The Scottish soccer manager Bill Shankly famously rebuked people who treated his sport as a matter of life and death. “I can assure you it is much, much more important than that,” he said.
In our own walk of sporting life, perhaps nobody is better qualified to introduce due perspective than Dr. David Richardson. Through a long and distinguished medical career, crowned by chairmanship of the American College of Surgeons, the University of Louisville professor has almost daily been reminded how relatively trivial are the challenges of the other environment that has always engaged his intellect. And yet he by no means disparages the right of Thoroughbreds to consume our attention and dreams.
“I did big surgery,” he says. “The first liver transplants in Kentucky, for example. I ran a trauma program for years. Major surgery is extraordinarily high stakes, high risk, high reward–and a lot of pressure. But while I’ve never had to do horses for business, I’m very sympathetic with people who do. If you’ve paid a big stud fee, or bought a high-priced mare, and are counting on that to make your nut for the year, I would think that’s a very intense thing. Great when it works, terrible when it doesn’t. It’s not like life and death. But it’s certainly a lot of pressure.”
That said, somehow you know that had he instead made the Turf his profession–and there must be hundreds of people who owe their lives to the fact that he did not–then he would have proved no less adept, under that pressure, than with a scalpel in his hand. How many bloodstock professionals, after all, could headline a curriculum vitae as impressively as can this “amateur” prospector?
For as a young medic Richardson knew Woody Stephens as “Uncle” (albeit the trainer was actually his father’s cousin) and did a good deal of scouting on his behalf. In fairness, Henryk de Kwiatkowski wanted a Northern Dancer yearling, and at Saratoga in 1978 there was only one in the sale. Richardson had been to see Northern Dancer in Maryland and was struck by this colt’s resemblance to his sire, but demurred when Stephens–having seen the going rate at Keeneland that July–suggested they’d need a couple of million for him.
“He had splints a child could see,” he recalls. “You’d have to be pretty game to pay a lot of money for a horse like that. So they opened the bidding by asking for $1 million, $2 million, you know how they do. And then they backed down and said: ‘Okay we’ll do it the hard way: $100,000.’ And Henryk bid two, and somebody bid three, and Henryk bid and they put him in at four. And he waved: ‘No, no: 310!’ The guy looked at him and laughed and said: ‘Okay, we’ll do it that way if you want.’ And nobody else ever bid.”
One Sunday the following year Stephens rang Richardson and asked whether he could get a bet down. “This horse we bought last year, the Northern Dancer colt?” Stephens said. “This is the best 2-year-old I’ve had since Never Bend.”
“Okay, so what’s his name?”
“What’s that town they started the war over? In Poland.”
“Yeah, that’s it! Danzig.”
Richardson asked what he had done with the horse. Stephens liked to blitz a youngster one time, in :46 or so.
“Nothing,” replied Stephens. “Halves in :48. But I’m just telling you. I know this is a great horse.”
And he had a little angle to work the odds. He would put up a kid rider, Joe Brocklebank.
“If he falls off, I’ll shoot him,” laughed Stephens. “But if he just stays on, we’ll win. We’re going to the bank with Brocklebank!”
Brocklebank is nowadays a bloodstock agent and when Richardson sees him at the sales he always exclaims that same phrase. Because it was true: Richardson acquired a share in Danzig, one that would redeem many a misadventure with other horses.
Not that Danzig was a flash in the pan. When James Mills cashed in Devil’s Bag, he asked Richardson to help him find a colt with the proceeds. Of a shortlist of four yearlings, one turned out to be Gone West; another, Alysheba.
“Some people knocked Gone West because he toed out pretty good on the right fore,” Richardson remembers. “But I loved the horse, and Woody loved him, so we bought him for $1.9 million for Mr. Mills. Then we bid a little on Alysheba, too, because we had enough money for two. But Woody didn’t like the broodmare sire, Lt. Stevens, so he stopped. Not a bad shortlist, though!”
So the scholarly young man from rural Eastern Kentucky proved able to parlay his brains into a pastime that had fascinated him since boyhood, when he would leave friends at the Coney Island amusement park in Cincinnati to bluff his way, underage, into the adjacent River Downs racetrack. He bought his first Thoroughbred in 1975, at 30; and had his first stakes winner in 1978. “I enjoy all aspects of it,” he says with a shrug. “I like to bet; I like to breed horses; I love to race horses. Even in claiming races I still get a kick out of winning.”
