Counting down to the Run for the Roses

In another lifetime, many years ago, I held a role as a pedigree writer.

This rather intriguing title required two key requisites – immaculate hand-writing (what people used to do in the era pre-computers) AND a quiet and subdued office manner.  Somehow, I managed to end up in the very hushed and hallowed halls of Wrightson Bloodstock as a member of the pedigree writing team despite failing monumentally on both fronts.

For some reason, known only to her (and possibly regretted every day of the mercifully short time I spent there) the late Jane McClintock Bunbury took a punt and signed me on.

My role – well, the only bit I remember – was to update the race record cards of the NZ-bred horses which raced in Australia, by carefully (the neat hand-writing bit) transcribing their performance from the Australian Racing Calendar.  This information was used to create the pedigrees of those blue-blooded youngsters which made it into the yearling sales catalogues.

These cards – there must have been thousands of them – were stored in a giant circular contraption known as the whirly-gig. I can only imagine the celebrations when computers meant the end of all that neat writing in tomb-like silence!

Fortunately for the sanity of the aforementioned Jane Bunbury and my fellow pedigree writers, my time at Wrightsons was blissfully short and I was off to my natural calling, working at NZ BloodHorse magazine.

While the days of rubber-band fights and breeding debates were over, we stayed in touch.

As we all shared a passion for thoroughbred racing and breeding though, many of my weekends involved excursions to the races with my former workmates.  Or, more relevantly to this time of the year, extensive sleuthing to discover somewhere we could watch the Kentucky Derby.

As difficult as it is to believe now, there was once a time when racing could only be viewed on-track or, in the case of international racing, by finding somewhere with an extremely flash, state-of-the-art dish capable of picking up coverage.

This led to some interesting venues for our Derby brunches.  I have a vivid memory of watching one renewal of the Derby from the all-but-us-deserted back bar of a cavernous North Shore pub better known for hosting bands the likes of DD Smash – at least the screen was a decent size.

The effort which went into finding a locale where we could enjoy the most exciting two minutes in sports, as the run for the roses is billed, was akin to the preparation to scale one of the seven summits.

Of course, it all got so much easier when we could watch it from the comfort of someone’s home rather than schlepping all over Auckland.

One of the highlights of Kentucky Derby viewing over the years has been the quality of the coverage. It seemed that every horse had an incredible back-story and, no matter whether he was a 100-1 longshot or the raging favourite, that story was given the full treatment.

The pre-race interviews were insightful and professional, and the emotional impact was clear, and allowed to shine without any interviewer cheesiness, after the event.

There was a stage I recall having to watch the coverage on ESPN via Sky, the reason why escapes me, it may have been that Trackside chose not to provide coverage.  Equally, it could well have been their coverage was limited to the odds and race pictures only, I didn’t care the ESPN coverage was perfect for the race fan.

This weekend will see the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby.  While I won’t be enjoying a race day brunch to mark the occasion, I will be joining the international viewing audience to see whether Bob Baffert can add to his impressive tally.

I’ll also be re-watching the Kentucky Derby episode of 7 Days Out an outstanding Netflix insight into the behind the scenes lead up to Justify’s 2018 victory.

 

 

 

 

 

The recipe to breed a champion remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma

Breed the best to the best and hope for the best.  It’s an adage we’ve all heard and can be attributed to American John E Madden.  A prolific owner across both the galloping and harness code, Madden bred 14 “champion” racehorses, including five Kentucky Derby winners, four Belmont Stakes winners and the first winner of the Triple Crown, Sir Barton.

He was also a bit of a trader – specifically in his earlier years when purchasing and improving horses – and claimed his motto was: “Better to sell and repent than keep and resent.”

It would also appear, based on that and his breeding mantra, he had a very tidy turn of phrase.

Which brings me back to breeding theories and the fact that champions can come in any shape or size.  They can either burst on to the racing stage as a ready-formed star or emerge more slowly, with time their friend as their talent blossoms as they mature.

It was something I got to thinking about again earlier this week after reading a fabulous piece from The Conversation, an independent media outlet which carries pieces predominantly written by academics.  Should be dull as ditch water, right? Not this piece.

