Are Big Purses Fair In Horse Racing?

The era of the mega race in horse racing began with the creation of events like the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup. More recently the Pegasus World Cup has joined the ranks of races that offer $10 million or more in purse money. A horse can win a single one of these events and immediately join the likes of Secretariat and other famous horses atop the list of all-time earnings. Some claim that big purses in horse racing are not fair, and that they distort the perception of an animal’s true talent.


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The Story of Arrogate

In 2016 the horse racing world saw a potential star emerge in the form of Arrogate. This horse trained by Bob Baffert showed genuine promise and ability by winning several notable races in 2016 and racking up over $4 million dollars in earnings. Some were quick to point out, however, that the wins of Arrogate in 2016 did not come in any of the Triple Crown events. There was a perception that perhaps the horse was doing well because of Baffert’s ability to spot him well.

In 2017, Arrogate began an ascension to the very top of the thoroughbred world that defies any racing logic. By the end of the year he had become the all-time leader in money earnings with a total of $17,422,600. Compare this with Secretariat who only earned just over $1 million in his career and is considered by many to be the best horse that ever ran. Secretariat doesn’t even crack the top 100 on lifetime earnings.

As good as Arrogate was in 2016-17, it would be hard to put his talent level in the same category as a Secretariat. Or an American Pharoah or Justify, the two most recent winners of the Triple Crown. Yet some have bestowed that level of greatness on him simply because of his lifetime earnings. Here’s the truth. The majority of Arrogate’s earnings came from wins in just two races, the Dubai World Cup and the Pegasus World Cup. He finished his 2017 campaign by being soundly defeated in the San Diego Handicap, the TVG Pacific Classic, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in which he could only muster a disappointing fifth.

What does Arrogate teach us about comparing horses according to their lifetime earnings? The great Cigar earned much less than Arrogate in his career, but he won 16 races in a row at the highest levels of competition. Which horse is better? Big purses in horse racing are not necessarily fair to the champions of the past, and they are a flawed way to measure the talent level of a horse.

Mega Races Have Changed the Game of Horse Racing

It seems as though the creators of races like the Dubai World Cup and the Pegasus World Cup have a determination to outdo one another in terms of purse money. When the Pegasus was first announced, its creators specifically said they had an established goal to be the richest race in the world, an honor that belonged to Dubai for many years. They achieved that goal by making their race worth $12 million.

Did the inclusion of such a large purse change anything as far as the talent of the first Pegasus field was concerned? If we use the example of Arrogate, the winner of that race, as an example then the answer is no. The fact is that there have been many horses that were faster and statistically more stellar than Arrogate. Some of those horses include:

Is it right to put Arrogate in a class above these runners because he won two races with huge purses? Most would say no.

At the same time it is pointless to argue the matter. Horse racing has always been a game of money. It is driven by money, both for the participants and the bettors. No one can fault a race track for creating a mega stakes race. Doing so is probably good for the sport on many levels. But handicappers should always remember that lifetime earnings are a poor way to go about judging talent.

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