November 20, 2009

Calling All Horse Whisperers

Should Quality Road run in Aqueduct’s Grade 1 Cigar Mile next Saturday? That, my fellow horse fans, is the question.

A little background on Quality Road. In only four races the big, beautiful, bay colt by Elusive Quality established himself as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. His Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby were powerful displays of speed and class. A nasty quarter crack ended the Derby dreams of the Edward Evans runner and caused him to be away from the races for more than four months. During this time off Evans transferred him from Jimmy Jerkens to the Todd Pletcher stable. Returning to the races, Quality Road set a track record in the Amsterdam Stakes at Saratoga. The sky was the limit. He followed with two competitive losing efforts at 10 furlongs to the division leader Summer Bird in the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. It was enough for Team Quality Road to send the talented colt on to the Breeders’ Cup Classic and that is where the trouble began, or should I say, became worse.

This was not the first time that Quality Road struggled to enter the starting gate. Remember all the trouble he had before the Travers? Loading for the Jockey Club Gold Cup was no picnic either. These traumatic experiences are not readily forgotten by a horse. Bad memories last longer than good ones. In the Breeders’ Cup, with a helicopter whirring overhead, everything came to a head. We all cringed as the starters at Santa Anita attempted to load Quality Road into the Classic starting gate. Quality Road simply would not go into the gate. Anything and everything the starters did, including blindfolding the powerhouse colt, only succeeded in making him more upset. On this day he was going to hurt himself before he went into that starting gate.

The Thoroughbred race horse is a hot-blooded and temperamental breed and the starting gate can be an unpleasant aspect of racing for most horses. A high percentage of Thoroughbreds learn to live with being loaded into the gate and do so with calm. It is not uncommon, however, for a horse to dislike the loading process so much that they never get over the issue. They never walk into the starting gate with complete calm and confidence. The excellent sprinter of the mid 90s, Lit de Justice comes to mind. He was a very talented horse who had all sorts of gate problems. Trainer Jenine Sahadi was patient with him and finally went the route of blindfolding the champion sprinter before ever trying to enter the starting gate, and before the horse had the chance to get overly agitated. This program worked, for the most part, for Lit de Justice.

Quality Road is a massive horse who fits more tightly into the starting gate than most. It is no wonder that the specter of the gate is so unnerving for Quality Road. Those of you who suffer from claustrophobia, as I do, know what I mean. While he consistently acts like a gentleman in gate schooling sessions, the added pressure of race day creates too many nerves. Perhaps a more detailed plan for getting Quality Road into the starting gate on race days is needed, or perhaps time and more positive schooling experiences will help alleviate his current uneasiness. Early word from his connections back in New York are good. He has once again schooled successfully and is being monitored in preparation for the Cigar Mile. Still, I can not help but to wonder if this quick return is the best thing for the horse.

I have no doubt that Evans and Pletcher want to do right by the horse, and there is something to be said for getting right back in the saddle. I, however, would go a different route.

If he were my horse, I would give him some time. Time to get over the traumatic experience at Santa Anita and time to feel good again. Clearly he was mentally effected by the incident, as he refused to get on the plane to head back to New York. His connections instead, had to van him all the way across the country. Running back so quickly in the Cigar Mile is not allowing for the horse to ease his psyche. Sure, the Cigar Mile is a big race and one that would seem to set up quite well for the talented Quality Road, but 2010 is full of big races, starting at Gulfstream Park, a track that he loves. I say give this horse a little rest, relaxation and rehabilitation, so that he can return next year at his best and claim his position as one of the top horses in America.

12 comments:

Sarah Grice said...

Great article, Brian! You know I'd love it if they brought QR to Gulfstream. I agree about giving him a little more time. He needs to be a calm, happy horse the next time they try to put him into the gate on race day. I'd also worry about ever blindfolding him again. He obviously enjoyed that even less than the gate itself!

Susan said...

Seriously, what do you think about how he was handled at the gate?
I've seen him act up before a race. Was homework not done before their biggest race of the year? Shouldn't someone (Todd Pletcher) have notified them that they shouldn't put the blindfold on him instead of telling his jockey to tell them in the midst of all the panic?
I want to see him run again, but not at the cost of his life. He can be brilliant. Maybe a layoff is a good thing, and maybe a race without a camera crew, mobs and a helicopter at the gate to ease him back. The Cigar Mile could be a good thing for him...I hope so.

Brian Zipse said...

Thank you Sarah...the Donn would be a nice race for Quality Road, don't you think?

Susan, It was a scary circumstance that easily could have escalated. The starters have an extremely difficult job and split second decisions are not always the best. The helicopter was a mistake.

Kerry M Thomas said...

I truly feel that the "issues" at the gate were merely the manifestations, at least in part, of perhaps a collection of other circumstances and associated memories. Of course, without having the opportunity to evaluate Quality Road I can in know way profess to have anything more than an an idea or opinion. I have reached out to the camp, and am hoping to have the opportunity to P-Type QR. Ascertaining his Emotional Conformation and developing a Psychological Profile, will go far in peeling back the onion layer. You can see what I am referring to by visiting www.thomasherdingtechnique.com

And No, he should not be racing, even if he does fine, or even wins, collateral damage is often unseen, and can yet again work like a ticking time bomb unbeknownst for its latent properties... Just my thoughts is all... Great Blog Brian!

Kerry M Thomas/ founder of THT

Brian Zipse said...

Thank you Kerry, for your expert opinion. I am a big believer in the psychological component of the health of all living beings.