The article in question was authored by Steven Tammariello, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and Director of the Institute for Equine Genomics, Binghamton University, State University of New York.

I recommend you check it out in its entirety here.

What captivated me was largely what the author said intrigued him and that is how variations of genes impact on performance and/or development –  given he is a molecular physiologist, he has the ability to investigate further.

Faced with the incredible opportunity to do a little DNA testing on the mighty Seabiscuit Tammariello and his team leapt at the chance.  The source of this elusive DNA was slightly creepy, a couple of silvered (as in, dipped in silver) hooves from the champion racehorse.  Just reading about this brought back memories of some of the more macabre mementoes of our own racing heroes which were once housed at Ellerslie racecourse as they awaited a permanent home.  From memory there was an inkwell made from one of Carbine’s hooves, slightly more useful than Seabiscuit’s ornamental hoof.

Despite the age and deterioration of the hooves DNA was able to be extracted from Seasbiscuit’s coffin bones.  However, the nuclear DNA – layman’s description being the DNA inherited from all ancestors – was “somewhat degraded”.  The mitochondrial DNA – that which is only inherited from the female lineage – was described as intact and that allowed the team to confirm the hooves did come from Seabiscuit.

Despite the state of the DNA it was possible for some sequencing to be done around those genes related to racing distance.  From these it was determined that Seabiscuit’s gene variants were those often found in horses which are good over ground.  But, he also had minor variants which are usually found in sprinters.

The article stated:

This somewhat rare genetic combination of stamina and speed seems to be reflected in the champion’s race record, as he won races from as short as 5 furlongs (sprint) to as long as 1¼ miles (distance). Further, horses of today that we’ve identified with this genotype tend to be late bloomers, winning their first race almost three months later, on average, than horses with a genotype associated with precocity. Sounds like Seabiscuit’s race record: He didn’t become a true racing star until his 4-year-old racing season.

Of course, the obvious question – well, the one which leapt into my mind straight away – is, does this mean we can clone Seabiscuit?

Apparently, due to the quality of the nuclear DNA and the small amount retrieved, that is not an option – “for now.”

Instead the team is going to continue to examine Seabiscuit’s genome and attempt to discover more about just what it was which made him so special, especially given his well-chronicled physical defects (smaller than average; unusual gait; crooked legs – let’s just say he wouldn’t have made Book 1).  They will also be looking to see whether his DNA differs wildly from that of the modern thoroughbred.

What is going to be interesting in the future is how breeding theories may eventually end up going out the window.  No more breeding the best to the best and hoping for the best, in the future we will be able to look at a foal’s DNA and have an indication as to that animal’s precocity or otherwise and its optimum distance.

How far down that line can we end up going, and how accurate will those predictions be?  Surely, other external factors will still come into play with environment also continuing to play a part?

While I embrace these scientific advances I also tend to lean towards the romantic when it comes to breeding.

Indulge me a little as I now deviate into one of my favourite breeding tales, that of the Oaks and Derby winner Signorinetta, a true “love child.”

Her story begins with owner and breeder Cavaliere Edoardo Ginistrelli and a mare called Signorina who was no slug on the racetrack, being unbeaten in nine races at two, including the Middle Park Stakes; the winner of two more races at three and runner-up in the Oaks; and the winner of the Lancashire Plate as a four-year-old.

At stud though over ten seasons she had not produced a live foal before leaving Signorino who ran second in the 2000 Guineas before finishing third in the Derby.

A stallion called Chaleureux, who is variously described as a “nine guinea stallion” or a teaser – take your pick – used to pass Signorina’s box every day and, every day the mare would call to him.  This convinced her passionate Italian owner the horses were “in love” and he allowed Chaleureux to cover his prized mare.

The resulting foal Signorinetta was trained by Ginistrelli himself and while she may have won both the Oaks and the Derby it is widely agreed that the quality of that year may have been lacking.

There is also a quirky tie to New Zealand through Signorinetta with one of her offspring, the 1912 filly Pasta (by Thrush) being the dam of six-time leading NZ stallion Hunting Song.

