Juddmonte’s Flintshire: Challenging Conventional American Horse Racing Wisdom, at Every Turn.
The 2016 Travers was extraordinary, for several reasons. And all of them begin and end with the name, Arrogate, Prince Khalid bin Abdullah’s horse who broke the all-time Travers record. In 147 years of this race—no one ever has run faster than Arrogate. (Or, with more grace and commanding lead—13 ½ lengths—might I add.)
But when I awoke on Saturday morning, heart all a-flutter, it wasn’t because it was Travers Day. I was wired because the mighty, mighty Flintshire would win his second consecutive Sword Dancer on Saturday. (Come on, we all knew it.) Flintshire is an otherworldly horse, one whose very presence on this planet makes other animals stop and stare in awe. Flintshire is a shining example of a Thoroughbred whose life and career have been carefully respected and considered—and whose talent, nurtured to his current place of dominance.
We in American racing can learn lessons from the Great British-bred horse, his connections and the international way of doing horse racing. Lessons that we Americans seem to accept slowly—often, grudgingly—simply because they fly in the face of those things that we believe to be True.
This blinkers-on way of viewing the rest of the world results in American racing myths being embraced and perpetuated by The Few, thence becoming The Truth to The Many.
Using Flintshire’s life and career as evidence, we can see the errors of many of the overriding bits of American racing “wisdom,” and why we need to change our thinking if we’re really going to play on the world stage.
Flintshire–the otherworldly, impeccably-pedigreed, rock star race horse–is knocking down barriers and challenging conventional “wisdom,” simply by existing, and excelling.
Flintshire is one of the greatest horses on Earth–most certainly one of the most powerful. The six-year-old turf specialist scares the bejeebers out of every horse who’s had the guts to face him. Even the times he hasn’t won–the winning horse got in front only because–being prey animals–they were running away from the mighty, God-bearing steed. (There’s actually merit to this theory: according to Kerry Thomas and the Thomas Herding Theory–we all know that horses look for an Alpha. Kerry writes that this is true every time horses are in a herd of any kind, including a created-herd in a starting gate.
So when an Alpha like Flintshire wins–it’s because the others backed off in deference to his superiority.
(And, taking this theory one step farther, I hypothesize that, when another horse runs in front of an Alpha of Flintshire’s magnitude—in the deepest, most primal, instinctual place—that other horse is the prey, running like the wind to get away from the Alpha.) Isn’t that beautiful?
Owned by Prince Khalid bin Abdullah al Saud and his Juddmonte Farms, Flintshire has raced all over the globe–literally. From Hong Kong and Dubai to Epsom, Longchamp, Saratoga and Belmont–the mere utterance of his name makes competing trainers quake in their Tony Lamas.
With the Internet, online betting and international travel readily available to horses, their connections, fans and media–the world has become a very small place, and horse racing is a tiny community within this miniscule planet. Flintshire has fans everywhere that he’s raced on this planet. So American racing can’t avoid seeing the ways in which the-things-we-believe-to-be-true are facing a throw-down in many arenae:
The creation of “our facts” may have started years ago, when–as goes the rumor–British horses raced in clockwise fashion, so supposedly someone in horse racing on the North American continent decided, “Well, then, we’ll race counter-clockwise.”
Whether or not that is true, it’s become part of the mythology of American horse racing. Here are some American racing myths that need changing, and how Flintshire is shattering these non-truths:
* A Thoroughbred’s “best days” as a racehorse are over on December 31st (in the Northern Hemisphere) of their three-year-old campaign. This silly idea is being shredded by horses like Flintshire, who, at age six shows no sign of slowing down.
(The fact that Thoroughbreds aren’t even fully-grown until they’re five doesn’t seem to convince those who are intent on retiring their terrific race horses to the breeding shed at age three. The siren song of Stud Bucks is a powerful enticement.)
But a three-year-old Thoroughbred is rather like a teenager–and who in their right mind would say aloud, that a teenager is at their best, and highest? So you see the argument here, that Thoroughbreds who love racing and are fit should be raced long after their three-year-old campaigns.
Anyone who saw Flintshire’s second consecutive Sword Dancer win on August 27th, was enthralled—both lovers and bettors-against. (I laughed as my friends noted during the race, that he was “dead last”—and I assured them that Javier Castellano would find the hole, put Flintshire into fifth–and blow through it with the authority and power of a royal steamroller. And he did.)
