Thursday, May 25, 2006

Speed wins

Speed Williams won his first race - yes! Speed is the first Thoroughbred Phil and Brenda bred, raised and own themselves. Prior to getting into Thoroughbreds, they had Quarter Horses which they contested. Contesting consists of fast running and jarring turns around barrels and flags. After many years, old contesters, like Phil, begin to feel it in their backs, hips, necks and knees. So when Indiana approved pari-mutuel betting and built its first race track in Anderson, Phil and Brenda traded the Quarter Horses for Thoroughbreds to get in on the ground floor of helping to develop a Thoroughbred breeding program in this state.

It has been a long and expensive haul to get to that first trip to the winners circle. If you are into immediate gratification, breeding race horses is not for you. Brenda and Phil started with five brood mares. Hearing Brenda describe the costs involved made it sound like they were housing dollar-eating machines in the stalls in their barn rather than horses. They needed to be bred, of course. Babies were the whole point of the operation. Breeding means stud fees, fairly high ones, if you want bloodlines that actually predict progeny that might inherit speed and soundness, not to mention the hassle of hauling the ladies for their conjugal visits with the stallion, wherever he may live.

It turns out that racing Thoroughbred mares leaches some female hormone from their system. The lack of this hormone (I forget which one) causes them to abort their foals so it must be provided artificially. And they need hay and grain and shoes and shots and regular visits from the veterinarian to ensure their continued good health.

Then the babies are born and the Thoroughbred breeder has already become accustomed to the gambling aspect of racing, even if they've never placed a bet, because every colt or filly born is a gamble. Do they have the physical requirements, the heart, the health, the personality to be competitive? Every youngster is watched for clues as to whether the enormous expense required to eventually bring it to the track is going to be worth the risk.

Phil does all the initial training of the little ones. He breaks them and socializes them and teaches them manners. His horses lead quietly and load easily. The groundwork in training a Thoroughbred can be crucial.

When they are old enough, they go to the "real" trainer, the racing trainer. After working with them, the trainer will eventually make the final call on whether this particular youngster has potential. Racing Thoroughbreds have to be registered and tattooed. They have to have gate cards. Grooms have to be hired as well as jockeys. Jockeys have to have silks in the stable colors. The horses have to be checked by the track veterinarian. They have to be taken back and forth between farm, trainer and track, not an inexpensive proposition itself with the current price of gas. I'm sure I'm forgetting many of the various expenses. Brenda makes it seem like an endless blur of checks.

Horsepeople are the world's most cock-eyed optimists. Phil has never doubted that the sacrifices made to help establish a Thoroughbred breeding program in Indiana are worth it (although he's sometimes had to drag Brenda along with him kicking and screaming). And he isn't motivated primarily by the hope of big bucks to come, although that hope is there. It is the satisfaction at being in at the beginning of something important. It is the excitement of visiting the winner's circle for the first time, knowing this colt was planned, bred, trained and believed in. It is knowing there will be more generations to come, all bearing the name of Speed King Stables.

When Speed raced to the finish line, he was carrying not only a jockey, but a dream.