We may be making rapid advancements in the world of science and its contribution to breeding but until such time as we can create the perfect racing specimen in a lab there will always remain an element of the unexpected and unexplained in the make-up of our champions.

In the words of another passionate Italian: “A horse gallops with his lungs, perseveres with his heart, and wins with his character.” (Federico Tesio).

 

Time to put the NZRB out of its misery?

Call me cynical but I’m not buying this sympathy wave the NZ Racing Board is currently riding. With a late run reminiscent of Chautauqua the NZRB is attempting to position itself as a victim.  The outcome is more likely to be akin to last Friday’s Moonee Valley trial rather than the withering last-second winning burst a la any of the grey flash’s TJ Smith successes.

If you watched Weigh In last week, then you will have witnessed the staggering sight of the NZRB CEO John Allen stating that he did not speak to the Minister of Racing.  That was confirmation, if needed, that the NZRB in its current form is broken.

There were a couple of things which immediately sprang to mind when I heard that.  The first was, “well in that case do any of your well-rewarded Government and Industry relationship managers have any contact with the minister’s office”? And, the second was – “Winston can’t be that difficult to contact, Brian de Lore seems to have no problem getting him to provide answers to straight-forward questions.”

Long term readers will remember the Government and Industry relationship tribe which I referred to in a blog post last November (More climb aboard the NZRB gravy train).  From what I have heard over the past week though, they were as blind-sided as Allen when the Minister announced he was pulling the Racefields legislation.

It would seem from this that no one at the NZRB was paying attention when the Messara report was launched and the Racing Minister was answering questions. In addition to communication problems it would appear the CEO and chair are also challenged when it comes to listening and comprehension because, seated front and centre at the launch they managed to miss what everyone else watching heard and saw.

Interestingly, Brian de Lore wrote the following paragraph referencing this in his latest column in The Informant – you won’t have read it though as it was deleted:

That fact has been stated several times here in The Informant.  The Minister stated it himself at the launch of the Messara Report (and debated it with Graeme Rogerson) and he has always said we get only one chance at doing the legislation and everything had to be done at once.  It was no secret.

I went back and watched that segment of the Q&A again where, in response to Graeme Rogerson’s question about Section 16 the Minister had, among other things, this to say:

“I said that the law had been written in 2002 and the last one which is now before parliament which we have suspended bear the hallmarks of writing legislation for politicians and bureaucrats at their convenience and not with the interests of the industry in mind.”

When Rogerson pushed further asking specifically about Racefields legislation Winston Peters claimed the trainer was wanting to head down the motorway in a Lada when he was trying to create a Rolls Royce future for the industry.

“That legislation has got problems with it and we’ve only got a certain gap in the legislative schedule ahead to put the changes in we want,” he stated.

In response to the Minister’s query as to whether he saw the legislation as the “salvation of the industry” Rogerson said, no but it was a help.

The Racing Minister’s pithy reply, “So’s liniment!” left little doubt as to his opinion of the racefields legislation.

Apparently, this exchange went whizzing over the heads of those from NZRB and obviously was also missed by the wonderful leadership team which John Allen would happily have alongside him in any battle.

Their unwavering belief that Racefields was to be their saviour also probably meant they didn’t bother too much with reading the Messara report which also pointed out flaws in the legislation.

This pretty much sums it up:

We are not convinced that the maximum level of penalties prescribed in the Bill is sufficiently high enough to act as a proper deterrent for persons not complying with the legislation. Perhaps further consideration should be given to adding custodial penalties for persons found guilty of breaching the legislation. It is widely thought that the inclusion of custodial penalties in the NSW legislation has been a prime motivator for a high level of compliance. While it would be beneficial for the legislation to be enacted at the earliest opportunity to generate much needed revenue for the racing industry, it would be more appropriate to delay its passage until a final decision is made by the Government on the preferred structure of racing and betting administration in New Zealand. This would avoid the necessity of setting up monitoring and collection systems within the nominated Designated Authority only to have to repeat the exercise if the structure changes.

