Audible’s Belmont Stakes absence reflects the big money behind the sport

LOUISVILLE, KY - APRIL 30: Audible trains on the track during morning workouts in preparation for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on April 30, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY - APRIL 30: Audible trains on the track during morning workouts in preparation for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on April 30, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

After finishing third at the Kentucky Derby, Audible was scratched from consideration for the Belmont Stakes. To see the significance, follow the money.

In a vacuum, the story that Audible is being withheld from the Belmont Stakes would not have any great significance. Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Audible, said that the horse was simply not training up to par after dealing with sloppy tracks and fatigue throughout the spring. We give trainers the benefit of the doubt, especially when it comes to a horse’s well-being.

Yet this story grew legs as a curio partially because of the way that Pletcher chose to frame the decision. This was not explicitly tied to any injury suffered by Audible but to a vague “I just don’t feel like he’s where he needs to be” explanation. Instead of the Belmont Stakes, Audible will now turn his attention toward the Haskell or the Jim Dandy this summer.

More than the issue of why Audible was sitting, however, was whether this had anything to do with health at all. Was Audible being held back from the Belmont Stakes to prevent his owners from losing money on an even bigger prize?

The tangled loyalties of Triple Crown horse racing

This question became rational precisely because Audible is owned by the same group that owns Justify. In the world of horse racing, ownership consortiums are regularly employed to split the liability of thoroughbred ownership.

That is the case with many horses that race in the Triple Crown events. Justify and Audible are both owned by a group that includes China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm.

After Justify won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, the horse became increasingly valuable to this quartet of stakeholders. The ownership group stands to earn additional millions in stud fees by shoring up the Triple Crown with Justify.

Was Pletcher given the red light by the ownership group? And, ultimately, does it matter at all? In any other field of industry, it would make sound sense for an ownership group to focus its investment. In sports, though, fans have the expectation that the best athletes will compete in a given event. When sports and business collide, though, business often wins.

Why does it matter for future Triple Crown bids?

With ownership groups becoming more prevalent, we will likely see more instances where conflicts of interest arise. In those cases, fans lose out on seeing the best possible competition. The sport also loses the opportunity to cultivate new fans when its legitimacy comes into question.

Ultimately, though, Justify will have to get through a strong field of competitors to finish the final leg of the Triple Crown. The 12 furlongs of the Belmont Stakes are a grueling test for any three-year-old tackling the distance. It would be dangerous to write off the result in either way.

That will not entirely erase the skepticism that could accompany a Triple Crown finish. But it does reveal a key way in which horse racing is unlike any other sport. Human proxies make the decisions for the athletes. The decision-making process is contingent on the interests of human stakeholders. In such a situation, the interests of the athlete and the casual fan are sidelined in favor of business interests.

Next: Triple Crown 2018: Schedule for Derby, Preakness, Belmont

Honestly, though, this skepticism rings true about every sport. The only difference is that horse racing allows it to exist so transparently in the world due to the nature of its organization. Enjoy the competition for what it is and what it is not.

For more from the Triple Crown, wrapping up with the Belmont Stakes, make sure to follow FanSided and stay tuned to our horse racing hub for all the latest news and results.