Commentary

Spotlight shines on older horses

Updated: February 7, 2013, 12:13 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

The arms race officially ended when Churchill Downs announced its point system for the Kentucky Derby. You remember, of course, the arms race, which encouraged racetracks competing for potential Triple Crown stars to dedicate more and more and yet more of their purse money, or rather horsemen's purse money, to stakes races for aspiring youngsters, with the collateral damage being the purses for everybody else and perhaps even the sport's future. Well, that's finished, horse racing's no longer picnicking on the slope of a volcano, and already the sport has felt some salubrious effects.

The three best American turf horses of a year ago also have returned, as have the best females.

And perhaps it's not entirely coincidental that this season's older horses are outstanding, possibly ranking among the more deeply talented groups in years, the latest evidence being Saturday's card at Gulfstream Park, where Animal Kingdom, Point of Entry, Flat Out and Take Charge Indy are all set to return to competition. Fort Larned, the Breeders' Cup Classic winner who probably should have been last year's champion older male, could soon return, too, having worked a half-mile (48.11 seconds) Saturday at the Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida. In fact, nine of the horses that contested the Breeders' Cup Classic either have already raced or are expected to race in 2013, with Alpha in Dubai's on-deck circle.

Ron the Greek, who finished fourth in that November Classic, returned last month to win the Sunshine Millions Classic by more than 11 lengths, and Game On Dude, who finished seventh as the favorite in Breeders' Cup, made his seasonal debut Sunday, winning the San Antonio Stakes by more than six lengths. They're on course to meet next month in the Santa Anita Handicap. The three best American turf horses of a year ago also have returned, as have the best females.

For fans accustomed to seeing the sport's stars quickly shunted off to a breeding career, this development is both refreshing and welcome. Yes, some of these returning older horses are geldings -- e.g., Game On Dude, Little Mike and reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan -- and so of course they're back for more, having foresworn romance. And some possibly have returned because the stallion barns in Kentucky have just so many stalls, and because some of those stalls are reserved for recent retirees with fashionable pedigrees, such as To Honor And Serve, Bodemeister and Union Rags. Still, the depth of quality among the season's older horses is encouraging, even inspiring. More important, this could be the start of a trend made possible by the cessation of the arms race.

During the first half of 2012, there were nine races in America with a purse of $500,000 or more for older horses. Only four of those races were for older males on dirt. And only one of those, the Charles Town Classic, offered a purse of $1 million.

During the same period, there were 16 races worth $500,000 or more for 3-year-olds, 13 of those for males on dirt. And eight of those races offered a jackpot of $1 million or more, the Kentucky Derby's purse, of course, surpassing $2 million.

Virtually forced by the earnings criterion into making a wildly disproportionate financial commitment to Kentucky Derby preps, racetracks gave the country's best older horses few incentives to bother. And so in a move tantamount to smoking two packs a day, the sport encouraged its best older horses into retirement or to Dubai.

Racehorses, no doubt, will continue to be retired prematurely, and others, such as Animal Kingdom, will pursue fortunes in Dubai. But now that points accumulated in designated races rather than earnings in grade stakes will determine the Kentucky Derby starters, racetracks can distribute purse money more equitably and wisely, which could give American racing a better chance to retain its stars. And that has begun to happen.

Three-year-olds will still run down various streets pave with gold on their way to Kentucky and Maryland and New York. But opportunities for older horses are also becoming more lucrative. Oaklawn Park increased the purse of its Handicap to $500,000; Churchill has increased the Stephen Foster pot to $500,000; and the Charles Town Classic this year will be worth $1.5 million. They represent small steps, but steps in a healthy direction.

But what makes this group of older horses so strong is that they're joined by so many talented 4-year-olds, such as Take Charge Indy, Bourbon Courage, Csaba and Graydar, who will all challenge Flat Out in the Donn.

And so perhaps it's not entirely coincidental that the talent among this season's older horses runs as deep as the Mariana Trench. All the best older horses from 2012 are back, including Flat Out, who finished third in the Breeders' Cup Classic and will make his seasonal debut in Saturday's Donn. His Hall of Fame trainer, Bill Mott, said Flat Out has trained "very well" and has given every indication that as a 7-year-old he's ready to return to his best form of a year ago, when he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

But what makes this group of older horses so strong is that they're joined by so many talented 4-year-olds, such as Take Charge Indy, Bourbon Courage, Csaba and Graydar, who will all challenge Flat Out in the Donn. Take Charge Indy, of course, won last year's Florida Derby; Bourbon Courage, who ran third in last year's Clark Handicap despite a troubled trip, could benefit from a rapid pace Saturday to pose a genuine threat; Csaba, who has won four consecutive stakes, seems to have discovered a variety of paths to the winner's circle; and Graydar, a lightly raced gray flash of a colt who has won two of his three races, will make his stakes debut in the Donn.

Another talented 4-year-old, Unbridled Command, who has won five consecutive races, including the Hollywood Derby, will challenge Animal Kingdom and Point Of Entry in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. And, of course, Mucho Macho Man, the Classic runner-up, has returned for a 2013 campaign, along with Alternation, who's aimed at the Oaklawn Handicap. Adding depth are Mark Valeski, Called To Serve, Golden Ticket, Fed Biz, Guilt Trip, Infrattini and Went The Day Well.

The popular focus will no doubt remain on those flashy youngsters strutting their potential. And, yes, they're exciting, these 3-year-olds, if only for the eternally interesting spectacle of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. But for the older horses, this year could be special, a time for fiery clouds and crackling thunder. And, even better, it could be a trend.

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