Based on what we have seen and heard from the NZRB over the past week or so it would seem they are living in an alternate universe.  In that world work goes on shovelling money into a FOB platform which has the whiff of a three-week dead trout about it; jobs of all descriptions are advertised despite the future of the organisation being shaky at best; and there is no connection between the senior leadership team and the Minister.

Shouldn’t we all be more than a little concerned about all of the above?  Even more so when it is being portrayed by the CEO as if they are the ones who are being hard done by.

We are lucky in this country to have relatively easy access to our politicians, we connect to them via social media, can drop them an email, write them a letter and even give them a phone call – which they may, or may not chose to answer!

Brian de Lore told me earlier this week that he had flicked a text to Racing Minister Winston Peters and received a phone call within three minutes.

He relays this in his piece in The Informant where the Minister could not have been clearer when it came to the Racefields legislation.

“I cannot keep on jamming things into the Parliamentary schedule and it made sense to pull that out of the schedule and incorporate whatever good parts there are into a new Bill as fast as I can,” the Minister told de Lore.

Given this and further comments from the Minister in the de Lore piece it was somewhat odd to see an NZRB puff piece also featuring in The Informant where John Allen is apparently “pushing a case for the Racing Board and the TAB in its current form to maintain a position at the top of industry administration and oversight.”

Anyone with a little more self-awareness might have already fallen on their sword.

Instead, we continue to hear the same old rhetoric coming out of Petone where it is everyone else’s fault that they are now presiding over a dead horse.  We are told they are passionate about the industry – as passionate as a six-figure salary can make you, I think – and that they want to see it thrive.   Excuse me if we aren’t swallowing it, after three years we’ve figured out the talk is just talk.

The implementation of recommendation number 4 can’t come soon enough.  Don’t be surprised though if, when the independents charged with conducting a performance and efficiency audit of the NZRB finally break into Fortress Petone, they find nothing but a burnt-out shell.

 

 

What first drew you to racing? Two very different horses led me to this place!

Here’s a question for regular readers – what was it that first drew you to racing?  What planted the seed which has obviously (if you’re reading a blog this obscure!) blossomed into a continuing interest?

I was thinking about this the other day, when I decided I needed – for my own sanity – to remember what first drew me into an industry which has now become a passion.  I guess hanging out with a range of academics daily has led to me not just accepting this as something which just “happened” but searching for an underlying reason.

Why is it that I care so much about the future of this industry?  That I, like other friends who have despaired at the Racing Minister’s ponderous approach to its protection and return to prosperity, currently feel deflated and defeated.

Since the launch of the Messara report all I have read, viewed and heard in the general media and on the industry’s “own” channel are negatives and reasons why it shouldn’t be adopted in toto.  Missing have been the voices of our thoroughbred industry leaders – I exclude those associated with the NZRB from that fold, the only place they have led us is into the abyss.  Obviously, working behind the scenes has been taken to the extreme?

So, feeling glum and borderline wanting to just chuck it all in and put my energy into something more rewarding, I got to questioning how a passion for thoroughbreds became so embedded.

I’m going to be self-indulgent, but its my blog and I can do what I want, however I’d love to hear your stories too so feel free to leave a comment or some feedback.

According to family lore, I sat on my first horse at 18 months old.  It was a racehorse, it was at Trentham and said horse – whose name has been forgotten in the mists of time – was trained by my grandfather and had just won a race. Perhaps that was what set my course?

While that is what I was told, my own earliest memories stem from Tauherenikau where my grandfather was training.  We lived over the road and my father would occasionally let me accompany him to the track in the morning.

At the time he had entrusted my grandfather with the training of a filly by Red Marlin (it was a VERY long time ago), her stable name was Poppy, and she wasn’t very fast, but she did like to eat.  A usual part of the stable routine back then used to be that the boys took a few of horses out for a walk around the nearby roads in the afternoon but one day they were rather late returning.  So late that my father was sent out in the car to look for them.

