Saturday 26 May 2018

Only one winner when sport and business collide

Plan to retire Golden Horn at end of season is no surprise

Golden Horn and Frankie Dettori winning the Eclipse Stakes
Golden Horn and Frankie Dettori winning the Eclipse Stakes

Ian McClean

The definition of a cynic is someone who doesn't want to be disappointed yet again. Therefore, it was with much cynicism many received the news Golden Horn is to be retired after this his three-year-old season.

Some professional commentators were indignant. The Twitter-sphere was apoplectic. And so the festering sore in the perennial tug-of-war between horse racing as sport and business was agitated afresh. Golden Horn has run just five times. After winning a back-end two-year-old maiden in October, he has run up the sequence of Fielden, Dante, Derby and Eclipse in under three months. His rating has gone 90-111-118-126-130.

Having dispatched The Grey Gatsby at Sandown, he became the first unbeaten Derby winner since Nashwan in 1989 to win the Eclipse, for the first time dismissing his elders. According to the latest assessment, he is now officially rated, but this in itself has given rise to controversy, the equal of Frankel, the greatest thoroughbred of the modern era. Unlike Frankel, Golden Horn is to be retired short of a four-year-old campaign.

Back in the days of the Sheikhs and Sangsters, it was customary for Derby winners to pack off to stud after their classic year. This was the expectation in the 1980s when yearlings Seattle Dancer and Snaafi Dancer sold at Keeneland for $13.1m and $10.2m respectively ($13.1m would equate to $28.7m today).

However, in more recent and moderate times, we have begun to get accustomed to Derby winners returning to a four-year-old career. Since the turn of the century, as many as six of the 15 Derby winners have raced on after their classic year. More recently, the reappearance at four of Camelot, Ruler Of The World and Workforce (three of the five winners before Golden Horn) was almost suggesting a trend that career-extension of Derby winners was back in fashion. Disappointment is always greatest when expectations are falsely heightened. And so the announcement of Golden Horn's retirement rests even more uncomfortably.

But Anthony Oppenheimer embodies that often conflicted alliance of owner and breeder. In seeking to understand the dilemma, it is useful to follow the poker professional spirit of playing the man, not the hand. Golden Horn's owner/breeder is a relatively modest domestic player and not in the category of any of the global superpowers. To that end, Oppenheimer is in the realm of Christopher Tsui, who received similar denigration for retiring Sea The Stars after a flawless three-year-old campaign in 2009. The considerations of the smaller player are different and have an even more acute need to balance the joy of the sport with the commercial imperatives of keeping a breeding operation on the road.

By contrast to Coolmore or Darley, the Oppenheimer black-and-white halved silks have only captured one classic - and that was back in 1982 with On The House in the 1,000 Guineas. Golden Horn is like the winning lottery ticket. From a commercial point of view, there are risks to a further season on the track, involving not just injury but also reputation. On that note, it is significant that of the six Derby winners since 2000 to continue to compete after three, only High Chaparral made any significant improvement to his record. Three of the six to race on were Coolmore-owned, and, while acknowledging the sporting nature of opting to keep their Derby winners in training, it is perhaps easier to consider when you have the likes of Galileo and, until 2012, Montjeu back in the breeding shed.

A maths equation for Golden Horn would suggest that covering a conservative 100 mares in the first year at a stallion fee equivalent to Sea The Stars would yield revenue of €8.5m with zero risk. Not only could you never hope to achieve that figure in prize-money while bearing all the risk of the racecourse and training ground, but you would also have forfeited those 100 little foal PR ambassadors that will soon be trumpeting Golden Horn in the sales rings and on the racecourses, which, with success, in turn drives up the stud fee. Sea The Stars is currently at €125,000.

In the meantime, realising we may only have just over three months to enjoy the unbeaten Golden Horn, the next stop is likely to be the King George with a break following to prepare for the Arc and clash with Treve and possible rematch with Derby victim and stablemate Jack Hobbs. It is only natural, therefore, that sports fans feel aggrieved there will be no more of this on the menu for 2016.

However, bear in mind, in a parallel to On The House in 1982, the only reason Oppenheimer is in this position at all is that Golden Horn failed to reach his reserve at the sales. Lottery ticket indeed. Perhaps in addition to the fiscal imperatives, it is just the very reasonable case of not wanting to push your luck.

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