So while he has never relied on the Turf for his living, nor has he ever been a mere dilettante. And while he renounces any claim to knowing more than the next guy, he is prepared to credit himself for the hard yards. “That’s the one thing I will say,” he concedes. “I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours working things out. I’ve looked at thousands of yearlings. I’ve looked at broodmares, November and January, snow knee-deep or better, freezing my butt off. So to me that’s part of paying your dues, and trying to become better versed, and staying up with the game. Because if you really do that carefully, you see how sometimes horses that win races aren’t the prettiest things, or the best conformed.”
Even for so cerebral a man, the grail we all seek in a horse can be no more articulated than learned from a manual. One of his racing partners, past president of the national Hereford cattle breeders’ association, persuaded Richardson to buy a couple of bulls, a few cows.
“And it’s interesting: when he sees a group of 10, 15 yearlings or weanlings, he’ll pick out the best one or two,” Richardson says. “And when I’ve gone to his place and he’s put me in a field of bull calves and said: ‘Pick out some by such-and-such [a bull sire].’ And it’s got that I’m pretty good at doing that.
“But a lot of it is just plain luck. I laugh when you hear an agent buying a horse because ‘it ticks all the boxes.’ Every year at Saratoga there are maiden claiming fields with one horse that cost a million bucks, another that cost $750,000, and then the winner cost $22,000, and the second $9,000. And I wonder if they ticked all the boxes, too! But that’s what makes it fun.”
Especially since he has never been able to spend in his own cause the way he could for Mills or de Kwiatkowski. As he says, anybody can buy a horse for a million. What is really rewarding, then, is to turn up a runner like Northern Emerald, the Green Dancer filly he found for $55,000 who won the GI Flower Bowl S.
“There are so many intangibles,” Richardson stresses. “People do heart scans. But if you think about cardiac physiology, how complex it is… They talk about heart size but the real question is how does it squeeze? What’s called the ejection fraction. How fast can it pump blood? How efficiently, in terms of oxygen use? So it’s not just heart, but lungs. So people try to assess that, too, on a treadmill. But that’s still not like running a race at distance. But even if you could get the cardiovascular bit right, then how about the legs? And the mind? You can gauge some of those things, sometimes–but it’s very hard to say how the whole package will stand up to raceday pressures.”
Never mind all the environmental variables to be thrown into the equation: the right race coming up, the pace falling right. Richardson accepts that data can be validly measured across the horse population, but deplores the credulity that allows faux science to pronounce definitively on an individual. You’re far better off, he feels, just heeding those instincts you develop through experience.
Take Mrs. Revere, the Grade I-placed, 12-time winner he raced in the 1980s with Dr. Hiram Polk, honoured by a Grade II turf stake at Churchill in November. As a yearling she was entered for the old September Sale–in the days when the big money at Keeneland was paid in July–and one Sunday they went out to Hermitage Farm to see how she was doing.
“We just watched her for the best part of an hour,” Richardson recalls. “Probably 20 fillies round a feed tub. And she’s probably the smallest one there. But when she walked up, the others got out of the way. Round the water trough, the same thing. And then we watched her run across the field. No question, despite her size, she was the alpha female. So we just said: ‘Let’s take her out of the sale. We probably won’t get a lot for her anyway.'”
Sadly, Mrs. Revere only managed one foal before succumbing to a lymphoma. But that foal was Maria Balastiere (Majestic Light)–so named for Paul Revere’s daughter, who married the first American consul to Singapore–and she won the GIII Regret S. at Churchill.
“When Mrs. Revere died we were all set to breed her to Danzig,” says Richardson. “It just breaks your heart. But Maria had 10 winners from 11 foals, and I still have the sixth generation of that family now. Those are the kind of things that, to me, make it really fun.”
Richardson keeps around 15 mares, nowadays including several in Louisiana. After his young stock is broken, some will stay down there–not just to profit from breeders’ awards, but to enhance their owner’s enjoyment of Cajun people, culture and cuisine. But those of adequate promise will be given a chance with Richardson’s cherished old friend Bill Mott.
