Problems in Thoroughbreds 1

Quarter Horses don’t face most of the problems in Thoroughbred breeding.

Just as pedigree dog breeding takes major cues from purebred horse breeding, we can see institutional problems in thoroughbreds that directly mirror the issues we see in the dog fancy.

Lack of Improvement

[In 1994] Virginia Rapids won the seven-furlong in 1:22.26. Eightyeight years earlier…Roseben covered seven furlongs in 1:22. One hundred and five years later, the world record for seven furlongs…was just 2 3/5 seconds faster, 1:19 2/5.

[In] 1895 Domino [ran] 1:09 for six furlongs. The world record 116 years later is 2 2/5 seconds faster, G Malleah’s 1:06 3/5 set… in 1995.

[In] 1918, Roamed covered one mile in 1:34 4/5. Dr. Fager’s record 50 years later was only 2 3/5 seconds faster.

Other current world records at the most common distances thoroughbreds race on dirt have stood for as long as three decades. Chinook Pass’s five-furlong mark of :55 1/5 at Longacres in Washington was set in 1982, 13 years before Plenty Zloty went five-and-a-half furlongs in 1:01 at Turf Paradise in Arizona.

Hoedown’s Day’s mile-and-a-sixteenth record in 1:38 2/5 at Bay Meadows came in 1983. Simply Majestic recorded the mile-and-an-eighth mark in California in 1:45 at Golden Gate in 1988. Spectacular Bid’s 1:57 4/5 victory at Santa Anita in 1980 remains the fastest mile-and-a-quarter, while Secretariat’s 1973 mile-and-a-half world record of 2:24 in his 31-length Belmont Stakes blowout to complete the Triple Crown still stands.

In fact, no other Belmont Stakes winner before or after has come within two seconds – the equivalent of 10 lengths – of Secretariat’s performance that historic afternoon.

The oft stated goal of selective breeding is to “improve the breed,” but we find very little evidence of improvement in purebred horses and dogs.  The governing body of thoroughbred racing and the keepers of the American Studbook, the Jockey Club, list as their official motto: “Dedicated to the Improvement of Thoroughbred Breeding and Racing since 1894.”  The most obvious metric of such improvement would be to examine record race times which we would expect to see steadily improving each generation along with advancements in technology, training, nutrition, vet care and the fruits of wise breeding decisions.  We don’t readily see the fruits of such improvement in Thoroughbreds, although records in Standardbred and Quarter Horse racing fall regularly.

The American Quarter Horse is a relatively new breed with their stud book established in 1940 and perpetually open to new blood through a performance standard appendix registry.  The AQHA lists world record times for races at 12 distances.  Ten of those 12 records have been broken in the last 4 years.

The origins of the Standardbreds date back to the last decades of the 1700s, and by 1880 they earned their name due to the 2:30 time standard to trot a mile to be entered into the stud book.  Today these horses regularly trot the mile in only 1:50 and steady progress toward even faster times happens regularly.

Standardbreds are getting faster. Thoroughbreds aren’t. What that means is open to debate, but the facts are startling.

In the past 40 years, Standardbreds have closed the equivalent of 40 lengths on Thoroughbreds. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Thoroughbreds aren’t racing that much faster than they did 100 years ago.

Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds share their ancestry. All Standardbreds trace their pedigrees to the imported English stallion Messenger, who was brought to America in 1788.

Standardbreds race exclusively on dirt, almost always at one mile.

Why aren’t Thoroughbreds getting faster?

“It’s hard to explain,” Jolley said. “Human beings, without selective breeding, have improved their performance.” Thoroughbreds haven’t. “We’re not breeding them any better.”

Conformation Hurts Performance

While you wouldn’t think that aesthetics would play much of a role in horse racing where the most obvious goal would be to create an increasingly faster horse, the changing culture of Thoroughbreds has allowed appearance and the promise of pedigree to trump performance:

Through the first 60 years of the 20th century, most of the major stallions and many of the best mares were owned and controlled by some of the oldest families and richest sporting patrons in America, by the Whitneys and Woodwards, the Bradleys and Wideners, the Klebergs and Mellons. They bred horses to race them, not to sell them, and they did so in order to compete against one other — to beat their fellow members of The Jockey Club, to see who had the fastest horse. A cardinal article of their faith was to “improve the breed,” which meant to breed a horse with great speed, stamina and soundness. In fact, on the C.V. Whitney farm in Lexington, a foal born with a crooked leg was usually taken into the woods and shot, lest he or she pollute the Whitney bloodlines with this inherent deformity.

