Professionals in the thoroughbred business typically look at horseplayers with disdain. They know or care little about the handicapping process.
Even successful high-rollers like Robert Sangster, the Arab sheiks and the big Kentucky breeders may spend tens of millions of dollars a year while understanding less about the ability of horses than many bettors in the grandstand.
At the end of last season, supposedly sophisticated breeders didn't hesitate to spend $500,000 each for shares of Chief's Crown. Investors in the $20-million syndication figured he was worth that price because he had won the most prestigious 2-year-old stakes and had been voted the champion of his generation. But anybody who calculates speed figures knew that Chief's Crown was the least talented 2-year-old champ in more than a decade. In even a fair-to-middling year he might have been the 10th-best colt of his generation and worth only a fraction of his 1984 price. Handicappers had to suspect that the breeding "experts" were a bunch of dopes.
When Chief's Crown has gone to stud and compiled a record as a stallion, it will be interesting to see who was right. Did his consistent performance in classic races prove he had the racing ability that would make him a good sire? Or will he be an undistinguished stallion, confirming the opinion of the speed handicappers who thought he was an undistinguished racehorse?
I have a hunch the latter will happen. As a devout speed handicapper, I have long believed that the ability of horses is reflected best by how fast they run -- not by the prestige of the races they win, the gameness they display or any other factor. Since there obviously is a strong correlation between a horse's racing ability and his success at stud, wouldn't speed figures be useful in the breeding business?
I attempted to put this hypothesis to a modest test, acquiring a list of the most prominent horses who had gone to stud in 1981 and whose first offspring are this season's 3-year-olds. I burrowed through my old figures and old racing forms, noting how fast each horse had run in his prime. I assigned each of them a figure that would show what a horse could do when he was running at his best distance at the top of his game. In my system of numbers, a figure in the mid-120s certifies a horse as a genuine star.
Of the horses who started their stud careers in 1981, Spectacular Bid was the obvious standout, but there were many other major stakes horses -- Codex, Private Account, Czaravich, State Dinner and others. Yet this was my somewhat surprising top three:
Spectacular Bid 129
Clever Trick 125
Spectacular Bid was the clear champion of his generation, but the injury-plagued Danzig never won a stake, and Clever Trick was strictly a six-furlong runner. Yet they had more raw ability and speed than any other members of their generation.
A week ago, the newsletter Racing Update ranked all the stallions who had gone to stud in 1981. No. 1, in a runaway, was Danzig, the sire of Chief's Crown and Stephan's Odyssey. No. 2 on the list -- to almost every expert's astonishment -- was Clever Trick, who already has sired 13 stakes-winning or stakes-placed offspring.
This limited research suggests that the fundamentals of handicapping may be useful for a lot more than picking the winners of the daily double at Bowie. People in the breeding business probably should pay a little more attention to the things that horseplayers do.