Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Interview With Steve Haskin!

The Rail Tout is proud to post a Q&A done with renowned Turf writer Steve Haskin this week. It is undoubtedly the high water mark for the blog and it speaks volumes to Steve Haskin’s generosity and commitment to the sport and its fans to take time out of his schedule to contribute here.

For those unfamiliar with his work, below is a brief bio…

Steve Haskin is an award-winning Turf writer renowned for his Kentucky Derby commentary. During his nearly three decades at Daily Racing Form, Haskin made a name with his "Derby Watch" columns. He joined The Blood-Horse magazine in 1998 as senior correspondent. Haskin, who has won six Red Smith Awards for his Kentucky Derby coverage, is the author of Tales From The Triple Crown, Horse Racing's Holy Grail - The Epic Quest for the Kentucky Derby and biographies of Dr. Fager, John Henry, and Kelso.

I highly recommend everyone follow his blog, Hangin' With Haskin, on the Bloodhorse website and his book on the great Dr. Fager in the Thoroughbred Legends series is a must read.

I hope everyone enjoys the following interview and I hope to be able to provide more content of its type in the future.

Thanks again Steve!


Rail Tout: The Breeders Cup has grown considerably over the years. They’ve added an extra day, divided the day by sexes, and have created a handful of “specialist” type races. Do you think the creation of these new races dilute the overall quality of event and what is your feeling about the “Ladies Day”?

Steve Haskin: At first I did think it diluted the talent and was dead set against it, but when I was actually at the BC last year, I was glad to see some of the stayers, turf sprinters and juvenile turf horses given a chance to shine. But all in all, I believe it does dilute the BC as a whole. And I do not like Ladies Day, because the Distaff (Ladies classic) is one of the few BC races that at times produces a Horse of the Year, and its not appropriate to have fillies like Zenyatta perform in front of 20,000-25,000 fewer fans and virtually no TV audience. And it's not fair to the Saturday customers who pay all that money and have to work or go to school on Friday to deprive them of seeing a mare like Zenyatta and a possible Horse of the Year decided.

RT: The Breeders Cup will be run over a synthetic track for the second time this year at Santa Anita, what is your opinion of synthetic racing and the Breeders Cup decision to have their event run over it in consecutive years?

SH: I hate synthetic racing, because the form is awful, it's phony, and horses are still breaking down. The decision to run the BC at Santa Anita two years in a row was the worst decision they've ever made, and they've paid the price not getting Rachel Alexandra and a host of the top horses who will not run. I hate to say it but they got what they deserved.

RT: Most fans universally despise the medication rules and penalties for those that get caught breaking those rules, why is it that the sport has been so slow to address the issue and are you in favor of a “no race day medication” policy?

SH: The medication rules are a mess. There is nothing rational about them. The sport has been slow to address it because it's slow to address everything. There is no one running the sport. At least the sport is trying now, but it took Eight Belles and PETA protests and congressional hearings to get them off their butts. Yes, I am in favor of no race day medication, but it would take a long time to implement it because so many of our horses are so dependent on Lasix.

RT: It’s generally accepted that the modern thoroughbred is not as sound as decades past. Statistics show that the average amount of starts per horse has declined steadily with each passing decade. With this said, there also appears to be a major shift in training, where horses train more and race less. (Especially with a wealth of lucrative options available and commercial breeding stock values being so high) Is it accurate to say that modern training tactics and advances in veterinarian care and diagnostics could actually be more to blame than any inherent genetic deficiencies in the modern thoroughbred?

SH: That is a part of it, but I believe the main reason is the amount of speed we have infused into the blood of the Thoroughbred, combined with the use of Bute and Lasix and other drugs. I'm not sure if training tactics contribute to unsoundness and much as unsoundness contributes to today's training tactics. Trainers are forced to be conservative, and sometimes they overdo it. Horses are now being trained defensively rather that the offensive approach taken by trainers years ago. Horse also race fewer times, because owners nowadays do not want to lose and dont accept defeats with the same class owners did in the past. That's because every loss means a decrease in stud value in owners' minds. It's not so much advances in veterinary care that has changed the game as much as the number of veterinarians in the sport now who have lot more power in decision making, and they too have become more conservative.

RT: I maintain that on the basis of versatility, speed and level of opposition, that Dr. Fager is the greatest thoroughbred of all time. As the resident leader of the Dr. Fager fan club, is this crazy talk, or does he have a legit claim to the throne?

SH: In my opinion Dr. Fager in 1968 was the greatest horse of all time. Of the horses I've seen, over a three-year period -- ages 2,3, and 4 -- Spectacular Bid was the greatest. He was the closest thing to the perfect horse.

RT: I’ve outlined here prior that I believe the sport should have a tiered purse structure based on age, with the aim to create less emphasis on bottoming out young 2yo’s and making the handicap division twice as lucrative. Simply put, a 3yo runs for more money than a 2yo, and a 4yo+ runs for more money than a 3yo. The thought process being, until we emphasize running older horses, and more importantly put the real money in that division, there will be little incentive to keep horses on the track if they have commercial value. What do you think of such an idea and what do you think can be done slow the retirement rate of top horses so that fans can follow horses for more than a season?

SH: It's a good concept, but it will never happen, because 3-year-olds will always be the glamour division, and purses will always remain high. We need another ACRS Series, where one major bulk of money -- like $5 million or $10 million -- is paid to the winner of the series, who accumulates the most points. One crazy concept would be, if a horse is retired at 3 for stud duty, and not due to an injury, he must wait twice as long to become eligible to the Hall of Fame. Of course, that would mean Secretariat would have had to wait, but that's just the way it would be. It's difficult to turn down an offer from Sheikh Mohammed.

RT: Rachel Alexandra vs Ruffian, who you got?

SH: I can't compare the two and never take part in matching horses of different generations. Ruffian was the most brilliant filly I've ever seen and Rachel is the more accomplished.

RT: If her career was over today, where would you rank Zenyatta in the all-time filly/mare division and do you think the connections have in some ways hindered her long-term status by not challenging her more in 2009?

SH: As of now, I'd rank her in top 20 all time and in the Top 10 of modern fillies/mares. And yes, her conservative campaign at 5 will probably hinder her when people assess the greatest fillies, as will having 11 of her 12 starts on a synthetic surface. But on the other hand, most fillies in her similar situation would have been retired after last year's Distaff. Let's see if she runs in the Classic and how she does before ranking her. I just wish she would have run a few more times on the dirt, so we could get a true gauge on how great she is.

RT: You’ve successfully made the leap from traditional print media to the online world, with a wildly popular blog on the Bloodhorse site. What do you think of the decline in traditional media and the switch to the digital realm? What do you see as the positives and negatives of this shift in coverage?

SH: The demise of tradition is always sad, and the loss of so many beat writers leaves a major void. The internet allows the average fan to have his or her comments printed in public, and that's good. But you still have to be able to separate the casual fan with a blog from the professional writer who has been writing publicly all of his or her life. One is a hobby and pastime and one is a job and a livelihood, so there is a difference. But there is a place for both.

RT: What do you think of the Rail Tout Blog and do you have any advice for us amateur bloggers?

SH: Definitely one of the better blogs, because it's knowledgeable and well thought out, and the analysis of the leading horses is extremely well crafted. My advice is to stick with what you know best and what aspect of the sport you like the best -- whether its handicapping or rankings and comments or race analysis -- and concentrate on that and keep trying to improve on it.


Shannon said...

I liked this interview. Good questions, and I learned a little more from Steve's answers.

The_Knight_Sky said...

Ha ha.I love it.
Got it printed.
Great lunch hour reading in my car.