Kerry M Thomas said...

Brian, I appreciate that and even though this is my first time responding I enjoy your work Very Much. I have put together a basic case profile for QR, but you know without spending the proper time in evaluations, speculating is merely speculative...so to speak. Today we've just released the upgraded version of P-Typing, Making The Grade on the website and along with the research essay "Behavioral Ovecompensations- &- Mental Illness & the Equine Athlete", all free downloads -giving back- section, I think you may find these reads intriguing. I have a lot of respect for you and I would be delighted to have a you visitor. Emotional Conformation & developing a Psycholocal Profile made a serious splash behind the scenes in the years' Keeneland Breeding Stock sale for the time I could be there, and we're about to set forth on Breeding with THT, breeding for behavior, and working toward the economics of behavior by adding more of the natural selection process into the artificial environment. We're weakening the Thoroughbred by ramming square pegs into round holes over and over again in the name of business. Best to you Sir, thanks for allowing me, all of us here, to voice our thoughts.
The purity in racing is within the horse, and in the personalities of the horses, we need to return the horse, to racing.

Amateurcapper said...

Brian,

You beat me to the punch...I've been researching and writing my next blog piece that will address this very topic together with CARELESS JEWEL's uncharacteristic run off, but from a different angle.

And, absolutely not re: racing again this year...QUALITY ROAD should be put way and brought back for what promises to be a fantastic 4y.o. season which could make for some interesting races between he, RACHEL, and SUMMER BIRD with MINE THAT BIRD lurking with a return to dirt, fast or wet.

As for the Donn H., I think it comes up too soon. I'd prefer the Gulfstream Park H. or New Orleans H. @ FG, both G.2's, to start off his year with a confidence-building win.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian, I say run him. We race racehorses, we don't walk on eggshells hoping the critical world gives us thumbs up on everything.

Todd had prepped QR in the gate prior to the BC, but I don't think at Santa Anita. Which might have made no difference, as the two helicopters would not have been there.

Owner Evans has had a great, but troubled year. He was also the breeder of Charitable Man, who had to come back from a injury himself. Quality Road has always been described as a 'puppy dog' in the barn, he's no Corinthian headcase. Without the helicopters he may be fine, they should find out sooner than later if he can get past this. This good looking, well bred future stallion has already lost too much precious time from his three year old campaign. And I would like Mr. Evans to have some more success to finish up his year. Virginia breeders are precious to the industry.

A win by Quality Road would be another happy note in a great year of racing.

PS- I found your blog via links at Horsin' Around- I love her blog, I agree with her on nearly everything. Debate is healthy, but it rocks to be able to just DITTO great ideas too

Marti said...

If he's ready...I say yes. Mind you, my original reacton to this was shock. I thought they were pushing him, and considering what happened at the BC...this might be a REALLY bad idea.

I've had horses since I was a teenager, QHs and mostly TBs. Some have been crazy as bat shit, some not. I have had horses that had trauma and drama in their lives before me, and some that had issues while I've had them.

I do not claim to be ANY type of trainer or behaviorist for horses....dogs yes, not horses, LOL....but I do know it comes down to dealing with the individual.

No blanket "quick fix" will work for them all. And time off is not always the perfect solution. The problem will still be there when he returns. It needs to be addressed.

QR has always had some gate issues, but NOTHING like what he exhibited at the BC. Can it be chalked up to the crowd, the noise, the tension of other horses and riders, etc., etc.? Who knows? Only QR knows the answer to that, and he's only going to "talk" to those qualified to understand what he's trying to tell them.

As I understand it, he's had two successful gate sessions since returning to Belmont. That's promising. Yes, the mornings are a different ball game than the afternoons. What happens in the afternoon remains to be seen.

Until then...I think we need more "Let's wait and see what happens", and less blame and finger pointing.

If he does blow up again on race day, people will be raising the roof and targeting his people. I personally think that's unfair. You can only go by what a horse is giving you in that moment, and there's been nothing in his schooling sessions that suggests he's not ok at the moment. His PAST suggests it, but perhaps he had an exceptionally bad day on the 7th. It happens.

Anyway, don't want to ramble along any further than I have...Let's see if his demons can be put behind him...and hope for the best come race day, whenever that happens to be. He's the only one that can make the ultimate decision about how he's going to act...and based on what's gone on this week...so far so good.

I am not going to wring my hands and bash his connections. They'll make the best call they can in determining if he seems ready to be entered...and when he's out of their hands and headed to the post, the rest is up to Quality Road.

Safe travels, rock star.

LDP said...

Pesonally, It's all up to the horse. Like people each one reacts differently. My thoroughbred right now, is a horse that if something bothers him, I need to lay off and give him some time. Majec, though is a completely different story, the horse could care less what you do with him, and would be likely get over something very quickly. From what I've heard about QR, he seems to be more along the tempermant lines of my horse. A big soft teddy bear, who can be brilliant at what he does, but can easily come unnerved.

Luvbarbaro said...

I definitely feel Quality Road needs some time off after the gate incident at The BC, which was awful to watch. He is a great horse, but I've read he's having some mental difficulties right now. Hopefully that will pass quickly and he can continue to race soon.

I am an advocate for animals, but I also love horse racing very much. He needs more time off, he probably does need a horse whisperer and A LOT of gate training at a busy time.

Great article Zipse & Good Luck to QR!

Anonymous said...

I, too, say it too soon to run QR!
Turn him out til Jan or Feb, call in Monty Roberts to work with him til March, then ease him into his 4yo season!