SARATOGA SPRINGS — Retire him, they say.
He’s not the same horse. Don’t compromise his legacy. Or much, much worse, don’t get him hurt.
But, either way, it’s plainly — even painfully — obvious: He’s done.
A segment of the armchair trainer/owner population characteristically opined in Pavlovian fashion as soon as Arrogate lost to stablemate Collected in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Saturday night.
It didn’t matter that Arrogate ran a pretty good race and was still trying hard and closing ground at the end against a multiple graded stakes winner whose only loss in the last 17 months was last year’s Preakness. It didn’t matter that the Pacific Classic was a big improvement over Arrogate’s comeback dud in the San Diego Handicap in July, his first start in four months.
It didn’t matter. He’s done.
Regardless of whether you believe Arrogate, whose own skyrocket career since last summer’s Travers at Saratoga Race Course has cast otherwordly expectations on him, should be retired or not, some of the reaction to Saturday’s race reminded me of a seminar by Dr. Patty Hogan last Friday entitled “Knowing When to Retire Your Racehorse.”
As you would expect with anything to do with the sport of horse racing, it’s complicated. Except when it’s not.
If you’re not familiar with Dr. Hogan, she’s one of the most prominent equine veterinarians in the U.S. She runs a surgical clinic in New Jersey, testified before Congress in favor of an anti-horse slaughter bill in 2006 and works closely with the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, offering pro bono treament of retiring racehorses who come through NYTHA’s “Take the Lead” program.
Because she’s so dedicated to aftercare for horses whose racing careers are over, the question of when to retire a racehorse is a driving force behind much of her work.
There’s been a lot of attention on the inordinate number of fatal breakdowns at Saratoga this season — 15 total during racing and training since May 28 heading into Sunday’s card — but another issue that never goes away while not getting the grim, dramatic headlines is what happens to the horses when they’re no longer suited for the job for which they were bred and trained.
Dr. Hogan’s mission is to get horsemen and owners thinking more forwardly, while a horse is still racing, about what kind of post-racing life the horse will have.
So when is it time?
Sometimes they simply aren’t talented and fast enough to justify the expense of keeping them in training and racing.
Sometimes they just don’t want to do it anymore.
Across the spectrum of acute injuries, there are a few that can be repaired and rehabilitated to a point where the horse can resume its career.
The trickier read are chronic physical problems that aren’t career- or life-threatening, but do put limits on how well the athlete can perform.
The claiming ranks can become a repository for problem horses that horsemen choose to pass along to become somebody else’s problem.
With scenarios like that in mind, Dr. Hogan’s wish list includes rules that require all veterinarian records over the course of a horse’s life to be passed along every time it changes ownership hands.
She’d also like to see more critical pre-race exams, a social security-like fund that pulls small percentages from the various fees that are incurred over the life of a horse and, as sad and difficult as the decision would be, including euthanasia among the options, when applicable. She also cautioned against a tendency by horsemen to bow to “One Last Race Syndrome,” in which the desire to milk the animal for one last check outweighs the potential for serious injury.
There continue to be encouraging signs that industry leaders are more than just cognizant of the aftercare puzzle and are actually doing something about it. For example, an idea was introduced at the recent Jockey Club Round Table to offer a donation option at on-track wagering terminals so bettors could funnel a portion of winnings to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. The technology will soon be implemented on a trial basis at Frank Stronach-owned tracks.
Dr. Hogan stressed that owners trying to find homes for their retired thoroughbreds need to be more vigilant about where the horses go and what they’ll be doing. There are a variety of retraining programs offering second career opportunities.
“This is not a charity, it’s an obligation,” she said.
This is a particularly cogent point when considering numbers Dr. Hogan cited with regard to horse slaughter for human consumption. Despite laws banning it in the U.S., horses still make their way to abattoirs in Canada and Mexico. While foal crops these days number around 20,000 per year, 10,000-12,000 off-the-track thoroughbreds are vanned across borders to be slaughtered.
I was glad to hear trainer Bob Baffert say that the Pacific Classic result wouldn’t deter him from sending Arrogate to the Breeders’ Cup Classic for one last go-around.
A world-famous horse like Arrogate with a promising stud career isn’t going to fall through the cracks.
But there are thousands of others each year who aren’t Arrogate.
If we care about a humane, happy and fulfilling post-racetrack life for them, it’s on us to close those cracks.