Carol Holden and Sam Huff dreamed up the West Virginia Breeders Classics and – although I wish they added an apostrophe – created something wild and wonderful. Now 30 years old, it’s a night to be proud of West Virginia’s Thoroughbred industry.
Jim McKay went to the Breeders’ Cup – there’s the apostrophe – and asked the question anyone could have asked. “Why wouldn’t this work in Maryland?” And the Maryland Million was born in 1986. Now, the event attracts 20,000-ish people to Laurel Park every October.
In the 1980s, Guy Torsilieri and John von Stade thought they could take the Far Hills Races – already a successful steeplechase race meet and a New Jersey fall festival – to a new level with an improved concept and an emphasis on quality racing. The 2016 version will offer $700,000 in purses, open its gates to 50,000 spectators, likely host an inter-national runner or two and add to the millions it’s raised for the Robert Wood John-son University Hospital.
In 1962, to incentivize Thoroughbred breeders, Maryland created the first state Thoroughbred breeding fund in the United States. The move birthed success in Maryland, and was a precursor to similar programs in virtually every state where racehorses are born and some where they aren’t.
Back in the 1950s, Laurel Park owner John Schapiro talked with the Daily Racing Form’s J. Sam Pearlman about a new race and the Washington, D.C., International was born. The first international Thoroughbred race in the United States hosted runners from England, Ireland, France, even the Soviet Union through the final running in 1994. Though ultimately squeezed out by the Breeders’ Cup, the International showed the world such a concept could work. It may soon be on the verge of returning thanks to the Maryland Jockey Club.
Thoroughbred racing depends on what business leaders James Collins and Jerry Porras called, in their book Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, BHAGs. The acronym means Big Hairy Audacious Goals. By definition, a BHAG will seem questionable from the outside but not entirely impossible from the inside. In short, a BHAG is a big idea, an “Oh what the hell” statement. Suc-cessful people everywhere have said it, moments before stepping out into the great unknown.
And pretty much anything good in racing hinged on somebody’s BHAG – the West Virginia Breeders Classics, the Maryland Million, Far Hills, the D.C. International, Maryland’s Bred Fund and other programs like it. The push continues today with the sometimes uneasy connection of alternative gaming and racing, the launch of new stud farms, the Delaware-certified program in a state with no breeding history, the odd American jump jockey plying his/her trade in a colony dominated by English and Irish journeymen. Heck, the dream that an unraced 2-year-old – any unraced 2-year-old – might develop into a Triple Crown hopeful next year – is a BHAG. This magazine, launched by Humphrey Finney in 1936, was certainly just a big idea back then. Now, it’s a reality even if it swims upstream as a monthly print product in a new-media world filled with tweets and chats and posts.
You’ve got to be a bit of a dreamer to make it in this game.
You’ve got to breed horses you hope somebody wants, own horses you aren’t sure can win, train horses by feel and intuition as much as facts, ride horses you might not be able to control and count on some breaks to come your way. You’ve got to believe it will work, even when logic might tell you other-wise.
So where are today’s big ideas? They’re out there, if you look and use your imagination.
Here’s a few. Put them on your list:
- Uniformity. I’ll put it here, because there’s nowhere else to go. It’s time, way beyond time, for national rules for illegal/legal medication, testing and penalties. That’s the BHAG, racing. Write it on your whiteboard and work on it. Every day.
- Stability. It’s what state breeding incentive programs crave. Maryland is proving it with a steady increase in foals being born. Other states are proving it too, in the opposite direction, as a lack of long-term stability shakes breeders and numbers in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, this one relies on outside entities – namely politicians, state governments and racetrack operators – but it’s not impossible. Find your version of stability, and make it a goal.
- Cooperation. Racing dates abound in the Mid-Atlantic with competing meets at (deep breath) Charles Town, Delaware Park, Laurel Park, Meadowlands, Monmouth Park, Parx Racing, Penn National and Presque Isle Downs. It’s a free-market country, and competition is good for everyone but there will be a breaking point. Someday, a track will crack and racing dates will be cut. Horses and horsemen will lose. Nobody asked, and it will make some people cringe, but why can’t two states cooperate on a racing schedule and all that comes with it? Run fewer dates, share horses, horsemen and officials, offer free van rides between two barn areas. Work together and be stronger.
- Fair Hill. This is a little more specific than the others and some stuff is percolating, slowly, but there’s no good reason the steeplechase turf course in Cecil County, Md., can’t be a mix of Kentucky Downs and Lambourn. Built as a steeplechase course in 1990, the former hosts five days of cham-pionship flat racing each September (handle averaged $4.5 million a day this year). The latter is a major training center in England, with community gallops paid for on a monthly basis by resident trainers or on a peruse basis by visitors. Owned by the state, steeped in history and connected to the thriving training center across the street, Fair Hill’s race course should be much more than it is.
There’s more, there’s always more. But we’d be lost without them.