The aging, nearly white gelding with a questionable-looking tendon and a tumor growing in the center of his forehead did not look the part as one of the most popular horses in training. But Port Conway Lane had one of the biggest followings in the Mid-Atlantic in the early 1980s. His story made the national news— in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He even appeared on CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt and Good Morning America.
When the gelding finally called it a career in the fall of 1983, it came after his 242nd start. He won 52 races (and was second or third in another 75). He competed to age 14.
Port Conway Lane’s trainer, King Leather-bury, first got his hands on him as a yearling, after Bill Stokes purchased the gray for $7,000 in the fall at Keeneland. Leatherbury had him in his barn for the majority of 13 years. At the time of the gelding’s 50th career win, the trainer declared: “He’s like me in that neither of us wants to think about retiring. They’re going to have to carry me out of the tracks on a stretcher some day, and Port Conway Lane is the same way. This is his life.”
Port Conway Lane’s career was newsworthy then. . . it’s unheard of today. In the continual debate about Thoroughbred racing’s future in the United States, much focus is on the fragility of the breed. And numbers seem to bear that out, for there may never again be a horse like Port Conway Lane.
The gray gelding is just one of many durable runners found over the last century. The majority weren’t household names, but they definitely knew how to ply their trade. Numbers jump out when reading lists compiled by the Thoroughbred Times for its 2009 statistical annual, the Racing Almanac, which ranked horses with the most wins, by decade of year of birth. In the 1931-1940 bracket, Hiblaze (a foal of 1935) raced 14 years, made 406 starts (a record of any horse in the U.S. in any decade), won 79 times and earned all of $32,647.
In the 1970s, Maryland-bred Time to Bid (a foal of 1975) led the list with 50 wins from 179 starts in a 12-year career (and earned $241,247). There were contemporaries of Time to Bid with more starts but not as many wins. By the decade of 1991 to 2000, getting to the top of the list meant winning 39 times, and none of those runners made as many as 150 starts.
Were those long ago iron horses flukes? Are horses today really that much softer? What other factors can affect the length of a career?
Talk to a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen reasons for the decline in the number of starts made by today’s Thoroughbreds.
This past winter, when Maryland-bred gelding El Bomba won at Turfway Park while making his 100th start, the accomplishment of his 15th career win made news. But there have been many horses in recent years based in the Mid-Atlantic region who have started far more times, had more wins, and at least one, the Virginia-bred Band Performance, won his 100th start (it was his win number 22).
What makes these horses tick? Are there things in common?
Leatherbury easily recalls Port Conway Lane. “He was tough, he was hardy. . . he never even bucked shins. I went on with him as a 2-year-old and 3-year-old, and just kept on running him.”
As a yearling, Port Conway Lane was somewhat of a laughing stock. “The owner bought him down in Kentucky,” recalled Leatherbury. “I didn’t pick the horse out, the owner picked him out himself because he was gray. After we got him, the joke was at the time?–?we were having these big claiming wars and John Tammaro was one of my ‘enemies’ so to speak?–?and he [Tammaro] was down at the sale, and this horse had had an injury to his tendon as a yearling, which Mr. Stokes never even saw.
“After he bought the horse, Tammaro came out back where the horses are all lined up to go in and he starts laughing and says ‘Leatherbury’s owner just bought a bowed horse.’ It was ironic that the horse turned out to be one of the soundest horses ever known.”
Parx Racing-based trainer Andy Carter has had “Ener-gizer bunnies” who also have not looked the part, including Dildei, a Gate Dancer gelding who launched his career as a 3-year-old in 1994 and found his way to Carter’s shedrow in April 2001.
“I only trained him as a 10 or 11-year-old and I won six races with him [from 26 starts]. And not at the bottom either,” said Carter.
Adding the 10-year-old gelding to his barn wasn’t due as much to the horse’s ability, but as a matter of necessity, said the trainer.
“It was around stall application time, and you have to have horses to maintain your stalls. He was running for about $5,000, and he was just kind of honest and not something you’d get hurt with, so I claimed him just to put him in a stall,” said Carter. “Then we lost him, and I claimed him back. Got a little attached to him. I was the one who retired him. He won his first two starts of the [final] year, but halfway through, he hadn’t won another one, so I retired him.”
For his career, racing through age 11, Dildei made 122 starts. He won 23, was second in 18 and third in 23.
