In racing, it is well known that thousands of little things must go right for a horse to win even one race, but it only takes one thing going wrong to slow down or end the cause.
As everyone gears up for the Triple Crown and the potential showdown between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta at Oaklawn Park in April, trainers and owners will be making crucial decisions every day. Any scrap of news will be discussed and debated among fans.
But one important group is often overlooked in times like these the breeders. In some ways, it is easy to understand why. Often the decisions breeders make do not involve instant or even relatively fast gratification. Instead, they will have to wait years to see if they sent the right mare to the right stallion in the right year.
However, as the breeding season picks up steam heading into spring, it is important to give credit where credit is due. The decisions breeders make now will have impact on what happens in racing for years to come. Not only do they plan the matings that lead to racing's future superstars, breeders also make thousands of decisions, large and small, that mold the foals, weanlings, and yearlings destined to become racehorses.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of the power breeders have involves none other than 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. No doubt, anyone who has made a decision about how to handle the phenomenal filly can take pride in their work. But if not for a decision made in 1999, a decade before her run at history, Rachel Alexandra as we know her would not exist.
Rachel Alexandra's sire, Medaglia d'Oro, was a hard-knocking grade 1 winner in his own right. He was bred in Kentucky by Albert and Joyce Bell, who sold him privately to Edmund Gann early in his racing career.
It is the Bells who could have ended Rachel Alexandra's story long before it ever began. You see, the couple had a strict policy to geld every single colt they bred, until Medaglia d'Oro.
"It just didn't make a lot of sense to keep a stud horse when we are trying to breed for racehorses," explained Albert Bell. "He was the first one we didn't geld in 25 years of being in the business. This guy was something special. He was correct and smart and he wanted to please you. He did everything at first asking. There was no reason to geld him, and we thought you know, this could be something different. Little did we know how different."
Although Medaglia d'Oro was born in the Bluegrass, he was raised on the Bells' farm in Montana.
"He was foaled in Kentucky, but Joyce and I hauled him (home) ourselves," said Bell. "He was raised right here. We know how to take care of horses. We are very smart about them. When we were training him early on, we stopped on him for 90 days. He just needed time, and we knew it. So many people push 2-year-olds and wind up ruining them."
Medaglia d'Oro raced twice for the Bells before the couple sold him to Gann in 2002. The handsome bay horse would retire with more than $5.7 million in earnings and finished first or second in 15 of 17 career starts.
"They offered us a lot of money and we turned it down," explained Bell of the decision to sell.
"Then they came back and offered us more, and so we thought we would be foolish not to take it. We didn't have him insured. Little did we know how good he was going to be. People say why did you sell him? I tell them if I had that kind of vision I would know what stocks to buy and sell and it wouldn't matter anyway. At the time it made sense to do it, and I don't really have any regrets about it."
After what turned out to be Medaglia d'Oro's final race, a second place finish in the 2004 Dubai World Cup, he was sold to Audrey Haisfield of Stonewall Farm Stallions. Last year, he changed hands yet again when he was purchased by Sheikh Mohammed. All eyes will be on his famous daughter when she returns to racing this spring, and yet, his stallion career almost never was.
"I told Joyce, 'you know, just stop and think, that one decision we made not to geld Medaglia, well look at what that has done to the Thoroughbred business,' " recalled Bell. "He got Rachel Alexandra, Horse of the Year. Those pedigrees will forever be embedded in Thoroughbred racing. It was a sequence of events, and they all kept getting better and better and better. It all came from a simple decision of do we geld the colt or not, and it was made so far away from the heart of Thoroughbred country."
Obviously this is only one example of the long-term effects decisions made by breeders, owners, and trainers have. There are countless others involving horses we all know and horses we will never hear of. But regardless, breeders are the ones that start it all.
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org