Drugs and medication in racing: 'it's like the Mad Hatter's tea party'

Lincoln Collins and 2012 Broodmare of the Year Oatsee

Lincoln Collins knows racing and breeding inside out. He cut his teeth in England, where his experience included 18 months as pupil/assistant to multi-classic-winning trainer John Dunlop. He moved to the U.S. more than 30 years ago and has been one of the leading bloodstock agents in Kentucky pretty well ever since.

His first Grade 1 winner came in 1994. “I purchased Link River [by Gone West out of Connecting Link] in utero and she went on to win the Personal Ensign [then known as the John A. Morris Handicap] as a 4-year-old at Saratoga for Maktoum Al Maktoum,” said Collins, who is president of the internationally renowned bloodstock agency Kern Thoroughbreds.

A string of other top-grade winners followed, putting Kern firmly on the map and establishing Lincoln Collins as a major player in the bloodstock business.  

One of his most successful purchases was Oatsee, the mare in the picture at the top of this article, which he bought on behalf of My Meadowview LLC for $1,550,000 in 2008. She was already the dam of a G1 and a G3 winner, and she has gone on to produce Shackleford [classic and multiple G1 winner], Afleeting Lady (G2 winner) and Stephanoatsee [listed winner and G2 placed].

He said: “She was Broodmare of the Year in 2012 and has fillies by Indian Charlie, Bernardini, Frankel and Distorted Humor, which will all be retained as broodmares. If ever $1,550,000 could be a bargain for a broodmare she was.”

Collins has forthright views about the state of the industry, particularly in America, as John Gilmore found out in a recent question-and-answer interview, the first part of which is published here.

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Q: How valuable to your bloodstock career was your time working with John Dunlop? Who else in the business has been a major influence?

A: I doubt I would have been able to gain any sort of foothold in the bloodstock business if it were not for my time with John.

There is no doubt that having worked in a major stable, knowing something about the practicalities of hands-on horse management, has been invaluable to my career. John Dunlop taught me a lot in a short space of time about training and, equally important, about organisation and management of employees and owners. I am very grateful to him for giving me this chance.

Specifically in my career, I had to figure it out as I went along, having never worked in a bloodstock agency other than my own. In this area, the support and help that [business associate] Luke Lillingston and I have provided for one another has been crucial, as has that of clients and friends.

Can you explain what was behind your move to the States, your eventual entry into the bloodstock business and how did this work out during the first few years?

A mixture of romance and practicality. I had gained enough experience to start training, but I realized quite quickly that, in the absence of substantial financial backing, I would have to go far into debt to set up on my own. At the same time, I had an American girlfriend and the opportunity to work for a headhunting firm on Wall Street.

I set off for America with the vague plan that I might be able to make enough money to start training back home. I imagined staying for about two years or so. Thirty four years later I am still here.

The experience on Wall Street was very valuable, though I missed [working in] racing very much, but a chance meeting in 1983 led to a job with one of the limited partnerships that invested in horses in the ‘go go’ years of the mid-1980s.

When the horse market collapsed in the late 80s, the bank that financed the partnership asked me to manage them to try to recoup some of their losses. To do this, I felt I needed to move to Kentucky, which I did in 1989. When the partnerships were dispersed, I was fully on my own and life was very much hand to mouth for several years while I figured the business out.

One of the early ventures was claiming fillies to re-sell in foal or as broodmare prospects.

From 1989 you started Kern Thoroughbreds and also linked up with Luke Lillingston. How did this come about?

Kern Thoroughbreds is my own company formed in 1989 in anticipation of the partnerships being wound up. I met Luke when he came to New York to work for horse breeder and bloodstock agent George Harris during 1987. Alec Scott, a mutual friend who I rode against in point-to-point racing in England, asked me to contact Luke when he arrived in New York.

We immediately became friends and kept in touch when he returned to England and later Mount Coote, his family’s stud in Limerick, Ireland. We set up our own bloodstock businesses and formed a business association, Kern Lillingston. Transatlantic business naturally followed, both of us being firm believers in the global nature of the game.

