The Thoroughbred horse-racing industry, which dominated my life from the age of 16 to the age of around 25, was a career that in practical terms meant I spent a lot of time talking about horse libido, gambling and getting up at 3 AM to pick up the poop of an animal whose left leg was worth more than my entire life’s savings. I learned a lot of valuable lessons:
- Driving stick on the wrong side of the road is fine as long as you’re not on a Irish two-lane where people drive like insane juggernauts with no reasonable human fear
- The ruler of Dubai speaks ENTIRELY IN HAWK ALLEGORIES; also, don’t ever accept jet rides from the 22nd richest man in Canada because he is probably a sexual predator
- A great lede sets the scene (thanks Sean), a good-looking horse is a balanced horse (thanks to both Graves boys) and the only good kangaroo is a dead one (thank you, all of Australia)
- How to handicap, sort of
Most of those things I will probably use again at some point in my life, but so far, my ability to assess the ability and value of a racehorse with a reasonable degree of accuracy has done me absolutely no good in my current life as a health-care journalist. Except when Triple Crown rolls around and everybody wants to know what’s up.
Here, in no particular order, are the questions I get asked most frequently about the Triple Crown.
PS: Post time for the Belmont is 6:50 PM on Saturday. I was planning on heading to the Brixton, which is showing the race live on all three floors and encouraging floppy hats—but as it turns out, I have Momma Williams in town and I feel like the Brix’s usual drunk 20-something crowd may not be as charming to Virginia racing’s former chief regulator as it is to me. I’m thinking I’m going to take her to Jack Rose instead, so friends, feel free to join. She’s a much better handicapper than I am, anyway.
Why haven’t we had a Triple Crown winner in so long.
The simple answer to this is that it’s an incredibly grueling series of races ran over a very short time period. Outside of the Triple Crown, modern Thoroughbreds will practically never run three races in a little over a month. The best of the best might only run half a dozen times in an entire year.
Some people argue that the breed isn’t as tough as it used to be. Between the last Triple Crown winner in 1978 and now, Thoroughbred breeding became a commercial industry, not just the hobby of the ultra-rich. Unraced yearlings are making millions in the auction ring based on their pedigrees and their physique, and stallions have six-digit stud fees. Some suggest that people are breeding horses for the auction ring, not the racetrack, and that the breed has suffered as a result. It’s the same criticism that people levy on registered show dog breeders.
Others argue that breeders have bred too heavily for speed over stamina, making the marathon distance of the Belmont impossible for a horse that wins the Kentucky Derby:
The Belmont is kind of an anachronism for modern racehorses. It’s the longest race in the series at 1 ½ miles—a distance that most of these horses have never run and will never run again. It’s actually considered a hit against a horse’s commercial value if he wins this race but can’t succeed over shorter distances because it suggests that he doesn’t have any speed, just stamina. And friends, speed sells: Most breeders are trying to select matings that will produce horses that will excel over the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles. That extra quarter-mile may not sound like a big difference, but you’ll hear professional trainers and “bloodstock” agents talking about a race being even an 1/8th of a mile too far. Think of it this way: Usain Bolt probably couldn’t beat Paula Radcliffe in a marathon.
Is American Pharoah going to win.
ICYMI, a horse named American Pharoah won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, giving him a chance at sporting immortality. And the wide consensus is: He’s got a shot, but it’s not a done deal.
Here’s what American Pharoah has going for him:
- He’s obviously an exceptional athlete. In a seven-race career, he has only lost one race (his very first), and five of those victories were in the top tier of American races.
- He has only run four times this year—what racing people call “lightly raced”—meaning that he might not be too run down by the Triple Crown grind.
- Most of the gossip reports from Belmont say he has trained well between the Preakness and the Belmont.
- American Pharoah likes to run on the front end. He wants to get out in front of the competition early and stay there. That’s a running style that has won this race for other Triple Crown winners in the past: Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat all went wire-to-wire.
Here’s what might work against him:
- His Preakness victory looked really impressive, but the huge rainstorm that happened right before the race probably gave him an edge. American Pharoah loves the mud, but much of his competition that day did not. Of course, if it happens to rain tomorrow, this could work in his favor again...
