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04 August 2009

Jim Squires' New Book~ Headless Horsemen

Jim Squires, the Pulitzer Prize winning Chicago newspaper editor-turned- horse breeder who bred 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos at his Two Bucks Farm goes sour on racing in his book Headless Horsemen a take of Chemical Colts, Subprime Sales Agents, and the last Kentucky Derby on Steroids. Squires takes on the powers in racing in what has the potential to be a popular book. Squires echoes the popular sentiments on what ails the industry often shared on the internet. As a noted industry progressive Squires advocates more government regulation, more transparency and less drugs. While the book is long on complaints and short on solutions it is an informative must-read. Squires is not afraid to go after people in high places. There is no doubt that racing has been crashing in key economic indicators and the crash in the "sales horse" segment of the industry has hit Squires' breeding operation hard. Handle is down, way down and the last few Kentucky horse sales have seen precipitous declines in all indicators. Squires links this crash to the "Bush Economy" and states that the horse industry has popped its own subprime bubble just like the real estate market and the stock market.

The first and most frequent target of Squires' ire are the so called "Dinnies" The "Dinnies are the blue blood industry leaders surrounding Ogden "Dinny" Phipps. They are repudiated as steering a ship that is “void of leadership and rudderless.” At every turn new ideas in racing are annexed as the "Dinnies" own creations. Time after time progression is killed by committees filled with the "Dinnies" personally appointed puppets and cronies. A good example is the Major League Racing tour that was proposed a few years ago; the idea was funded but died in committee before a horse could be nominated to one of the races. As a former member of the Kentucky Racing Commission, Squires has solid insider connections. Squires describes a web of insiders, loathe to government involvement who are in charge of an industry that is out of control. Powerful yet powerless the "Dinnies" have a tight hold over racing and have presided over a steep decline in all areas of the industry. Squires provides a good insiders account of what happens behind the scenes at the NTRA and Breeders Cup.

Squires pulls no punches on the usual group of industry targets and even goes after some industry legends with sterling reputations. He goes after oft suspended trainer and easy target Richard Dutrow citing his record of drug suspensions. Michael Iavarone from IEAH stable is exposed yet again as a two-bit boiler room cold caller who got lucky with Kip DeVille and Big Brown while parleying that success into a subprime horse hedge fund. Squires suggests that a legendary red horse acquired his robust physique through the use of anabolic steroids. A particular thorn in Squires side in Indian Charlie, the satirical industry newsletter that Squires has been a frequent target of.

One particular point of contention for Squires has been the "sale horse". As a breeder of a Kentucky Derby winner Squires has the requisite resume to tackle this issue. Squires contends that drugs, surgery and two year old under tack sales have taken the Kentucky thoroughbred from being a sturdy, classic horse to a fragile drug addicted animal built to sell but not necessarily to race. He makes excellent points and opens up an important debate on the affect of the breeding shed on racing.

One of Squires key issues is the required x-rays that Keeneland sales have mandated on all horses entered for Keeneland auctions and how those x-rays disqualify otherwise good horses that have gone on to be successful. There is some irony that the man who would introduce transparency and more regulation into the horse racing business is negatively affected by the unintended consequences of the regulations mandated by the auction house meant to increase transparency.

His contention is that breeders are aiming to breed the perfect horse but the perfect horse is not necessarily the best horse. Squires provides the example of how Curlin had a defect in his ankle when he went to auction and how this imperfection enabled trainer Ken McPeek to acquire Curlin for a bargain price. Horses that are not born perfect are being made perfect through surgery and drugs, often to their own detriment.

Squires own breeding operation has been hurt as horses with off-set knees and various other conformation defects have been met with disinterest in the sales market. Squires own aversion to drug and surgery conformation correction in yearlings has rendered his foal crop unmarketable. Squires and Two Bucks farm have to compete against other foals that are chemically and surgically altered specifically with the sales auction in mind. Now with the sales market bubble burst what will Kentucky do with all of those unprofitable horses? My suggestion would be to race them, but the long lag time from the day the mare is covered to the day the horse collects the maiden purse(if they are lucky) makes this impractical for many. Squires seems to suggest regulating the thoroughbred horse market from Washington. One day the hope is to force breeders to market natural horses. With chemically or surgically enhanced horses out of the picture, clean operations like Two Bucks farm can sell on a level playing field.

