Author: Michele MacDonald

A group of American racing leaders gathered in Kentucky on November 19 to proclaim that their organisations are joining together in a rare collaboration to establish a series of safety and integrity initiatives to protect racehorses. The very next day, the sale of vaunted American champion and Dubai World Cup winner California Chrome, who had been billed as ‘The People’s Horse’ and broadly commercialised through merchandise and other ventures, to Japan’s JS Co. Ltd. for stud duty at Arrow Stud was announced. An uproar ensued on social media stirred by upset fans. While these consecutive events may not seem connected, unfortunately they illustrate with the intensity of an indelible marker part of the public relations problem with which the sport is grappling.

If even a heroic champion who had more than paid for himself before he began stud duty at Taylor Made Farm can be sold off to what appears to be lesser circumstances, then any racehorse faces a most uncertain future, no matter how much talk about safety and integrity is conducted. The sale of California Chrome screamed a message that the group of racing leaders is trying to combat: that racehorses at any stage of life often are only worth the cash they can generate at any given moment to those who should cherish them most. In a world where the public that racing relies on to exist increasingly demands a more thoughtful approach to horse welfare, this kind of hardened calculus adds to a growing sense of disillusionment spurred in North America this year by a string of highly publicised deaths at racecourses.

Taylor Made staff members had often told visitors to the farm just outside Lexington that California Chrome, who has a tremendous base of fans calling themselves ‘Chromies’, that the 8yo chestnut had a ‘home for life’ there. Yet that pledge vanished when JS Co. came calling. While the amount offered for California Chrome, a rather obscurely bred son of Lucky Pulpit, was not revealed, some observers believe it could have been in the $3 million to $5 million range. Considering that Taylor Made officials have stated that California Chrome repaid their investment and more when he won the 2016 Dubai World Cup and two other Grade One races and earned America’s Horse of the Year trophy for the second time, they and investors they brought in to the syndicate seemed overly eager to take the money and run.

The horse already had given them profits beyond what 99% of horses can ever be expected to make. Yet “the results were in favour of moving forward with the sale,” Taylor Made President Duncan Taylor said tersely when announcing that the 50 shareholders had voted to accept the JS Co. offer. “California Chrome is the best horse we have ever owned, and he will now have the opportunity to have offspring performing in three different countries,” Taylor added in a comment that seemed oddly specious. The horse’s life will not change for the better if he has progeny racing in the United States, Chile (where he shuttled for two seasons) and apparently, in the future, Japan; the only opportunity here is for profiteering.

Economics will always be a major factor in the ownership of Thoroughbreds as it is becoming a more and more expensive pursuit. Owners clearly have to be cognisant of costs and value, and the stories of breeders and others selling horses for big profits often are tales of triumph and happy endings. Not in this case, however. California Chrome had earned owners, including Taylor Made and other investors, over $8.43 million while racing after the farm’s acquisition of a 30% interest in the horse in July 2015. At stud, he generated over $8 million more if fees are considered for just half the 421 mares he covered in Kentucky and additional mares in Chile.

So, even though this horse, who was born from a $2,000 stud fee for a mare who cost $8,000, accounted for over $16 million in that span of time, it wasn’t enough. Looking ahead, California Chrome will not be serving Japan’s best mares when he is at Arrow Stud, and thus the rather naïve hopes expressed by some fans that he will become ‘the next Sunday Silence’ are probably unrealistic. Arrow’s patrons tend to be hard working but smaller scale Japanese breeders, and unless California Chrome turns into an incredibly prepotent sire, his offspring are likely to be more blue collar than upper crust. What will happen with his American-sired offspring from good mares sent to him in Kentucky remains to be seen. As could have been predicted by almost anyone, they have not set the commercial marketplace on fire as buyers have been hesitant to pay top dollars for California Chrome’s pedigree.

Perhaps some will become successful runners and an American farm will want to bring him back, as was the case with Juddmonte-bred Empire Maker. Yet that is an unusual occurrence. So, California Chrome will depart for Japan with an uncertain future and on a wave of bittersweet emotions among all but the most calloused racing professionals who argue that horses are no more than any other kind of property that can be disposed of at will. But if the great horses who have made their connections millions do not mean something more than just money, then the sport conveys the idea that no horses matter other than for what can be harvested from them. In this milieu, racing leaders from Breeders Cup Ltd, the New York Racing Association, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Keeneland Association, Churchill Downs Inc. and The Stronach Group plan to work on safety measures for horses and jockeys that will increase ‘accountability and transparency’.

Ironically, they announced their goals to a select group of invited attendees, thus immediately reducing the validity of their statement. They have called their new group the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition and it joins numerous other groups in American racing that often are at odds with one another. However, leaders have emphasised that since their individual organisations represent more than 85% of graded stakes racing in America, they have the clout to initiate change. “We want the sport to live on for generations to come, and that is only possible with all of us working together to ensure that the safety and well being of our athletes is our top priority,” said Drew Fleming, the new president of Breeders’ Cup. “We are passionate about these animals and this sport, and we are committed to working with our partners to ensure that together we are making sound and responsible decisions on behalf of our athletes, our fans and the racing community,” said Kevin Flanery, Churchill Downs’ racetrack president.

“We are implementing significant measures across the sport, from the quality of our track surfaces to ensuring horses are fit to run each and every time through medication reforms and enhanced veterinary examinations,” said Keeneland President Bill Thomason. “There is no single solution and we are committed to finding the right answers, wherever that may lead us.” Among changes advocated for American racing by the coalition are: longer withdrawal times for corticosteroids and non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs and the prohibition of the concurrent use of multiple NSAIDs and corticosteroids; random out of competition testing; mandatory necropsies on all fatally injured or ill horses; uniform riding crop rules; creation of an electronic veterinary reporting system and database, and creation of a racing safety steward position in all jurisdictions.

The coalition did not address the raceday use of Lasix, allowed in America but forbidden by other major racing jurisdictions worldwide. “The Thoroughbred horse racing industry has reached a watershed moment where unprecedented reforms touching all areas of the sport must continue to be advanced and implemented,” declared Craig Fravel, former Breeders’ Cup president and now chief executive of racing for The Stronach Group. While it is apparently too late for California Chrome, hopefully the watershed moment will lead to more sensitivity as to the long term care of high profile horses. In this regard, the Maktoums have set an outstanding example while ensuring that their superior runners, such as Fantastic Light and Swain, receive the lifelong appreciation that they so richly deserve. Hopefully, to polish racing’s darkened image with the public and simply because it is the right thing to do, more owners and breeders will follow their lead.

Michele MacDonald
Award Winning International Journalist

California Chrome Sale Comes Amid Horse Welfare Crisis