- There are a couple of horses in American Pharoah’s pedigree that aren’t known for providing stamina. There is some concern that American Pharoah won’t “get the distance.” But like every other horse in here, the distance is an unknown. The horse that won this race last year was by a stallion that most racing professionals said couldn’t make winners past 1 ⅛ miles. A mile and a half later, they were wrong.
- Three races in a little over a month is just hard.
I want to make money. Who should I bet.
Not American Pharoah—although it might be kind of cool to put a $2 win ticket down on him to keep as a souvenir if he does it. He’s going to go off as the heavy favorite and because betting on racing is pari-mutuel—meaning you bet against everyone else who’s betting, not the house—your profit margin is going to be small.
I like Materiality, a son of a Belmont winner named Afleet Alex. Not only does Materiality have the pedigree to get the mile and a half, but he also figures to be a horse on the way up. The trick to handicapping is finding the horse that has a shot to improve rather than the horse whose best race may be behind him. Materiality ran a credible sixth in the Kentucky Derby and has rested since. The Belmont could be his chance to peak.
I also like a horse named Mubtaahij, an Irish-bred horse who kicked ass in Dubai earlier this spring. He finished over 9 lengths back in the Kentucky Derby, but he had just flown halfway around the world so I’m willing to draw a line through that race. I think he’s probably slow, but slow horses can win the Belmont. He’s also bred for the distance and figures to go off at long odds—he’s 10-1 on what we call the morning line, or his preliminary odds—so he’s a good opportunity to make some money. Materiality is 6-1, but I think will probably go off shorter than that.
My advice? Put down $2 to win on American Pharoah for kicks, then tell the teller you want a $2 exacta box on 5, 8 and 1. It will cost you $12 and it means that if any two of those horses come in first and second, in any order, you get paid. How much depends on how many people bet, how much money they bet and who they bet on.
Why is American Pharoah’s damn name misspelled.
Because people can’t spell anymore and copy-editing is a dying art. AP’s owners had a contest to let fans name the horse and the winner submitted the name incorrectly. Zayat’s people didn’t bother to double-check and sent it off to the Jockey Club for approval and registration. Zayat tried to blame it on the Jockey Club originally, but had to retract that statement when the registry’s president made a statement that the approval was “granted exactly as it was spelled on the digital name application.” Whoops.
Let’s get real. How much is his semen going to cost if he wins.
Because I know you’re curious: If American Pharoah wins the Belmont, it’s going to cost a lot of money to breed a mare to him. It’s tough to even put a price on it because it has been so long since the last time a Triple Crown winner entered stud.
Right now, the most expensive horse in America stands at my ol’ alma mater, Gainesway. His name is Tapit—geddit, geddit—and he’s a goldmine for the syndicate that owns him. His 2015 stud fee is $300,000, but he’s so popular that even if you have $300,000 lying around, it doesn’t mean you’ll get to breed your mare to him. A stallion can only “cover” but so many mares a year because Thoroughbreds have to be conceived “live cover” (read: they actually have to do it) and horse sex is work. So my ex-boss vets the pedigree and produce record of every possible mate and only the best of the best make the cut—around 150 a year.
But Tapit has been around for a few years. His stud fee is as high as it is because his offspring have been so successful on the racetrack and the sales ring. Usually when new stallions go to stud, even horses with a lot of commercial appeal, putting a price on them is still putting a price on an unknown quantity—there’s no telling if a horse will make babies as good as himself. So, for example, when Gainesway stood first-season sire To Honor And Serve, they priced him at $35,000. Even for a horse as good (and as good-looking) as THAS, that was probably too much.
But every now and then a horse comes along that’s so special—in racing terms, a “freak”—that the price will balloon. The European superstar Frankel entered stud in 2013 at almost 200,000 USD. If American Pharoah wins the Triple Crown, he’s probably looking at a similar starting stud fee. My friend and market expert Reiley McDonald pegged it to IBT at $150,000 or more.
As for where he will stand, this deal has already been done: Zayat sold the breeding rights to the horse to Coolmore Stud, which is based in Ireland but has a farm in Kentucky, after the Preakness. Terms haven’t been disclosed, but it’s very likely that that there’s a rider in that contract upping the price if AP wins. Bill Oppenheim—when it comes to crunching the numbers in the breeding business, this guy is the best there is—Bill told Bloomberg that the stud rights would be worth about $30 million if he wins the Triple Crown.
Last question. Can I wear a big hat.