By Jeremy Plonk
(The following article is reprinted from the September/October 2000 issue of The HorsePlayer magazine.)
Familiarity is a funny thing among horseplayers. Some say it is the only thing. Horseplayers hold it near and dear, clutching it to their chests as tight as hope and memories of scores-gone-by.
American Quarter Horse racing blesses the handicapper with unmatched familiarity. With a limited number of racetracks simulcasting shortline races, it does not take an encyclopedia of knowledge to gain the insights of every signal. Hammer out trends for about a half-dozen racetracks and you've pretty much got it licked.
Of course it's not that simple. If it were, the "free money" line would stretch from the turnstiles at Los Alamitos to the $50 window at Delta Downs. But it is quite a bit easier to get familiar with American Quarter Horse racing and its players.
Among those players, no doubt in the forefront, are the equine athletes themselves. What a rugged and durable breed the American Quarter Horse represents. Their powerful hindquarters and strong shoulders provide a stable foundation for racing or ranching or whatever the chore. Your chore as a handicapper becomes easier with the American Quarter Horse each familiar trip to the post.
The durability stretches from the claiming ranks to the upper echelon of racehorses. Some would say American Quarter Horse racing is "where the stars stay." You don't often find flashes-in-the-pan whose careers flicker out quickly before running off to the breeding shed. Here, a star takes some time to develop and then hangs around for awhile.
The American Quarter Horse Association annually presents its divisional champions much like Thoroughbred racing's Eclipse Awards. The top sprinter each year is hailed World Champion, the counterpart to Thoroughbred racing's Horse of the Year. In the decade of the 1990s, only two AQHA World Champion racehorses were less than four years old.
One exception was 1996's sensational three-year-old filly, Dashing Folly, who won the tell-tale Champion of Champions at Los Alamitos Race Course to cap a perfect season. The other was juvenile Winalota Cash, who tallied the 1995 All American Futurity in stakes-record time and went on to become the second-richest shortliner in American Quarter Horse racing history after two more successful seasons.
Winalota Cash finished his career with $1,952,848 bankrolled from 19 wins in 31 starts. The only horse to breathe the rare air of the $2 million club was the legendary Refrigerator, whose 22 tallies from 36 tries and 10 Grade 1 wins earned him $2,126,309.
Refrigerator won the 1990 All American Futurity en route to that season's champion two-year-old gelding honors. While he missed the World Champion's hardware, taken in '91 by Champion of Champions winner Special Leader, the "Fridge" would hang around long enough to get more than his fair share of accolades. Voters christened him World Champion each of the next two seasons, making him the top dog of 1992 and '93. As a six-year-old in 1994, he earned champion aged gelding honors.
More recently, SLM Big Daddy and Tailor Fit have tallied the last three World Champion titles. SLM Big Daddy went from lowly claimer to two-time AQHA kingpin in 1997 and '98. At age seven he was still competing among the best, but turned over his crown to 1999 World Champ Tailor Fit, a spring chicken at age four. Tailor Fit has returned in 2000 to defend that title as a five-year-old.
The common thread between these four great champions is that they are geldings. As some may know, along with the powerful build of the American Quarter Horse also comes a very high-strung breed of animal. They yearn to rocket from the starting gate, trained to explode at a moment's notice. Many don't settle into fine racehorses until they are gelded. Their prior temperament just doesn't mesh with training.
While that's a bad thing for breeders and bluebloods who wish the bourgeois weren't king, it's a great windfall for fans and handicappers. They get to see their favorite stars -- and most consistent racehorses -- march to the post deep into their careers. Since 1963, AQHA has named a champion aged gelding 38 times. Of those, a remarkable 10 repeat champions have been crowned. The stars shine, and they stick around.
Another reason why American Quarter Horse stars stay on the track longer is because the money in breeding just doesn't compare to that in the Thoroughbred industry.
Remember Special Leader? He's the horse who took 1991 World Champion honors over Refrigerator. He stands stud in 2000 for a mere $2,000 fee at Royal Vista Equine in Colorado. Chicks Beduino, whose offspring won more races (135) in 1999 than any other stallion, stands for $6,000 at Blane Schvaneveldt Ranch in California.
Those numbers are a far cry from the breeding fees paid to Thoroughbred stallions such as Gone West ($125,000) and Broad Brush ($100,000). And these figures are precisely why the career of Kentucky Derby sensation Fusaichi Pegasus will be snuffed out before America even learns how to pronounce his name.
However, American Quarter Horse prices have been going up - but in the sales arena as yearlings. Last year’s sale topper at the Ruidoso Select Sale reached $550,000. In 1998, the industry record was reached when a First Down Dash son was sold for $650,000. The underbidder that year was Laura Lukas, wife of Thoroughbred Hall of Fame Trainer D. Wayne. Last year the Lukases, along with Churchill Downs chairman William Farish and entertainment and media mogul Edward Gaylord, II, paid $500,000 for the sale topper at the Vessels/Scvhaneveldt Sale.
It would be in err to forget the American Quarter Horse ladies and their contributions to long-term success. Three distaffers in the decade of the '90s earned World Champion status: Dashing Folly (1996), Down With Debt (1994) and Dash For Speed (1990).
During that same span, sprint fans were treated to the utter dominance of stakes star Kool Kue Baby. The mare has proven once again that everything is bigger in Texas, winning an astounding 24 career stakes -- far and away the AQHA record. At the ripe age of eight, she's still burning up the track in the 21st century.
Because of technology and a different standard of breeding rules, AQHA mares can sometimes pull double-duty in the breeding shed and on the racetrack. Via embryo transfer (only one per year), outlawed by The Jockey Club in registering Thoroughbreds, American Quarter Horse mares can utilize "surrogate mothers" of sorts and head back to the track. Such is the case with Corona Cash, the 1998 champion three-year-old filly, Joanna Kate, the 1999 champion aged mare, IBA Dasher, last year's champion three-year-old filly and Kool Kue Baby.
Early in 1999, Joanna Kate was bred to the stallion Reckless Dash and her embryo subsequently transferred to another broodmare. Joanna Kate returned to the race wars and concurrently became a mother on February 14, 2000. The process has been repeated this breeding season as well. Joanna Kate was bred to top sire Chicks Beduino via cooled semen, had the embryo transferred and has come back running. IBA Dasher was bred to Mr Jess Perry in 2000 and thanks to embryo transfer also is back in training.
A myriad of reasons exist why the American Quarter Horse can stand the test of time. Thankfully, they give horseplayers the time to learn more about them before humans hustle them off to the breeding shed. And while familiarity may not be the only thing important to handicappers, it sure is a good thing.
That much you can bet on.
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