By the middle of the last century, this tight-knit racing world began to change. As these families died out and their blue-chip breeding stock was sold at dispersal auctions, the best stallions and mares fell into the hands of commercial breeders, whose central motivation was to breed, not so much a sound or durable horse, but rather an attractive horse, a “cosmetic horse,” who showed well, who had a pedigree filled with fashionable names, preferably sire lines that glowed with speed, and who thus would draw the biggest price at the fanciest yearlings sales. Because they needed to look like show horses, these hothouse yearlings were often raised in small pens and not allowed to run free, or to kick, bite and roughhouse with their peers.

So, not only did the industry begin to breed horses less sound, in general, but also horses that were raised more softly, with kid gloves.

Impatience Drives Injury

Another common element between the canine fancy and the Thoroughbred world is the shift in culture toward exploiting youth and failing to allow animals to mature before evaluating, training, and competing with them.  In Conformation mere infants can earn championships for what is supposed to be their mature structure, driving selection for dogs that have excessive puppy coat and which mature too quickly.  Sport handlers train too hard, too soon, and destroy joints and hips before the animals are sound and able to handle the stress.

I think there’s probably a much stronger tendency to have two year old racing nowadays than there used to be … and the lure of prize money.  There’s a great incentive to race their horses too young too immature.  In the old days, you bought your yearlings, you broke them in, you castrated them, you turned them out.  You didn’t think about them until late two year old and mostly three-year-olds.  The big money came with three-year-old racing.  The current owners want two-year-old racing and I think it’s a pity.  I think it’s a pity because it certainly does cause the breakdown of a lot of two-year-olds.

– Dr. Percy Sykes, Racing Vet.  Buckingham, Jeffcott (1990)

The issue isn’t particularly American, we see the same issues affecting young Thoroughbreds in Australia:

As a result, most two-year-olds will sustain injuries in their first year of racing and many of them will not race in the subsequent year. In Australia, a study of two and three-year-old thoroughbred racehorses reported that 85 per cent suffered from at least one episode of illness or injury. (1)

The benefit of racing two-year-olds is simply economic. It means that owners can hopefully see a return on their investment twelve months earlier, therefore making it cheaper to prepare a horse for its first race. To further encourage investment in racehorse ownership, races for two-year-olds offer some of the highest prize money. The Magic Millions Classic held in Queensland, Australia boasts a prize purse of $2,000,000.

Unfortunately, the prize money for two year old racing, and the already high stud value placed on winners of feature races, continues to climb along with the rate of wastage due to breakdown. One Australian study of two-year-old thoroughbreds indicated that 40 per cent of horses were unsound at the end of the season. (2)

A survey of veterinarians and trainers estimated that shin soreness or dorsal metacarpal disease (DMD) affected 80 per cent of two-year-olds in Australia. (3)

Despite the drive to train and race horses younger and younger, they still are not reaching their potential until they mature physically.  Of the eighteen distances world records are recorded for Thoroughbreds, 17 are held by horses four years old or greater.  There are 26 Thoroughbreds that appear on the North American Dirt Records tally of fastest distances from 2 furlongs up to 2 miles, and only 4 of them are 3 or younger and two of those share the record with horses that are years older.  The horses with the fastest times at both the shortest and longest distances were 7 years old when the set the records.   So not only are they sacrificing the health of the horses, they’re also sacrificing the quality of the sport by shifting the culture toward racing juveniles.

“The philosophy of training Thoroughbreds has changed considerably. You can’t train them as hard as you used to. They also say you should’t run them as often. That makes no sense to me. Every other athlete competes more often.”

It’s as absurd as the NFL taking over high school football because there’s more money to be had there.  After you kill a few freshman with professional caliber workouts, you back off the standards and blow through a lot more kids just to keep the game going.  It’s a very harsh form of performance culling where only a few kids in a hundred even survive to play college or the pros, and even fewer make it to adulthood.  And never mind that the quality of the games nose-dives either, give it a generation and no one will remember what they’re missing.

The vast majority of dog breeds find themselves in the same position as the Thoroughbred: no discernible improvement in recent memory, sacrificed health and performance to appearance standards, and an unhealthy focus on juveniles.

In the next Thoroughbreds post I’ll discuss the closed gene pool, the disposable culture, and the declining interest in the sport, factors which also affect the canine fancy.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.