Nothing was awry, Poppy’s appetite had got away on her and, no matter what was tried, the poor apprentice was unable to prise her head up from the lush grass on the side of the road.  Poppy’s racing career was neither lucrative nor lengthy.  My grandfather, recognising her innate lack of ability, sacked her early.  My father, though, in the manner of most young men, believed he knew better.  He continued to train her himself – from my grandfather’s stables, using his gear, his staff and his feed.  My grandfather was proven right though, and it was off to the broodmare paddock for Poppy.

While Poppy may not have reached great heights on the racetrack she may have indirectly affected my career choice.  A story I wrote about her when I was around 10 was published in the children’s pages of a Sunday paper and was my first ever paid contribution.  A friend of my father’s who raced many of Poppy’s offspring told me many decades later that he had kept a clipping of the story.

Poppy’s banishment to the broodmare paddock and the subsequent need for stallion selection was responsible for my interest in breeding.  I had school exercise books full of pedigrees of every horse in my grandfather’s stable and found the differences between the many full and half-siblings which came through his care intriguing.

My visits to the track also became more regular as I grew older and around the age of eight I became a real pest.  I was usually thrown up on something quiet that my father could lead but my favourite was always Roodyvoo.  Not the more recent jumping version, this one was a half-brother to the Melbourne Cup runner-up Howsie and had fashioned an impressive record himself before breaking down prior to the Easter.

Sent to the paddock, Roody had been enjoying the life of Riley for 18 months before my grandfather decided to have the affected leg x-rayed again.  With no sign of the original injury and full of his usual vim and vigour it was back into training for Roody.  He never reached the heights for which he may have originally been destined but he did amass a great record racing up until he was around 10.

Once retired finally, he took up residence in the back paddock – which opened on to the course proper – here he would stand intently listening to Jack O’Donnell’s commentaries on race day.  It was on that gate in the back paddock where my grandmother and I were positioned one day watching what was Roody’s last race.  The field jumped and my grandmother, binoculars focussed on the gates said, “Something’s dropped the rider…. it’s ours.” By the time she’d got that out Roody was lining up at the gate waiting for us to let him in.  It was as though he decided, blow this for a joke, I’m done and took himself off to retirement.

We let him back in the paddock, took his saddle off and gave it to the clerk of the course who had come looking for the missing horse. Other than our morning trips to the track, that was the last time Roody set foot on a racecourse.

In retirement Roody’s role was to socialise the new additions to the stable, but he also set himself up as quality controller.  Every afternoon my grandfather would add freshly cut grass to the hay in each box and one day he heard rustling coming from the box he had just completed, wandering back to check he found Roody undertaking a taste test.  Installed in a yard at the end of the stable block Roody had managed to open the gate and had followed behind my grandfather ensuring all was up to par for his stablemates.

We left the Wairarapa when I was 11 so my future hands-on horse experiences came via school holiday visits to my grandparents or when I could go to Trentham.

The champagne turf wasn’t exactly welcoming to kids back in the day.  You could go in the Leger area if you were under 12, but that was miles away from the horses.  Instead I used to try and tag along with my aunt (on the dam’s side, this one) who was regularly the on-course nurse.  Her office for the day was a tiny hut situated close to the back-parade ring.

Once I hit college age and was officially “allowed” to go racing I was at Trentham every opportunity I got, even if it meant wagging school to get to the mid-week Winter race day.  While I might have been old enough to be in that part of the course the Wellington Racing Club officialdom now had a problem with the fact I was female.

While waiting for the running of the Wellington Guineas where my grandfather had a live chance I was approached by a white coat and informed I couldn’t be where I was.  Where I was, with one of my grandfather’s mates, was on the wrong side of the white line which determined where the men would be and where the women would be banished.  It’s amazing there is anyone left with a passion for racing such was the determination of some administrators to crush our enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm is still taking a beating but despite, in fact more likely in spite, of our very average administrators and their flaccid leadership, I’m still here.

And it’s all because of the horses.  Oddly, I appear to have lucked into a couple of horses which are providing moments of great excitement at present.  I like to think it might be reward for perseverance!

Hopefully, by the time next week’s blog rolls along we will have an inkling of good news around the Messara report and those of us left standing will be rewarded further with some positive action.