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Thoroughbred racehorses start young, face long road to success

A foal, born from mother Distortion and sired

A foal, born from mother Distortion and sired by Lemmon Drop Kid, is embraced in the foal barn at the Stonewall Farm, in upstate Granite Springs on Friday, May 29, 2015. Credit: Craig Ruttle

GRANITE SPRINGS -- At a few months old, the auburn colt doesn't have a name, but he's already learned to stand still, patiently regarding his handlers as they groom him in the barn where he's spent his young life.

Right now, he's simply called Distortion 2015 -- he's the 2015 colt out of a brilliantly sleek chestnut mare named Distortion and was sired by 1999 Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid.

He'll be almost 2 before Stonewall Farm owner Barry K. Schwartz files papers with his official name.

"From the time you decide what stallion you want to breed to, to the time you know that that horse is going to be of any value is about four years," Stonewall Farm manager Peter Moore said on Friday, standing outside the foal barn of the pristine 750-acre thoroughbred farm in northern Westchester. "It's a long investment."

It's one that's made every year by thousands of thoroughbred owners who, after careful research of bloodlines, conformation, athleticism and race history, pay as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars to match their mares with choice stallions in the hope that their newest crop of foals might include the next American Pharoah.

Trainer Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said he scrutinizes all aspects of the horse when he's looking to buy weanlings and yearlings, but doesn't lean heavily on any one thing -- though he said athleticism of movement is key.

"There's a balance between their conformation, their brain and their pedigree, and we want to cull their little flaws -- there are some you can deal with better than others, and some you're willing to overlook," Violette said. "A really good athlete with not-so-great a pedigree a lot of times is better than a horse that is unathletic but has champions on both sides of the family. You can't teach fast."

In 2012, the year Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner American Pharoah was born, about 23,500 thoroughbred foals were registered in North America, according to the Jockey Club, the breed's registry. In New York, 1,423 were registered, and 730 of those have started in a race so far, according to Jockey Club records.

When deciding what stallion to breed to a mare, Moore said, the goal is to mitigate any weaknesses either might have with the other's strengths.

"You have to decide if that particular stallion matches your mare conformationally -- is he small, does he have bad knees, does he have bad feet, does your mare have them?" Moore said.

With all the calculations that go into breeding, the odds that these thoroughbreds, programmed to run since birth, will run in or win a race are reasonably high -- but their chance of winning a Grade 1 stakes race like the Belmont Stakes is almost imperceptible.

Of the registered foals born between 1995 and 2004, a time frame the Jockey Club used in order to reflect the whole careers of those horses, about 71 percent started in a race. Of those, about 68 percent won a race. About 34 percent started their career as 2-year-olds -- most started as 3-year-olds.

Across their running lives only about 4 percent of those horses that ran won a stakes race, and about 8 percent placed in a stakes race.

One of the farm's most successful racehorses was The Lumber Guy, who was voted New York's Horse of the Year in 2013 as a 3-year-old. He has since been retired to stud. The gray thoroughbred's career earnings were almost $800,000.

Hopes ride on this colt

Distortion 2015 is one of about 13 foals in Stonewall Farm's latest crop, and the education that will prepare him for a life at the track is already underway. He and the others are walked, groomed and handled twice daily in between romping around in the pasture.

"The whole process is teaching from day one, and getting used to respecting people, just like people should respect horses," Moore said. "It's very important for thoroughbreds in particular -- you can't treat them like backyard horses. . . . When they get to the track, there's an expectation that they know what they're doing."

Careful beginnings

At Stonewall Farm, many are born close to January, since the breed registry dictates all foals' birthdays to be Jan. 1, and weaning from their mothers starts in August or September, Moore said. Around October or November, they journey up the hill to the yearling barn, where they live with youngsters of their own sex on sprawling acres.

The real work begins in the spring of that year, Moore said. The progression is slow and methodical -- first, a saddle blanket is draped on them. Then, a surcingle, which is a strap that can be used for driving horses, goes on their back and is tightened around their belly like a girth for a saddle. Then, a bit and bridle. Soon, they start driving the horses under harness to teach them how to move forward, steer and stop from a safe distance. A saddle goes on next, and eventually a rider is up.

"I hate the word breaking -- it's more like educating," Moore said. "If you break a horse, it's like that old cowboy thing that you're breaking the spirit. That's the last thing you want to do."

Soon they're off to Florida for their first winter of work with a trainer. They'll do their first works -- timed gallops of a certain length -- and head back to New York to the tracks at Aqueduct or Belmont after a winter of legging up.

Some will start racing that summer, but many will wait until their 3-year-old year. Moore said the farm's main trainer, Mike Hushion, is careful not to push them too fast too soon.

"In a lot of cases, just giving them that little time makes a world of difference, because really, they don't stop growing until they're close to 4," Moore said. This year, he doesn't expect any of their 2-year-olds to race until July, he said.

A way to breed success

Getting a horse into his first race early "is important, but it's not the be-all and end-all."

Even if Distortion 2015 never wins a Grade 1 stakes race, the New York-bred runner's full potential could mean tens of thousands of dollars in annual purse winnings. In 2014 the average New York-bred starter earned $28,318 per year, a number that's been growing by leaps and bounds as the program to incentivize breeding in New York, and to New York horses, has been bolstered in the last several years. In 2011 average winnings were around $18,000.

"There isn't any question the quality of the New York-bred program has increased dramatically over the last several years," said Eric Mitchell, editorial director of Blood-Horse, a magazine and website that focuses on thoroughbred racing. Purses have increased, which draws more and better horses to New York races -- the average purse per race last year was $50,539, up from $33,291 in 2011 -- and the percent of New York mares bred as a share of the whole of North America has increased from 3 percent in 2011 to 4.5 percent in 2014, according to the Jockey Club.

Another indicator of progress for New York racing: In May, a record three New York-bred horses ran in the Kentucky Derby.

"They were all horses that had a legitimate shot," Mitchell said. "To be competitive in New York, you've got to have a high quality horse and a high quality program."

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