The reason behind Woodbine’s decision to stop applying the rule designed to keep star horses on the track longer.
by Melissa Keith
Woodbine Mohawk Park does not determine stakes (in)eligibility based on Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural’s “Stallion Restriction Conditions” (SRC), better known as the “Gural Rule”, in place at his own racetracks. But there was a time when Canada’s top track did abide by the restrictions designed to keep top 3-year-old colts racing at age 4.
Jamie Martin was executive vice-president of racing for Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) when the so-called “Gural rule” was discontinued there in 2015. “We had implemented it,” he said of the rule that was first revealed by Gural in 2011. “I think we all [WEG, Hambletonian Society, Meadowlands] announced in 2013 that it would begin with foals in 2014 (for WEG) and 2015 (Hambletonian Society), which essentially affected stallion decisions in 2013. We announced it as a two-year pilot.”
There was a specific superstar who motivated the movement to keep 4-year-olds on the track. “It all started with Somebeachsomewhere,” said Martin. “As you know, Jeff’s very passionate. Initially I was not too keen on supporting this rule, because my view has always been that there just isn’t a horse that’s going to make that big a difference in attendance at the racetrack.”
The economics of keeping a would-be stallion prospect in competition an extra year were also considered.
“We had a board of directors who are horse owners and they had some nice horses too, a few of them,” he said. “This actually impacted them personally, but they took the high road on it and said, ‘We’re going to support Jeff.’”
Martin told HRU that he always believed that the market would dictate which horses raced on and which retired to stud.
“We had Captaintreacherous right away as a 4-year-old, Father Patrick, so there were some horses that were impacted that raced as 4-year-olds,” he said. “There were certain horses that got exemptions because they couldn’t race as 4-year-olds,” which was “tricky to track.
“So I decided, we’re going to leave that up to you, Jeff: If you decide that a horse is unable to race as a 4-year-old and you say that’s okay, then we’re going to accept that,” Martin told HRU. “So I sort of took that off our hands, because that’s pretty subjective and it’s a pretty small industry where everybody knows everybody.”
Now the raceway manager at Grand River Raceway, Martin is aware of the need to boost the population of active racehorses, particularly top-class horses.
“I want them all to race,” he explained. “But you know, is that my role to make that decision? Going back to Somebeachsomewhere, which is a big talking point: If I go tell Brent [MacGrath] and those folks to race that horse as a 4-year-old – he was pretty opposed to that anyway – or his offspring are not going to be eligible for our stakes… I didn’t feel right about that. Sure, I would have loved to have him race, but he was sort of the catalyst for the whole conversation.”
MacGrath is facing a parallel, but not identical, situation this season.
“The decision to race Beach Glass as a 4-year-old was not influenced by the Gural rule,” he informed HRU. “The decision to race him as a 4-year-old was because he was lightly-raced at 2 and the family getting better with age.”
He said Somebeachsomewhere presented a unique scenario: “I didn’t see a way for him to improve his breeding career by racing at age 4.”
The 2022 Meadowlands Pace champion has continued to improve as his sophomore season progresses, with a 1:51.1s romp in a Simcoe Stake division at Woodbine Mohawk Park last Saturday (Sept. 10).
“I believe there is some upside to racing Beach Glass at 4,” said MacGrath, adding that comparing the careers of Somebeachsomewhere and the Schooner II Stable’s current 3-year-old colt is “not quite the same thing, from where I sit.”
The Truro, NS horseman noted that he could see another perspective on the Gural rule, “looking on as a fan or a bystander,” but not as a stallion manager.
MacGrath agreed with Martin’s view that keeping horses racing was essential due to the declining racehorse population in North America today.
“Our goal is to keep horses on the racetrack. There are other things we can do. If we all put our heads together and pull in the same direction, there has to be a solution.”
He suggested that one answer may be found in protecting immature 2-year-olds, not star colts on the brink of age 4.
“It appears that young horses are dropping by the wayside a lot quicker,” said MacGrath. “A number of things are at play here.”
He noted that early in the freshman season, a tough question arises: “What will we do with the babies that are still on the farm?” From his point of view, allowing colts and fillies added time to mature can often translate into more productive, longer racing careers:
“The stake races starting in September would make a lot more sense than starting in June or July. Less stress put on young bones. If I had pushed forward last year to have [Beach Glass] ready for the first of June… I wouldn’t have the horse I have right now.”
Jamie Martin said that the Gural rule originated before other stakes programs began to improve over the past decade.
“I think what’s happened too is, at the time, 2010-2011, The Meadowlands’ stakes program and ours [at Woodbine/Mohawk] were pretty good, and everybody else’s were just okay. I would say that a lot of the other tracks’ stakes programs have improved since then.”
When the Hambletonian Society did not opt to retain the Gural rule, Woodbine’s then-VP of racing also opted to discontinue it.
“When I was at Woodbine, we wanted to work along with The Meadowlands, and we did. We did a lot of good things together when I was there. We didn’t agree on everything, but most things,” he said. “[Gural] is still very passionate about it, which I give him credit for. He believes it’s the right thing to do… I actually think it’s become a non-event, whether horses retire at 3 or 4.”
Martin observed that starting in 2017, the Stallion Restriction Conditions were limited to 2- and 3-year-old stakes, rather than a “lifetime ban” on offspring of stallions who retired to stud without racing at age 4. The affected racetracks are Jeff Gural’s: The Meadowlands, NJ; Tioga Downs, NY; and Vernon Downs, NY.
Woodbine Mohawk Park recently drew good attendance in response to a Bulldog Hanover t-shirt giveaway on Canadian pacing Derby night, when the 4-year-old world champion matched the all-time 1:46.4s Canadian record. Martin attended to watch the star in action.
“If you had a whole bunch of pretty lucrative 4-year-old restricted stakes, it might keep [more of] them racing,” he said. “It’s tougher with these older horses because they move around a lot. There’s a lot of shipping. Stake fees are high because there’s not many of them that pay into them, so a higher percentage of the purse is actually payment than it is for the younger horses. It’s not inexpensive to race an older horse.”
As for the Gural rule, Martin said he believes it may not be necessary for many of the best colts.
“I remember having this argument with a bunch of trainers, and I think if you look over the years, a lot of 3-year-olds become top 4-year-olds, and look at this year, right? But it is a risk, and I understand that. When you have the opportunity to go to stud and the breeding farm is putting pressure on you, I understand that.”