“I don’t think there is really anything in common with horses who run a long time, other than they are sound enough to compete,” Carter said. “Dildei was a heavy bodied horse but with really frail tiny legs. You wouldn’t think he would make 100 and some starts.”
Gone are the days of horses making an average of 20 or, amazingly, 30-plus starts a year. From the 1930s to the mid-1970s, a number of such runners could be found. And it wasn’t necessarily cheap claiming horses. During his fabled career, Seabiscuit started 35 times as a 2-year-old in 1935, from stakes to claiming races.
The mighty Round Table made 22 starts during his 3-year-old season in 1957, captured 11 stakes, set track records when winning the Blue Grass Stakes and Hawthorne Gold Cup, equaled the track record in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and swept to victory in the United Nations Handicap on his way to being named champion grass horse.
But have training methods and philosophies contributed to fewer starts?
“You don’t run them to death, that helps a lot,” said Laurel Park-based trainer Rob Bailes, who won’t shy away from claiming older runners.
Damon Dilodovico follows a similar philosophy. In addition to claiming older horses for his Bowie-based operation, he has had young horses come to him and remain in the barn for a decade.
“We tend to space their starts out,” Dilodovico said of the horses he affectionately refers to as “the geriatrics.”
Bailes had two well-known local competitors, Tyaskin and Fox’s Flyjinsky, enter his barn over the age of 8 and go on to make dozens of starts for owner Marshall Dowell.
Tyaskin, bred in Maryland by Frank and Ginny Wright, was claimed by Dowell and Bailes in May 2002 for $40,000 at Pimlico. The then 9-year-old made 10 starts for the team that year, was lost in the claim box for $20,000 at Laurel in November, but was taken back in his next start (a win) on December 27. Over the next two years, Tyaskin raced 17 more times, and after dropping down the claiming ladder, was retired to Dowell’s farm in Virginia. Tyaskin’s career mark was 104 starts, 19 wins, 19 seconds, 17 thirds and earnings of $529,718.
Fox’s Flyjinsky, claimed for $25,000 in June 2002, raced until June 2006, making 30 starts for Dowell and Bailes and winning seven times. He was retired at age 12, having gone to the post 94 times. He won his final outing, a turf race for $4,500 claimers, at Colonial Downs.
Let Me Be Frank, now 10, has been with Dilodovico since owner Mark Lapidus spotted him at Laurel in early 2008 and claimed him for $5,000 that March. The gelded son of Awad was making his 82nd start. In the four years since, he has gone to the post 29 times, winning 10, including two starter stakes, and earning in excess of $140,000. In eight starts in 2012 (through Aug. 12), he has recorded two wins, three seconds and a third.
“There is example of not a ton of starts,” said Dilo-dovico. “And it all comes down to owners being patient enough to deal with less starts.”
The oldest runner in the Dilodovico barn is Love’s Strong Hart. Bred by the late John Hartner and sent to Dilodovico at 2, the 11-year-old son of Not For Love hasn’t broken the 100-start barrier, due to a couple of injuries–twice being stepped on in races?–?which kept him on the sidelines for a total of about a year. But in his 71st and 72nd outings, in May and June at Charles Town, he finished second twice and now has earned well over $500,000. Stakes-placed at 5 and 6, a stakes winner at 7 and 8, and third in a stakes at 9, Love’s Strong Hart continues to race for the Hartner Family Trust.
“I think that a lot of lighter training days have worked out for us. Putting fewer miles on them. I’ve had owners who would not be happy at all making only seven or eight starts a year,” said Dilodovico. “But if they are seven or eight quality starts. . . if you ran 14 times or 20 times, how many wins are you looking to get anyway? Probably a lesser number and your horse is going to last a little longer.”
But could the racing office also have an effect on a runner’s annual output?
“I think back 10 or 15 years ago they wrote a different condition book where there weren’t as many types of conditions and varieties of races,” said Carter. “And you could typically run the same horse every two weeks.
“You didn’t have to do a lot of training in between. You could race, then back off of them for two weeks. The way it is now, a race might come back in three weeks, and then if it doesn’t go, you’re looking at six weeks. So you have to train harder in between.”
Carter noted he’ll sometimes train older horses every other day to keep them looking forward to the work instead of dreading the daily grind. Morning miles add up, too.
“That’s what finally retired Whistle Pig,” said Carter. “He could race all the time, but it was the morning miles that would beat him up a little bit.” The Carter-trained Whistle Pig retired earlier this year at age 8 with earnings just $503 short of $1 million.