There is a lot of competition in the bloodstock business and mistakes can prove costly when buying yearlings, proven track performers or breeding stock at all prices. We have all heard the standard quote “we thought he looked the best horse in the sale”, but the best looker or walker is not guaranteed to perform better on the track. You’re spending clients’ money, so what things have come into the equation for your organisation over the years that makes you different and helps you to limit the risk?

In some way, probably the most important attributes of a successful bloodstock agent are honesty, a good eye, attention to detail, understanding what the client wants and, critically, the ability to realistically value bloodstock.

As you rightly pointed out, this is a very risky enterprise and only a tiny proportion of horses are Group/Grade winners, so luck will always play its part. In the end, it is a probability game and one is trying to increase the client’s probability of success.

What changes have you introduced to improve client relationships and increase business to try and keep ahead of the game during your time as a bloodstock agent? Where have you seen the most growth in recent years?

Our reporting to our management clients has to be meticulous, and so they get a weekly update on every horse they own, be it racehorse, broodmare, foal, yearling or stallion.

Communication with and availability to the client are very important. Joe Miller, bloodstock adviser, who has been with us for most of his working life, is a huge asset and [among many other duties] identifies ‘made’ racehorses that may be for sale and is constantly in touch with the trainers and farms.

Freda McCrady is brilliant on administration and takes care of things like client licensing, racing arrangements - and keeping Joe and me in line. The most growth has been in the proven racehorse market, but it has become very competitive and increasingly expensive.

Forty years ago, breeders were mating top stallions to create something, now it seems to be a money game. Stallions were then receiving a maximum of 60 mares a year. Nowadays 100 plus is the norm and double this figure if shuttling to cover both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere breeding seasons.

Do you think breeding numbers in general for leading stallions have gone over the top and could be looked on as being somewhat cruel and greedy?

I don’t know whether shuttling and breeding very large numbers has negative health consequences, but it is something that veterinary researchers should look into, if they haven't already.

Regardless of any health consequences, it is clear that most stallion farms want to get as much money out of their horses as they can, and as quickly as they can..

In an age where virtually everything is for sale to the highest bidder, owners hold out for the biggest price, which, reasonably enough, the buyer wishes to recoup as quickly as possible.

The breeding business is driven by fashion, and so the window is often small as fewer and fewer racehorse owners want to breed and fewer and fewer breeders want to race. Since most breeders are commercial, they breed to the fashionable horses. It is a very unfortunate situation, but is one that is unlikely to change.

Is this policy within the horseracing industry of commercial breeders not willing to take too many risks with mares and only breeding from a select band of of top stallions likely to have a negative effect in the long run, creating too much of the same within the system?

I would be very surprised if it didn’t have a negative effect. Owner-breeders are in the position to experiment and their interests are in making the best racehorse, not the best sale horse. While it may not be the only factor in their decision-making, the ultimate goal of a commercial breeder is to get as much money as possible for their product.

There are many under-used stallions that are capable of producing very good horses, but they don’t get the opportunities they deserve because they are not commercially successful. Given the huge books that the popular stallions are breeding, it seems inevitable that the diversity of the breed will suffer.

For the past few years, prices at the various yearling sales worldwide have been on the increase, with plenty of money being thrown around. However, leading French trainer Jean Claude Rouget rarely pays more than €100,000 for a yearling and bought 2014 French 1,000 Guineas and Prix Diane winner Avenir Certain for €46,000.

And Alec Head said you should never pay more than $200,000-$300,000 for a top yearling. Clearly we are a long way past this figure. Considering one in three will never see the track, do you think average racing returns justifies paying more than $300,000 for any yearling.

Overall racing returns probably don't justify the risk of buying a yearling at any price. But this isn’t the point. Very rich people are generally paying whatever it takes to win. Nowhere in the world, with one possible exception - Japan - is racing horses a business worthy of the name. Ken Lillington has bought at least four Group/Grade 1 winners for under £100,000, but that doesn’t mean that we couldn't have bought more if we had a bigger budget.

