When I ran the idea of this article past my editor, Denise from Long Island, NY, she literally laughed at me and perhaps, in some people’s minds, it “is” laughable…. but hear me out for a minute on this.
To understand where I’m coming from, first you must understand how the retirement of a male racehorse works. I’m sure most of you know this already, but let’s go over it again just to be clear.
Most times, male horses are retired towards the end of a calendar year.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances (injury, sickness etc.) a horse will run his last race in October, November and even into December…with top class horses usually calling it a day after the Breeders’ Cup.
From that point, they are brought to the farm where they will be “let down.” The same way they are trained “up” to a race, most farms (or trainers before they leave the track) will train them “down”.
For example, if part of a horses’ training is galloping 1 ½ miles each day, once retired, they may gallop a mile every day for a few weeks then maybe a half mile for a few weeks and so on and so on.
“Breezing” stops completely, his diet is changed quite a bit and he is walked around the farm (into the breeding shed, etc.) to familiarize him with his upcoming tasks.
Breeding season officially open on February 14th (Valentine’s Day which is quite fitting) and ends sometime in July depending on each farm’s philosophy.
If you take away “shuttling” the horse (which I’m not a big fan of) to different parts of the world (due to climate) where their breeding season starts in May or June and ends in like December, the horse will do nothing…zero…nada…zilch…for seven months from July to February.
Between the Breeders’ Cup Classic (in November) and the Pegasus World Cup (in January), there will be $17 million in purse money available within that 11-week period time frame…so why not, in this case, put California Chrome back into training…say….in the beginning of July and run in those races?
What if, instead of letting ‘Chrome down 100%, they let him down …say… 70%? Certainly ‘Chrome, at a 30% fitness level, could be brought to 100% in four months…can’t he? Could you possibly squeeze a prep race in that time too? Possibly… but things would have to go perfectly to pull that off.
The success of the Pegasus a couple of weeks ago is a “game changer” to this sport and it has a least one farm “thinking about it”.
I mean, before the Pegasus there was zero incentive to bring a horse back after the breeding season. A crack at $5 million in November wasn’t enough to buck tradition…. but more than triple that number ($17 million) in 11 weeks and you will probably have some farm’s attention.
Taylor Made Farm President Duncan Taylor said in an interview prior to the Pegasus that they will “think about” the possibility of bringing California Chrome back for a 2017 Breeders’ Cup/2018 Pegasus daily double.
“Yes, we’re thinking about it”. Taylor said. “You have to do what is right by the horse and consider his temperament, his personality, his fitness. All those things will come into play. I think it’s a real possibility that someone will do it. But it will take a special kind of horse to do it. One with the right personality.”
Ahhhh, yes, Mr. Taylor, you are 10,000% correct in that statement “temperament”, “personality” and needing a “special horse to do it” are all “musts” to pull it off…. but don’t we already have confirmation that California Chrome is “special”?
What about age? California Chrome will be six at next year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic and seven when they run the 2018 Pegasus World Cup… Is that too old? That depends on the horse, but does anyone remember Chrome’s trainer Art Sherman saying earlier on Pegasus day that he would love to have Chrome one more year because he was “as good as he’s ever been?” …because I do…I clearly remember him saying that.
What about nature? I believe (and I’m sure if you ask other horsemen they will agree) once a horse starts breeding, their racing attitude or competitiveness fades away. Kind of like me, they just want to breed, eat and breed some more.
That’s a tough one. Can, again in this case, ‘Chrome buck nature?
I’m not sure anyone has the answer to that, but I would venture to guess, once again, it would depend on the individual.
I would refer you back to Duncan Taylor’s statement of it would take a certain “temperament, personality and a special horse to do it”.
What about history? Would history tell us this is feasible? The answer there is yes…and no.
I went back and looked…. then I went back further…. then I went all the way back and this is what I found:
A chestnut by the name of Boston, who was born in 1833, was an amazing animal. He bounced back and forth between the track and the breeding farm quite successfully.
He started in 45 races, winning 40, including 15 in a row at one point with a mind-boggling 30 of those wins coming at races that were four miles long.
All told, this horse, who is in the Hall of Fame, picked up $51,700 in purses and thousands more in breeding fees (he stood for $100.00) for three years while “in training.”
Grey Lag, who was born 1918 and won several big races including the 1921 Belmont Stakes, proved infertile and got just 17 foals in three crops.
Retired in 1923, he came back in 1928, but after finishing third in the Excelsior Handicap, he went into a tail spin and was still running in cheap claiming races at the age of 13. Thankfully, one of his many former owners bought him and retired him to his farm in NJ.
Another top three-year-old in 1921was Black Gold, who won the Kentucky Derby that year, as well as Derbies in three other states (Louisiana Derby, Ohio Derby, Chicago Derby). After he was retired to stud, he also proven infertile (in fact he did not get one single mare pregnant).
Brought back to the track at the age of six, he started four more times without a win. On January 18, 1928, at the age of seven, he started in the Salome Purse at the New Orleans Fair Grounds. Unfortunately, he broke down in the home stretch, finishing the race on three legs and was euthanized on the track.