“The way the condition books are written now, there are just not as many opportunities for a horse. You find yourself falling in a trap of training them harder in the morning to maintain their fitness, where if you raced the horse, he’s going to maintain it doing almost nothing for a couple of weeks,” said Carter.
“Blitzen was only about 15 hands, and he was the nastiest creature anyone could possibly come in contact with, except for with me,” said trainer Elisha Rathman-Perez of her former charge, Sun of a Blitzen. She knew the Pennsylvania-bred his entire life–his breeders, Toni and Michael Kirwan were good friends. She purchased the gelding privately, at 12, from trainer Wally Neilson early in 2005. “Blitzen put a couple of grooms in the hospital and Wally sold him to me for 500 bucks because he just couldn’t take him anymore,” said Rathman-Perez.
Do tough personalities help contribute to a runner’s longevity?
Rathman-Perez, who rubbed the bay dynamo earlier in his career when working for Scott Lake, believes Blit-zen had “the little man syndrome” because he was so tiny. “I think he was raised being doted on by women, so I think he didn’t like men, and loved ‘touchy feely.’ I had no problems with him, and absolutely adored him, but he was dangerous.”
Carter had a hardy runner with an entirely different outlook on life. Hold Hard came to Carter late in his career. The Pennsylvania-bred gelding ground out an average of nearly 16 starts annually–109 times he went to the post over seven seasons, through age 8. And he could have kept going, according to Carter, who claimed him in 2008, midway through his 7-year-old season, for $5,000.
“Hold Hard was happier than the law should allow,” quipped the trainer. “He was cheap, along the lines of Dildei–you know he’ll eventually pay for himself and pick up checks. I think I did win one race with him, and seconds and thirds.”
The gelding, who once ran four times in a month, cracked a cannon bone in a hind leg in the fall of 2008. “He was off the track for the first time that I know of,” said Carter. “He came back absolutely sound, had another couple of fourths, thirds, seconds, then he absolutely stopped running.
“He retired sound. When he came back after the surgery, he ran a few seconds and thirds, then Philadelphia Park shut down for like three weeks, and he had another little break, and I guess that gave him time enough to think ‘I was perfectly happy doing nothing for six months’ and then he just stopped running.
“But he’d come back [from the race] and be just as happy. It made the decision to give him away a little harder, but then in a way it didn’t because he could go on and do something else.”
If personalities are quite different, are there certain physical attributes that make runners last?
Sun of a Blitzen’s body type may have been an asset in his career. “He was smaller,” Rathman-Perez said. “He had muscle tone, but he wasn’t a big, gorgeous looking thing. He was rather small, tiny and slimmer. He wasn’t a muscular little thing built like a Quarter Horse. . . he was more on the slender side. His bone structure was actually smaller than a lot of horses.”
Bailes’ duo of Tyaskin and Fox’s Flyjinsky were nothing like Sun of a Blitzen, and complete physical opposites of each other.
“Tyaskin was more like a short Quarter Horse type, a speed horse, while Foxy was more a tall, lanky type,” he said. “It’s not etched in stone about what’s going to work. It’s just like going to the sales and buying 2-year-olds and yearlings?–?you can find what you’re looking for, but until you put them out on the track who knows what’s going to happen? A lot has to do with the heart they have. . . that means a lot.”
The top five stallions by progeny earnings in the nation in 2011 made an average of 10 starts during their careers. Often targeted when discussing durability, the Thoroughbred gene pool is filled with horses with short careers. When selecting for soundness and longevity, critics decry breeders for even considering such individuals.
Have breeders in recent decades hurt the breed?
Showing brilliance on the racetrack, the colt from one of the nation’s most dynamic sire lines retired to stud after an injury in his second start at 3, having gone to the post nine times. At stud, he sired 37 percent stakes winners from foals and led the nation’s sires list. His best sons to race didn’t start more than 20 times.
Thinking along the lines of Northern Dancer, Mr. Prospector, Raise a Native or Bold Ruler? Go back much farther and you’ll find Com-mando, the son of Domino born in 1898. The Hall of Famer made six starts at 2, won the Belmont Stakes at 3 and retired to the place of his birth, Castleton Farm, in Kentucky. He died of tetanus at age 7 after just four seasons at stud and siring 27 foals. Among his sons were unbeaten Colin and Peter Pan, both Belmont Stakes winners inducted to the Hall of Fame, plus Celt and Ultimus.
