The Irish Outsider – October 9th 2013
The breeding side of racing clicks up a gear around this time with a number of big sales taking place and it seems as good a time as any to explore the whole idea of black type and its meaning or meaninglessness.
I should preface this by saying I know nothing about breeding in a practical sense beyond its use as a punting angle such as looking through a horse’s siblings or wider family to ascertain ground and trip preferences or know the predilections of various sires for different surface.
Despite this the question has to be asked: are breeders stupid? That may seem extreme but the placing of horses, most specifically fillies and mares, and trainer comments about the same suggest so, especially in terms of black type races.
After any filly or mare wins a maiden or even half-decent handicap, it seems that the trainer talks about getting black type for her despite the fact that the horse would need to improve in the region of 20lbs to get into the frame in such a race. Some particularly ludicrous examples stand out.
Following a maiden win at Wexford in August at the seventh attempt, Jessica Harrington said that she would try to ‘sneak a bit of black type’ with her, despite the fact that the filly is rated 75, has been tried in cheekpieces having shown temperament and made very hard work of beating a 70-rated filly half a length in the Wexford race.
Going back a bit, Pat Flynn commented in 2011 that his Mamma Rosa ‘could make a listed filly’ following a handicap win off 71; even allowing for a horse going the wrong way, this was a pretty outlandish statement as since then the mare has never gotten higher than a mark of 80 and won just once in 23 subsequent starts.
Perhaps this was just ‘sales talk’ – Flynn owned the filly himself and may have wished to sell her on – but even so, they don’t give out black type for 0-80 handicaps at Listowel the last time I looked.
All of this brings up the idea that there may be too much soft black type available, altogether too many races at listed and group level and not enough quality horses to go around; when one reads of the race upgrades and downgrades each year, there are invariably more of the former than the latter. Obviously, there will be times when a horse will ‘fall into’ some black type, a race where the main players don’t perform for whatever reason, such as when the then-78-rated Core Element ran third in the listed Knockaire Stakes at Leopardstown last November.
A run like this should not however markedly improve a mare’s ‘page’; breeders would be wise to dig deeper in the likes of Core Element’s racing career and look beyond brackets and dark print and place a mental asterisk over ‘giraffe’ runs like this, so far ahead of anything she achieved before or since.
Perhaps the edge for breeders that want to get stock that wins at the track rather than looks good at the sales is a different approach entirely though I acknowledge there are obvious commercial imperatives that mean fashion and trends are important.
Might breeders be better advised to look for proven top-of-the-range handicapping mares that are battle-hardened and durable albeit possibly a little more difficult to get into foal due to their prolonged racing careers. Something likes Strandfield Lady springs to mind though obviously she would need to be physically correct in the first place.
This drive for black type often leads to the misplacing of horses where they skip out an extra handicap or two to go straight into listed or group races. Take Shu Lewis as an example. Here you have a mare that runs well in a conditions race on her first flat start, close enough to 95-rated types giving weight, then goes well in a maiden and on her third start…runs in the Irish St. Leger.
She actually goes well, finishing a close-up seventh and receiving a paltry €2,000 in prize-money, and then wins her maiden next time and gets a mark of 95 when without the Group 1 run she’s getting something in the mid-80s. On her next start, she runs very well in the November handicap worth €36,000 to the winner off 95 but off even five or six pounds lower she’s winning.
Owners’ decisions are their own to make but this kind of placing is anathema to me; why not win as many handicaps as possible and let the horse improve gradually rather than over-facing it. There are times this may work but it fails with countless others and all you’re left with is a badly-handicapped horse. Rant over.
Well, not really. When asked about the wellbeing of Hurricane Fly last weekend, Willie Mullins replied that he had ‘come back in stronger again from grass’ and indeed ‘all the horses are stronger.’
Now there’s a striking revelation; an animal is put out to grass for a summer, doing no exercise at all, and they put on weight, ‘getting stronger’ only a euphemism. In fact, most mammals will get heavier with age, and certainly any beast that was out in a field this summer will have thrived; one doesn’t need to be a farming expert to know that a horse will put on condition after a prolonged, dry period at grass.
So all these comments about getting stronger are really an exercise in stating the obvious and we can expect plenty of such as the National Hunt season gets going. Jumps trainers seem particularly given to this kind of filler whereas in reality when a horse is coming to a race the aim would be to get him lighter; less weight means it can move faster though improved musculature would help in that regard.
While on the subject, when was the last time you heard a jumps trainer say one had gone backwards over the summer or even that they schooled badly? No, I can’t remember either.