Ageism is very real in American racing—and it needs to stop. One need look no farther than Flintshire for the most-compelling argument. Clearly, his talent, prowess, perfectly-muscled body and maturity all speak of a horse who’s not a “senior citizen,” as many Americans would declare–but rather is a Force of Nature, itself.
As the late, great Jess Jackson said to me when he said that he’d race Curlin as a four-year-old: “…when he tells me it’s not fun for him anymore, then we’ll retire him…”
American horse owners and trainers: bottom line, if you really love this sport and the horses whom God has given to you, race them after they turn four. (IF the horse loves to race, and is healthy, of course.) But please, stop ripping them off the track, and sending them to the breeding shed if they’re still enjoying running. Fans fall in love with your horses–create fan clubs, buy t-shirts and baseball caps, collect memories–then never get to see him or her again, unless they have the cash to visit a farm in Kentucky or another breeding state. By killing a horse’s career, you’re discouraging your horses’ fans–and killing the sport.
* Then, there’s the American thought–that’s found its ridiculous way into the very fabric of American racing’s belief system–that, somehow, grass horses aren’t up to par with dirt specialists. You want to deny it, but you know that it’s true: Americans just don’t give quite as much credit to turf horses and turf races as they do to dirt racers. And yet…
Nothing could be farther from the Truth. Some of the greatest American Thoroughbreds were/are turf horses. (Think, John Henry, Wise Dan, Better Talk Now, Sunshine Forever, Gio Ponti and of course, Saratoga’s own Fourstardave.) And every one of those great horses had the big feet of a horse who just loves the grass.
* The world has to come to us, in order to prove that they’re up to snuff. Ouch. This one smacks of nationalism: America has some truly great racing—but it’s not the greatest racing in the world, for every nation that races, has spectacular/historic/beautiful/record-challenging races on their cards.
In recent years, the Breeders’ Cup races have had more international entrants, and that’s a fabulous thing. (It’s not really the Breeders’ Cup per John Gaines’ original vision, unless horses from all around the world are welcome, and equals.)
American racing needs to recognize that to be a horse racing star in this era, a horse truly must take his/her show on the road. Gone are the days when a horse could have a carefully-crafted career that, say, includes only tracks west of the Mississippi—and be considered to be a Champion of historic significance.
Charles Howard knew this in the 1930s, when he threw Seabiscuit on a train and crossed the country with him, making friends and forging eternal ties with human hearts. Decades before the Internet, Mr. Howard created a star for all of America, not just his native California.
The fact that horses like Flintshire fly around the globe to race—and to win—indicates that, yes, the era when we can isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Horse racing is—always has been—an international sport. The sport as we know it began in the Middle East, some 5,000 years ago—and American racing should be prepared to ship their horses not only because the purses are high, but because we do recognize that truly we are part of the international horse racing family.
We’re not just American Horse Racing, we want to be on the world stage. And in order to be there—we have to be ready and willing to recognize the things that the rest of that racing world has known for centuries:
* That older horses have far-more to offer than their younger colleagues;
* That grass horses indeed are the equals of—and often, superior to—their dirt peers and
* That yes, it’s a lot of money, a lot of hassle, and major veterinary concerns, to put a horse on a jet and take him/her half-way around the world. But (assuming that your horse is sound)—if you’re going to run where the big dogs run—you’ve got to get there, and participate fully.
Flintshire is older; a grass guy and perhaps the most international racing Thoroughbred as of this writing. (The jet-setting horse’s passport has been stamped by racing secretaries at some of the world’s greatest tracks.)
He’s one of the greatest horses on Earth—maybe, one of the greatest of all-time.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence: his owner and managers take impeccable care of his health—know his abilities—and send him wherever he needs to go, to continue to grow his legacy. (And in the process, they’re doing an enormous favor to race fans—we who get to watch him up-close-and-personal—and can thereafter say that we felt the wind as Greatness ran right past us.)
If Americans want to compete on the world stage with horses like Flintshire, we need to up our game and jump in, with all four hooves.
And leave the myths re. age, grass, travel and non-Americans—on the other side of the fence.
Thank you to NYRA (the New York Racing Association) for the use of their photo of Flintshire, winning the 2016 Sword Dancer at Saratoga. 27 August 2016.