Broodmares and Racing Fillies: High-Priced Commodities in Flesh and Bone

Earlier this month, the owner of thoroughbred racing champion Big Brown paid $5.7 million for a two-year old filly named Stardom Bound.  The young female horse, described at auction as “sweet and laid back,” “poised,” “highest class,” “classy, classy,” and a “lovely lady” was not the highest-priced female sold at the Fasig-Tipton thoroughbred auction.  A broodmare named Better Than Honour enjoyed that distinction.  Michael Moreno, an oil-and-gas man from Texas, who owned 70% of Better Than Honour before the auction, paid a record $14 million to keep her.

Other expensive “lovely ladies” sold at auction included Madcap Escapade (retired at the age of four after she injured her left, front leg) who went for $3.1 million to John Sikura (Hill ‘N Dale).  Sikura, who already owned a 25 percent interest in the mare, now owns a 50 percent share. Kentucky Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Lunsford (he lost to Mitch McConnell) owns the other 50 percent.  A 4-year-old bay filly named Lear’s Princess, who won four races at age 3, sold for $2.7 million as a broodmare to Rick Nichols (Shadwell Farm).  And Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, paid $2.5 million for 4-year-old “Spinster” winner Panty Raid.  

Earlier this year, at the American thoroughbred auction held in May, Sheikh Mohammed paid $10.5 million to acquire Playful Act, a champion mare from England.  Sheikh Mohammed also apparently owns Fasig-Tipton.  The auction house, founded in 1899 and reportedly the oldest thoroughbred auction house in the U.S., was acquired in April, 2008, by Synergy Investments. a Dubai company with “close ties” to Dubai’s ruler.  That purchase, together with the acquisitions of Playful Act, Panty Raid and several other pricey mares, led to speculation by Associated Press reporter Jeffrey McMurray that Sheikh Mohammed is looking to breed a “superhorse.”

The tragic death of Eight Belles (February 23, 2005-May 3, 2008), the Kentucky Derby runner-up who was euthanized on the track after she broke both front ankles, prompted a lot of public breast-beating about the “King’s Sport” of thoroughbred horse racing and, in particular, the role of female horses.  

Although the death of Eight Belles was reported to be the “first fatal breakdown” in the Derby (depends on how you define a “fatal breakdown”), the horrible accident brought attention to an industry that was already in a bad light following the injury to 2006 Derby winner Barbaro (April 29, 2003-January 29, 2007) that eventually led to him being euthanized.

Ruffian (April 17, 1972-July 7, 1975), described as one of the greatest female racehorses of all time, shattered her right foreleg at Belmont Park on July 6, 1975, in what had been billed as an “equine battle of the sexes.”  Ruffian famously continued to run on her broken leg for another 40 yards despite efforts by her jockey to “pull her up.”  Footage of the tragedy was not re-broadcast until June 2007 when an ESPN production company released the made-for-TV feature Ruffian, with Sam Shepard playing the trainer and I don’t know who playing Ruffian.  

Ruffian was euthanized after irreversibly damaging her injured leg while emerging from anesthesia following surgery to attempt repair.  She was rated 35 on the list of the “Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century” that was compiled in 1999 by Blood Horse magazine.  Her ranking of 35 made her the top-rated filly on the list of 100 racehorses.  

After Ruffian died, few things changed.  After Eight Belles died, the jockey, owner and trainer were criticized and there were calls for criminal prosecution and reform of the industry, including breeding of sturdier horses and better track surfaces.

What has changed since May 3, 2008, when Eight Belles ran her last race?  

Three veterinarians have since weighed in on the wisdom of fielding two-year olds.  Dr. Larry Bramlage, a Kentucky racing industry veterinarian, Dr. Sheila Lyons, an “equine sports medicine expert” based in Kentucky and Florida and Dr. Wayne McIlwraith of Colorado State University, concluded that racing two-year old horses is not a bad thing for the horses and may in fact be good for them.  

The most compelling evidence for Dr. Bramlage was that horses “raced at two years of age have had more lifetime starts than horses who didn’t race until after the age of two.”  I don’t know if that logic qualifies as scientific, but it was certainly compelling, at least to people who needed to be reassured by a “veteran veterinarian” that what they were doing was not harmful to the horses.

One practice that has not drawn as much attention is “force-weaning” of young horses from their mothers at a very young age.  Forced weaning at four months is not uncommon in the horse racing industry.  No one denies that this practice places “stress” on the mare and foal, causing changes in the immune systems of each.  Might the stress of early, forced weaning be a factor in later weakness leading to injury?

Craig Bandoroff, owner of Denali Stud in Paris, Kentucky, is quoted in the “superhorse” piece as saying 

It doesn’t matter if it’s diamonds or horses or rare paintings.  When you’re playing at that level, they’re worth what they’re worth.’  

The difference between diamonds, rare paintings and fast horses may not matter to investors, but it clearly matters to the horses.  Diamonds and rare paintings don’t feel any pain.

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