancing to the final, Federal Flex, the top fourth-place money earner ($840,643 Cdn), still managed to secure himself a spot in the $1.5 million Hambletonian. Canada’s Two-Year-Old Trotting Colt of the Year earned his biggest paychecks with wins in the Champlain Stakes and Valley Victory and a third-place finish in the Breeders Crown at two, and victories in the Goodtimes Trot and Stanley Dancer Memorial this season.Previously, Federal Flex suffered a small ulcer on his palate following the Goodtimes, but Gillis says his colt responded well to treatment and that issue was cleared up going into the Stanley Dancer.“We’re really still running some tests and trying to get to the bottom of it, but that doesn’t seem to be the problem. We have struggled a little bit with the humidity down here and we’re not sure how much of a factor that played.“He seems bright and alert [now] and we’re confident we can have him better for Saturday,” adds Gillis. “And if he’s not, if we don’t feel that he will be, we won’t be racing him.”

However, he wasn't better and Gillis knew it. But, he didn't do the right thing. He raced him anyway and the horse basically shut down and never recovered.

 “I think at the time we were grasping for answers about Federal Flex,” Gillis said of the colt’s Hambletonian bid.  “I believe it was strictly sickness and airway-related.  He never really regained his form after that.  It might have hurt him because we didn’t have the discipline to scratch him out of the Hambletonian.  It was possible I got caught up in the hoopla of just being in the race.  You don’t know if you’re ever going to get a chance to be in it again.  Certainly, if we knew the outcome, we would have scratched him.  He had rebounded before from health issues, but this time it just asked too much of him. 

 This year, in 2012, Gillis had another Hambletonian hopeful in Knows Nothing. Based on his experience with Federal Flex, Gillis knew the talent he had in Knows Nothing and when that horse had an issue as a 2YO, he did the right thing and shut him down and prepared him for a better day.

Last year, Knows Nothing had a bone chip removed and missed his entire two-year-old campaign, which was disappointing to trainer Jeff Gillis, as he was extremely optimistic about the colt’s potential. There could have been temptation to get him back on the track more quickly, but Gillis took a cautious approach.
“He probably could have raced late in the year, but we didn’t think it was worthwhile, and that he could have a big chance at a big three-year-old year,” Gillis said. “We were pretty excited about him from the time we basically got him.
 Two years later, when Knows Nothing came along, Gillis admitted, to his credit, that he messed up.
 In this case, doing the right thing paid off. Knows Nothing won his elimination and made the final of the Hambletonian. He didn't win the final, but he did race well and certainly was not compromised. 

 “I hope I’ve learned something from it,” he said. “I truly believe that I ruined the career of Federal Flex by not having the discipline to scratch him from the final when he wasn’t 100 per cent. I think it compromised his future. So hopefully I won’t make those mistakes again.”

 It is never easy to do the right thing, especially when you have high hopes and high expectations. Doing the right thing will never be easy, but it is the right thing to do. Ron Burke,  you have done the right thing with Won The West, the right thing with Sweet Lou. One right doesn't justify another wrong. Never.

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