The tendency in the States, Australia, Britain and Ireland, but less in France, is to breed racehorses more for speed and ready to run as 2-year-olds, with owners looking for a quick return on their outlay. As a racehorse is not fully grown until 4-years-old, is the current abundance of 2-year-old races in the annual programme in these countries something the industry should be concerned about for the breed in terms of the effects of frequently running horses before they are properly developed?

I would not be overly concerned about 2-year-old races in general. After all, they have been going on for at least two centuries.

However, breeding for speed and precocity is again a feature of the commercial market. In the U.S., outside of major graded stakes, there are very few opportunities for horses to go more than a mile and a sixteenth. There are many reasons for this, but the principal one among them is the unwillingness of owners to spend the money on a staying horse to see whether it is going to be any good.

As there are so many more sprinters than stayers, racing secretaries cannot fill races for the latter. It is far easier to train a horse to go six furlongs than to train to get a horse around two turns.

In Britain, it seems odd that everybody is obsessed with milers when the most historically prestigious races are a mile and a quarter or more. Again, commercialism is largely responsible.

Like most questions in the racing industry, there is no clear answer, other than to say that there should be a programme in most countries giving prize money incentives for winning staying races, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for this to happen.

It is a shame, because for me the greatest races are those between a mile and a quarter and two and a half miles at three and four.

What is your take on the Lasix issue? Do you believe it should be banned for race-day use, given that in Europe Lasix is banned on race-day and bleeding is controlled by normal care, feed preparation and adequate rest between races?

Yes I do believe Lasix should be banned for race-day use as it is a performance enhancer. I fully agree that almost all trainers in the States use it in order for their horses to be competitive.

The paradox of Lasix is that it enables horses with a defect to outrun horses that don't have the defect, and therefore horses that do not have the defect have to have the medication as well in order to keep up.

However, I do not believe that bleeding is necessarily controlled by normal care, feed, preparation and adequate rest between races. Many European trainers work their horses on Lasix if they are bleeders.

It’s like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. While Lasix should be banned on race-day, it is not the case that banning Lasix would necessarily create a level playing field. The alleged widespread use of EPO, blood-doping in general, designer drugs etc, most of which are not detectable by current testing, is a very grave concern.

It is essential that out-of-competition testing becomes universally accepted, otherwise racing’s credibility will continue to decline.

The temptation to cheat is not specifically a U.S. problem. Some trainers and owners in all countries will ‘take an edge’ given the opportunity, so testing enforcement and penalties must be sufficient to deter them. It is unfair to honest horsemen, the betting public and, above all, the horses to do otherwise.

Do you feel that Lasix and other medication has led to the possible weakening of the breed over the years? Jean Claude Rouget said he used to regularly buy yearlings at Keeneland until seven years ago but kept discovering they didn’t progress, while the Head family stood Mr Sidney at their Haras De Quesnay stud in Normandy for a few years, but the stallion created very little interest and went back to the States for stud duties.

I think that Lasix, medication etc. may have weakened the breed in some respects, principally with regard to its susceptibility to bleeding, but I don't think those things contribute to general unsoundness. In my experience horses bred in Europe are just as likely to meet career-ending injuries in the U.S. as horses bred in the United States.

As in so many areas, perception is reality. Plenty of American-bred horses still win big races around the world.

With regard to Rouget’s remarks, although he trains a lot of horses, I doubt that he has had sufficient numbers of American-breds to draw a statistically valid conclusion.

Mr Sidney’s failure to get mares is owing to the fact that European grass horses are simply better than American grass horses, therefore American form is discounted. In the same way, American dirt horses are better than any others, and American dirt form will be valued more than, for example, dirt form in Dubai.

Coming soon:Lincoln Collins talks about the crucial importance of Thoroughbred aftercare in part two of this John Gilmore interview.

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