Friday, September 14, 2007

Dick Francis Wannabe

I have been trying to help a friend of mine with an honest to goodness racehorse mystery. It's been equally interesting and frustrating, and while I thought I already knew a fair bit about the racing industry, I've learned yet more in these past few weeks.

I've written about my friend, Caitlin, before (steward of the beloved Kakki in her final years). She operates a horse farm in Southern Oregon, which was a successful breeding operation for several years and currently focuses mainly on buying, training, and re-selling horses. She is the most talented rider/trainer I know, and the few summers I spent as her working student taught me almost as much about myself as about horses.

Anyhow, back to the mystery. Last month, Caitlin purchased a young Thoroughbred gelding. The previous owner had bought him at an auction and didn't know much about him, other than the fact that he'd been born in California, wasn't very good at the track, and raced under a name that may or may not have been "Magic Thing", but was something similar to that and definitely spelled strangely (e.g. Magik Thang). Side note: horses in general, and racehorses in particular, are often given some very strange names. At any rate, Caitlin only needed to see this horse move to know she had found something special. She told me that he "is SO beautiful and and calm and moves like no Thoroughbred I've EVER seen, floats along at this slow jog trot with his feet stepping four inches above what you think is the ground, it's wild."

So we've got a beautiful, talented, young horse with a temperament of gold. Caitlin and her family have nicknamed him Royal. His future as a performance horse is bound to be nothing short of shining. Caitlin should be able to sell him for a pretty good price, but there's one small hitch. She still doesn't know who he is, or what his bloodlines are, and most prospective buyers will be keenly interested in such details. And this is where I enter the story.

All racehorses, be they Thoroughbred, Standardbred, Quarter Horse, Arabian, Appaloosa, what have you, are marked with an identifying brand or tattoo. A lip tattoo is the most typical, but neck freeze brands are also used. Every horse registered with the Jockey Club is kept in a huge database. If you have an unknown horse, but its tattoo or brand is clearly legible, the Jockey Club can easily trace the horse and provide copies of its pedigree and race record.

If only it were that easy.

Royal's lip brand is not clearly legible.

The format for a Thoroughbred's tattoo is a letter (designating year of birth) followed by five numbers. Royal's letter is basically invisible, but his teeth indicate he's probably between 4 and 5 years old, which would make him most likely an F or a G horse (born in 2002 or 2003). The rest of the numbers seem like they'd be straightforward enough - 2, 2, something, 2, 1 - except that every possible combination Caitlin called in to the Jockey Club came back as invalid. Either there was no horse registered with that tattoo number, or the horse registered didn't match Royal's description. So Caitlin sent me a bunch of tattoo photos, hoping I could use my mad CSI skillz to enhance them and magically reveal the missing letter and number.

Alas, I only managed to raise more questions. Is that second-to-last number a 2, or could it be an 8 instead? (A week later, we've determined it's definitely a 2. Probably.) The "invisible letter" looks kind of like an H, but that would make Royal younger than his teeth say he is. Aaaand we're still coming up with zilch from the Jockey Club. So. Back to square one. Mystery horse still mysterious. Whatever will we do now?

Update: Something that I forgot to mention before, that has only served to add to the frustration of this whole thing, is that when you call in a potential tattoo number to the Jockey Club, they only let you try two numbers a day. If you catch them in a good mood, they might let you get away with four, and when I called, I cajoled the lady into letting me try three. So checking a series of possible tattoo configurations (G22021, G22081, G22321, G22381, H22021, etc.) takes days at the minimum. Come on, Jockey Club! Why can't you be more like the Standardbred association, which has a beautiful little search engine on their website? (Caitlin thought Royal might be a Standardbred, not least because of his amazing trot, but all the potential matches we came up with on the Standardbred website were for freeze brands, not lip tattoos.)


Anonymous said...

The first number looks like a 4 to me...

Lord Chimmy said...

Have you tried any alternative light sources? I know absolutely NOTHING about this sort of thing, but I used to use this UV light back in the day for some deciphering games.

Also, I've heard (and I don't know if it is true) that ink in the skin can be identified with MRI. A permanent magnet MRI (i.e., open MRI) might be feasible for something as big as a horse. If, of course, there's any truth to tattoo ink being able to be read by an MRI.

susan said...

anonymous - Yeah, I thought so too, but the style of 4s they use for lip tattoos are the boxy kind, not slanty and connected up at the top.

Chimmy - Basically out of luck as far as MRI goes, but UV might work if Caitlin can track down a blacklight or something. We also thought about IR (heat lamp is a good source), but that'd probably only be useful if coupled with photography, and you need special film/filters for that.

Amy said...

Why is there such a huge space between the second and third numbers? Could it be a 0?
(I posted as anonymous last time...didn't mean to) :)

Momentary Academic said...

Is there a possibility that he is not an American horse? Or am I being naive?

susan said...

Amy - Yeah, that big gap between the second and third numbers is unusual. We tried all kinds of possibilities for that third number, including 0, and they all came up invalid.

MA - It's possible, but veeeeery unlikely. If he were an imported horse, he would have an asterisk at the front of the tattoo, instead of a letter. Plus, the previous owner was pretty certain he was born and bred in California.

Lord Chimmy said...

Maybe that isn't a gap. Having seen tattooed research animals I know that tattooing can be irregular. I see:

4-2-GAP-9-2-1. Maybe the gap is justa gap?

Anonymous said...

Try to take the horse in a dark barn/garage and have a black light to portray the tattoo for you. It will take a few people and a dark, dark room. Try the blacklight trick, it works!!
Good luck on the mystery, so much fun!!
(I have 6 mysteries in my yard)