“The thing about Bill is that he genuinely cares about the horse,” Richardson explains. “He doesn’t push them. He may never win the [Kentucky] Derby, but he’s certainly a good enough horseman. The horse that was second in the Hopeful [Mucho (Blame)], I can see him being a Classic type this year. Bill thinks like a horse. His father was a vet. He grew up on a ranch. Had his first winner when he was 15. He puts the horse first, he’s patient, he gets the most out of what he has. And of course I’ve known him 30-plus years now, it’s always fun if you have one good enough to be with him.”
Richardson notes how Stephens, similarly, was breaking horses when as young as 12. “He had no education to speak of, he could read, but not particularly well, but he was very quick, very clever, very bright,” he says. “He was such an interesting man. Later on I took care of him as a patient and we became very close.”
Though now retired from clinical surgery, Richardson retains many senior roles at the university hospital. And it is astonishing, sitting in the lobby to the sales pavilion at Keeneland, to see every third or fourth person stop and hail him, their faces suddenly breaking into a smile. “Hey Doc!” Time and again, you see not just respect but affection. Often he inquires after the health of some relative in whose case he has taken a benign interest. Sometimes, inevitably, to no avail. One gentleman shakes his head. “He passed on Sunday. But thank you for everything you did.”
Is that something you can ever get used to? Even after all these years?
“If you do, then you’re in trouble,” Richardson replies. “I always tell the students in residence that a little bit of you will die with every patient you lose. You’ve got to be concerned but not consumed. But if you can help someone get through a hard situation, to me that’s what life’s about. This was a case of a bad cancer. But I consider it a blessing in my life that I was able to get to know this man a bit.
“If you think about it, what an honour it is that people let you do these things to them. Stop their heart [during open heart surgery], hope you can get it going again. I think the hardest thing, especially for young people, is to be confident without being cocky. Boy, you get arrogant, that’s the kiss of death. But you got to be confident. You’re gonna take someone’s liver out, you sure better think you know how to sew one back in.”
Possibly this is not the place to expand on Richardson’s insights into the moral and social challenges facing his profession in the 21st Century. But some are too important, in our walk of life no less than any other, to be ignored. As people live longer, for instance, will society authorize expensive treatments to improve the comfort of a centenarian with dementia? A few years ago Richardson himself faced a health crisis and–after consulting his daughter and brother, themselves also physicians–resolved not to accept dialysis if his kidneys failed. Luck was on his side: he was able to recover and tend his wife in her own last days; and happily, moreover, has since been blessed to find love again.
“All these judgements are very difficult,” he says of the daily dilemmas of his calling. “I think if you’re a compassionate person it never gets easy. And if it does, then I worry about you. But it’s not just a cliche: if you do something out of love, then you never do the wrong thing. Because nobody can see the future. So nobody can ever really know for sure the right thing to do. You never know how long somebody’s going to live, what their quality of life is going to be, how an operation’s going to go. But so long as you’re trying to do it right, and you’re thinking about the patient and their family, then you don’t make a mistake. Think about how many times in our lives we are backed into doing what we’re sure is the wrong thing, and then it has worked out fine–better even than it would have been otherwise.”
And perhaps that is where Richardson’s great affinity with the Turf comes in. We have all experienced exactly those kind of inadvertent twists of fortune, for better or worse, when trying to piece together the Thoroughbred puzzle.
“It’s a tough business, but it’s a great sport,” Richardson said. “Horses are such wonderful creatures. I take a lot of people out to the track–we do it every year with the surgical residents–and the joy people have when they experience racing, even as novices, is amazing to see. So I hope we never lose that.”
As he told his fiancee, taking her racing for the first time: “This’ll be a test…I’m pretty much all-in on this stuff!”
And while he accepts that there are challenges, sometimes he feels we are too down on our own sport. “The concussion problem in NFL isn’t going to go away,” he says. “Better helmets aren’t going to fix that, the way the brain rattles around inside the skull. So that’s going to be a huge problem. Baseball’s too long, too boring. No matter what sport, you go through ebbs and flows and cycles. And I think sometimes we get a little too pessimistic. Sure there are things we need to work on. Aftercare’s a huge issue. The value of that real estate, at Santa Anita and Gulfstream. Other forms of gaming. But you go to the great tracks, on the great days, there are still very few things that beat what we do.”