After taking on the sale horse Squires goes after the world of sales agents. The theme here provided by Squires is "Shenanigans" Squires exposes a world where friends make false bids on horses to inflate their value. Then the false bidders are rewarded with backdoor payments after the sucker bidder has been reeled in. This is a world filled by horses with secret and silent owners. Handshake deals are allowed and the unregulated sales house regularly fleeces newbies. While most victims quietly exit the game after being scammed; Squires tells the tale of "The Righteous Brothers" who refused to go quietly. Satish Sanan along with Jess Jackson and how they fought back against the corrupt agents with lawsuits and made inroads on increasing the transparency of the sales auction arena.

As much as Squires assails the industry he praises cowboy trainer Larry Jones. The Squires have hired Jones as their own trainer. Squires dedicates an entire chapter detailing Larry Jones and his wife Cindy. It is a good account of a honest, self made man and how he was attacked from all sides after the 2008 Eight Belles breakdown. There is an intriguing story of the 2008 first medication positive for a Two Bucks Farm runner. It was also the first medication positive for a horse trained by Larry Jones after 27 years practicing his craft. Squires bemoans a the testing process that has marked him as a cheater and a hypocrite. Squires makes his case that he was framed in a bid to silence him as a reformer and progressive.

Headless Horsemen is the now book for 2009. The numbers reveal that the market for horses has shrunk considerably. The sale horse is becoming unprofitable for all but a very few foals. Wagering is down umpteen percent. Squires states that this is the worst position that horse racing has been in for a long time. The time for change is now. Squires has a very negative outlook on horse racing, but those who think that central regulation, less drugs and more transparency are the ticket will agree with Squires' take on the industry. It it vital that these issues are being discussed by someone with the credentials of Mr. Squires. For anyone in the game; Headless Horsemen is a must read.


sununder said...

Fortunately Mr. Squires cannot be intimidated by shenanigans. Cannot wait to read his book, it has been too long in coming. Maybe it will serve as a wakeup call for all of us who care about the future of the thoroughbred.

The Turk said...

Power Cap...good reading tip and a great write up. I'm off to get a copy. Turk.

Anonymous said...

I found the book interesting and recognized virtually everyone the author describes. He is undergoing difficult times as is the way when the prices of horses plummet. This occurred in the late 1980s forcing many small breeders out of business. What he fails to say is that although the Sheik Mohammed may be harming his breeding business, the value of his property is safe primarily because of the Sheik’s support for the price of farm land in horse country.
What I completely fail to appreciate is his preoccupation with Indian Charlie, the ultimate toady. Is there a person who ever took the sheet seriously? In truth, some of Eddie’s jabs are not in jest, but I suspect that to ignore him would be to disarm him. I would also ask if all “the people who count “even read the sheet .
As a dentist I find his reliance on anecdotal evidence most disconcerting.. There must be ways of testing the efficacy of a myriad of drugs on horses, but you need to hire responsible people to do the testing under controlled conditions. Am I to believe that Larry Jones is innocent and Dick Dutrow and Patrick Biancone are guilty, simple because of the author’s friendship with the former?
Saratoga and Keeneland appear to be the last two bastions of horse racing. Churchill Downs is a dump and unless you sit in the new luxurious boxes with Jim Squires, you will agree with me. Can Saratoga and Keeneland be replicated? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t hurt to study racing from that angle.
And lastly Mr. Squires; are there really too many horses? When I see 5 and 6 horse races virtually every day in California; 7 and 8 horse races in other venues, how can that be possible? A surfeit of horses will certainly depress prices primarily in the less desirable stallions and mares. If you fear lasix, buy your mares in Europe. Entirely to much carping.

Anonymous said...

Jim Squires book 'Headless Horsemen' was right on the money. Involved in the Thoroughbred horse racing industry for years, it was predictable that the 'perfect storm' was coming. Jim is truthful and courageous as a person and a great writer for exposing those 'dinny blue bloods' at the top who have held ALL the cards to long and led us like sheep to our demise. It is the horses alone that will save us but only if we act like 'mindful horsemen' in time. The great Zenyatta and her team are an example of what racing 'could be' once again if the wrongs of breeding, drugs and politics are righted. The public wants champion racing. Let's bring it back to them WHOLE!

Anonymous said...

Highly recommend 'Headless Horsemen' as a must read to every person in every type of horse industry. The problems of drugs, growth hormones, steroids, breeding, thievery, and politics aren't just limited to Thoroughbred racing, which seems to stand alone in the public spotlight. The book addresses in particular the decline of the Thoroughbred breed, replacing the stamina of old with speed performance qualities. Yet, for all of the Thoroughbreds ill fated and well publicized maladies, does anyone remember a Quarter Horse named 'Impressive'? Those at the top knew about his genetically faulty qualities for very long time before they ever came clean to the industry and the public that supported their association.