He was buried in the infield of the Fair Grounds where his headstone still stands today.
1927 Kentucky Derby winner Whiskery also had fertility issues upon retirement. He was gelded and returned to racing, but did next to nothing.
1931 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Twenty Grand was still another who proved completely infertile and made a racing comeback at age 7. He ran off the board in the inaugural Santa Anita Handicap. He was then gelded and retired to a farm in Kentucky to live out the rest of his days.
Born in 1933 the legendary Seabiscuit blew out a suspensory ligament in 1938 and sat out the 1939 racing season.
While on the sidelines he covered several mares. But with an itch to win the Santa Anita Handicap, owner Charles Howard brought him back in 1940.
After the horse was scratched due to an off track in a previous race he was entered, Seabiscuit ran in the La Jolla Handicap at Santa Anita on February 9, 1940 where he was third, beaten by just two lengths. By his third comeback race, Seabiscuit was all the way back, winning the San Antonio Handicap by two and a half lengths, equaling the track record for 1 1/16 miles in the process.
Several weeks later, he won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap.
Stymie, born in 1941, and was at one point in his career claimed for $1,500, became one of the most popular horses of his generation while winning or placing in an eye popping 63 stakes races.
After fracturing a sesamoid, he was sidelined in July of 1948 but made the most of his down time.
Several pregnant mares later, Stymie returned to racing in October of 1949 but ran just one race and came second. The New York Racing Association (Aqueduct Racetrack) runs the Stymie Handicap each year.
Assault won the 1946 Triple Crown and is in the Hall of Fame, but did nothing in the breeding shed as none of the mares became pregnant. He was returned to racing until the age of seven, where he won a few more races, including the Brooklyn Handicap. He was then permanently retired to King Ranch.
Fleet Nasrullah, who was born in 1955, was a major stakes winner when he covered several mares in 1960. He returned to training to win three Southern California stakes, setting track records at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. For my money, Fleet Nasrullah later became one of the most influential sires in history. When I broke into racing in late 1979, I worked at several breeding farms and the Fleet Nasrullah’s “blood” that I saw always made an impression on me as being good looking, well balanced and could run!
After 1963 Preakness winner Candy Spots suffered an ankle injury, he spent 1964 at Ellsworth Ranch in California and was bred several times over. After being bred, he came back to win the 1965 San Pasqual Handicap.
Tomy Lee, who won the 1959 Kentucky Derby, was retired but got just 13 foals in four crops. In between unproductive breeding seasons, he won four allowance races.
Top Knight, foaled in 1967, was a champion at 2 and a Florida Derby winner at 3 but was an utter failure at stud as he too, failed to get a single mare pregnant. He raced unsuccessfully for several more years at low level tracks. It’s my understanding that he ended up on a Massachusetts farm.
Cellini was foaled in 1976. He was Group 1 winner overseas and was regally bred (by champion Round Table out of champion Gamely). Unfortunately, upon his retirement overseas he got just three foals before heading to North America for a 1976 return to racing. He won once in five starts before disappearing. What happened to him afterwards, as hard as I searched, is unknown.
1985 sprint champion and a member of the Hall of Fame, Precisionist was a strange case. Tests indicated he had “live” sperm but was unable to impregnate his mares, siring just four foals. He was returned to competition and won the Grade 3 Cabrillo Handicap in 1988.
I hesitate to mention Wake At Noon (foaled in 1997) who was a “millionaire” and a Horse of the Year in Canada. Fertility issues (siring just 18 foals from four crops) had his owners make the horrendous decision to send him back to the track at age 13. On June 29, 2010, he took a bad step on the Woodbine training track and broke down. He was euthanized on the spot– a death that sent shockwaves through the sport.
The gorgeous George Washington, born in 2003, won The English 2000 Guineas and was a European champion. He stood briefly, and unproductively, at Coolmore and went back into training after getting just one mare in foal. In the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic, he suffered a fractured ankle and was euthanized on the track.
Lastly, I remember the speedy Bertrando, who won several major races on both coasts and was champion older horse in 1993. He was bred in 1994 and returned to the racetrack later that year to win two of six starts, including the Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap. He was then bred again the following year, and again, was returned to the track where he made two starts and was unplaced in both.
Would California Chrome wind up in the Boston or Fleet Nasrullah category or would he wind up in the Grey Lag category but to a lesser degree? Or worse, in the George Washington category?
No one knows for sure……
Here is one more thing that blew my mind when I thought about it. What about instead of using California Chrome as an example, we “unplugged” ‘Chrome and “plugged in” American Pharoah?
I thought about that briefly but that’s just not realistic. “AP” is retired two years now and the last time I saw him he was 175 lbs. heavier than his “fighting weight”. That, and him being the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, makes him FAR too valuable.
If I owned California Chrome…would I do it? I doubt it…. After giving us a Kentucky Derby win, a Preakness win, a Dubai World Cup win, several other major Grade: 1 wins, an Eclipse Award for best older horse and, not one but two Horse of the Years Awards, he’s done enough.
But I will tell you this…I don’t think the idea is all that laughable.
Thanks for reading.