From such few foals, the Commando line continues, more than 100 years later, through the male line of the durable Broad Brush (who made 14 starts during his 3-year-old season of 1986).
The durable horses born in the decades of the 1940s through the 1960s were often direct descendants of the leading sires from early in the century. It only makes sense, since the gene pool was much smaller 100 years ago (the average foal crop from 1910 to 1919 was 1,856; from 1930 to 1939 it was 5,337).
With limited numbers of stallions and mares available, breeders intertwined the top sire lines with frequency. And thus Commando appears in the direct male line of Shot One, the winningest runner born in the 1940s. The great-great-grandson of Peter Pan made 360 starts and won 65 times while racing 13 seasons. Charlie Boy, the winningest runner born in the 1950s (he raced 11 years, winning 58 of 241 starts), was a grandson of the unraced *Alibhai.
So does the durability of the sire (or dam) directly relate to the durability of the offspring? Sun of a Blitzen, who made 112 starts, was by Citidancer, who raced four times. The lightly raced Allen’s Prospect (seven starts) sired Tyaskin; Halory Hunter (10 starts) sired Hold Hard. Pennsylvania-bred Pal Joey, a stakes winner at 3 and 5, raced nine years through 2005, made 118 starts (an average of 13 per year) through age 10, and was by champion Gilded Time, who went to the post six times in his career.
As with any smart breeding program, the goal is to find the right mix of brilliance and durability, correctness and ability. Sun of a Blitzen’s dam P. J.’s Blitzen made 96 starts. Her sire, Double Edge Sword, raced 66 times.
Durablity is often not as apparent with mares, since many go to the breeding shed long before their racing careers wane. With a mare’s limited production years, is it worth racing her as many as 10 years? If she has talent, she is worth much more to a breeder at the farm than on the track.
A notable exception to retiring early was the great racemare Straight Deal, trained by Hall of Famer Hirsch Jacobs. Bred in partnership by Jacobs with Isadore Bieber, Straight Deal raced for Jacobs’ wife Ethel, made 99 starts, was the nation’s champion handicap mare of 1967 and won 13 stakes (her record was 21 wins, 21 seconds and nine thirds, 36 in stakes).
By Jacobs and Bieber’s champion Hail to Reason, a son of *Turn-to who only campaigned at 2 (but made 18 starts), Straight Deal was a direct descendant of the great broodmare *La Troienne. So as a broodmare, her value was immeasurable, but she raced six years (four times making 20 starts or more during a year).
As a broodmare, Straight Deal more than lived up to her fashionable pedigree, producing stakes winners Reminiscing, Belonging and Desiree. Her daughters continued the family legacy as the dams of the likes of Adored, Qualify and Belong to Me. Dozens and dozens of graded winners are found in the branch of the family, which continues turning out high class runners.
So geldings are the runners who generally live their lives at the tracks. And as long as they are sound, they’ll have a career. But is that really the case?
Rathman-Perez theorizes that many trainers don’t maintain horses as they did before.
“It’s a quicker turnover–get something younger and fresher,” she said. “So they tend to retire them a little sooner than they need to be. I think slots money maybe has gotten rid of horses sooner. And with all the rescue leagues that are now open–which is a good thing–I think we now have the option of finding them good homes or being able to retire them when they are 7 or 8.”
So management and demand can be a factor.
“They might still be sound,” continued Rathman-Perez. “And those hard-knockers run their hearts out wherever you put them. But I think the competition is a little different now, so it’s a little harder for them. Blitzen had won a stakes when he was young, but as he got older, he was running for $3,500 at Penn National. He was still as sound as he was when he was 4 or 5, it’s just that the competition was getting harder, and he was getting older.
“They’re not quite the same as when they were younger, and people these days look to the 2 and 3-year-olds–the money is there, and they have conditions, so there is no use wasting your time on an 8-year-old open horse on the cheaper side.”
Says Dilodovico of his operation: “Early on, we didn’t have the support of a big breeding shed that was going to be sending us a bunch of horses. So we learned early that what we had we needed to keep it and make it last. So I think that’s why we do the things we do.”
The view that today’s Thor-oughbred doesn’t have the durability and longevity of those racing long ago is not just a matter of looking at the numbers. It is a complex issue with many facets–most of them as complex as the animals themselves.
And it’s an issue that will fuel debates for a long, long time.