Open till five?

by Trey Nosrac

Daniel Featherstone, my college roommate, is a nice guy. A couple of times each year, we meet for coffee, where he never fails to taunt me about Flying Feathers. About 10 years ago, I talked Featherstone into a small percentage of a yearling. We bought a filly and named her Flying Feathers. Alas, Flying Feathers did not fly on the racetrack.

Featherstone is wealthy. Losing a few grand should have been an insignificant blip for a man of his means. It was not. Featherstone took the yearling losses hard and was one-and-done in the harness horse ownership game. Why rich people take losing money badly while poor mooks laugh it off is a fascinating topic for another time.

Featherstone set down his Starbucks latte and began, “I am essentially an outsider looking at your sport. I’m not privy to data, but a proposal has danced on the fringes of my mind.”

I threw my hands up and wailed, “Whoa… privy to, danced on the fringes of my mind? You’ve been watching too much Bridgerton or Masterpiece Theatre,” I said.

He smiled. “Just trying to elevate our conversation level. Anyway, what if standardbred racehorses were required to retire at the end of their 5-year-old season?”

I shook my head, “What if you lie down until your fever breaks? We already have a shortage of racehorses.”

He returned my head shake, “That is mathematical nonsense. Racehorses will magically appear if racetracks create races with large purses for slower, younger horses. The problem is that your sport creates a situation where slower young horses are not economically feasible. Culling aged horses and replacing them with younger horses is a zero-sum equation.

“I call BS.”

He said, “Remove stakes races from the equation. They are a different category.”


“And remove emotions from the equation. This drastic change would be difficult, and I am completely aware that emotion can, and does, eclipse logic.”

I winced. “We see a lot of that, but let’s not get into politics.”

“Think about this statewide racing model. Not the best model, but it is what you have in harness racing. Say a state races 1,000 race programs at their various racetracks over a calendar year.”

“Okay,” I said warily.

“Say the average state race program consists of 10 races with an average purse of $15,000. They pay purses of $150,000 per program.”

“Okay,” I mumbled.

“In reality, the type of racehorse, the speed of the races, the AGE of the horses is, for the most part, irrelevant.”

“IRRELEVANT? Speed rules in this game.”

“Speed is essential in your game. A fast racehorse is a goal in your game, but speed is not everything. Entertainment and economics are factors. You have watched a thousand horse races where a massive favorite wins by 10 lengths. Are they entertaining, profitable, or good for your sport? Or is a competitive race with additional variables more valuable?”

“Let me say clearly, no, I don’t know, and I don’t think so.”

He asked, “Have you ever attended a minor league hockey game or a minor league baseball game?”

“Yes, they are a blast.”

He nodded. “Those slightly lesser hockey players may have less skill. Using another analogy, the pitchers are one mile an hour slower with their fastball in some levels of baseball. The performers are not quite elite. People prefer good competition more than watching a stopwatch.”

“People don’t bet on Minor League games.”

“They will.”

I waved him off, “Apples and oranges. You are suggesting age discrimination. That’s illegal. You can’t do that.”

“Your sport already does. If I’m not mistaken, racehorses must retire at 14. Why not 5 or 6 or 9?”

“You can’t age discriminate people in sports.”

“Not true. Making harness horses retire at 14 already is discrimination by age. I have investments in a professional baseball team that plays in a baseball league with age designations. The retirement age is very clear from day one. I have never heard a complaint in 10 years. (see attachment below) Sure, there were emotional moments when the league rules forced teams and fans to say goodbye to beloved veteran players, but the end comes for every sportsperson or racehorse. Those baseball players knew their glory days were ticking away. And ironically, in many cases, the older professional ballplayers were playing the sport better than ever, certainly better than the rookies, but the wheel turns.”

I moaned, “Horse racing is different.”

“Maybe it shouldn’t be. What do you suppose is the average age of a professional sports athlete?

“Um, 34?”

“Twenty-eight. An exceptional few will break the mold. There are exceptions like Tom Brady or Max Scherzer, who play on until 40. They are exceptions. Other sports have churn based on age. In horse racing, how many racehorses improve after age 8?”

“No many, but heck, if you get one of those tough, ultra-consistent racehorses that race year after year, the thought of early forced retirement is repulsive.”

He paused and continued, “Look, moving your favorite trotter to greener pastures will be difficult, heartbreaking, and devasting. But cycling out horses at a designated retirement date would be the rule and give owners ample time to find retirement situations and placements.”

“You want to have that discussion? You want to break hearts?”

He raised his voice an octave, “An early retirement age could break fewer hearts and be good for the sport. Think about it like this. Old Race Time Ben is a gritty, outstanding 9-year-old pacer that has made over 100 starts. Great story. Suppose Old Race Time Ben races five more years and gets another hundred starts. Those additional starts could be races available to marginal young horses currently culled at age 3. Don’t forget, we said a sad goodbye to Flying Feathers, a horse that was also loved but was on the fringes of competitiveness.

I sneered, “Basically, you suggest that a supply of young and slower horses will replace the supply of slightly faster veterans.”

“Yes, somebody has to go. If left to the winds of fate and momentum, those aged warhorses will race to age fourteen. The optimal time for culling the racing herd should be a decision based on analytics, not emotion.”

I grudgingly gave his idea some support, “That could be more fun for owners who invest in yearlings. How many of us do the dance, pay the money, dream the dreams, have a horse qualify, and then discover that the horse is qualified but not competitive?

He nodded, “Like Flying Feathers.”

I said, “Right now, Flying Feathers does not belong. Your system would let him race a few years, provide the ownership some fun, and make enough to put a dent in the feed and training bills at the expense of a reliable old warhorse.”

He nodded, “Once again, this age limit does not affect the stakes racing programs. The cream of owners and racehorses still want to be the best and race for the most. That’s fine. The age rule would only change the racing scene in the commercial racing segment. And, of course, there would be more churn in the breeding market if owners would need to restock more often.”

I heaved a big sigh, “Asking an owner to pull the shoes off their racehorse does not feel right.”

“Run the numbers, look at the big picture. It’s better business, my friend.”


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