Thoroughbreds hit the evolutionary wall


Today’s Kentucky Derby was a slow one. While not the slowest Derby,  Animal Kingdom’s 2:02.04 time was relatively plodding, considering the track was fast, the temperature 70 degrees, and the weather perfect.

While the Derby is always a traffic jam, the shallowness of the field was evident. One horse was pulled up, with the possibility of a hurt foreleg, but he didn’t break down.

The favorite, Nick Zito’s Dialed In, was only that because there was virtually nothing else of merit in the race.

 Compare this with the quality of the field in Secretariat’s blistering 1:59 2/5ths win of 1973 Derby. There was a ton of talent in that field, to include the gallant Sham, who lost by a head to the Big Horse in that race; the mighty Forego, with legs of iron; even the show horse, Our Native, who was bumped and still made up track. Had there been no Secretariat, Sham would have been the Triple Crown winner. As it was I don’t know if he ever raced again. Not through breakdowns, but by a broken heart.
What has happened? 

Is it heightened expectation? We all want another Secretariat. We all want to re-live that experience, we want another flying red horse, coming from behind in that huge looping rush, that blinding speed, the pure exuberance of talent, will, drive and the love to run.

But it hasn’t happened. And it probably won’t happen again, not without a fundamental change in the breeding paradigm. 

You would think that, with the explosion in our understanding of genetics, epigenetics, nutrition, track surfaces, biomechanics, better training methods that the TB would be getting faster than ever. 

They aren’t doing so. 


The Thoroughbred racehorse has hit the evolutionary wall. 

Secretariat was one, a mutation in that he had a heart half again as big as the normal horse, and two, was the epitome of Thoroughbred breeding. The class of 1973 was the last and the best. Certainly we have had two other horses, Seattle Slew (77) and Affirmed (76) win the Triple Crown since then, but it wasn’t with the finality that Secretariat achieved it. Slew and the lazy Affirmed were the best horses of their year.  Their opponents (and Alydar, I know you tried your best.) weren’t their equals.  Never again will we see a horse of Secretariat’s constitution, his build, his talent. 

Even before Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, the breed was experiencing degradation in performance and talent. The reasons are many. 

The TB reached his peak in the 1950s, when horses like Citation, Bold Ruler, and other equine superstars made their mark.  The Kentucky bluebloods who bred them were rich families with roots stretching to post-Civil War days. They were horsemen first and business men second. Breeding a winning horse was more culture than science. They understood horses. They may not have understood genetics, but they knew a winning combination took insight, sympathy, and little bit of witchcraft, not just putting one stallion to one mare. It was a genteel era, a time when the momentous decision to breed Somethingroyal to Bold Ruler was decided by a handshake and a coin toss. 

Now they are gone. Their lovely farms are being sold and carved into subdivisions. They were replaced by a modern generation of people who knew little about horses but did know that they can make a bunch of money for their owners.  The new style of Thoroughbred horse breeder rejected the old horse culture. They were business men. Breeding decisions were made based on who ran the race fastest, and how much could the stallion get for a stud fee. They didn’t spend the time looking at a horse, considering what would nick with him. They used statistics rather than insight to make the breeding decisions. They never learned that breeding is biology-not economics.
Certainly they took the time and made the effort to bring in the best minds in equine production, but ultimately, they were in it for the money. Mind you, it takes a shitpot full of it if you’re in racehorses, but the benefits outweighed the risks, if you produced one-just one! good one. 

Frederico Tesio, that master of Thoroughbred breeding, must be rolling in his grave. Being Italian, he was more interested in the romantic side of breeding TBs, rather than just winning races. Winning horses, he was convinced, were conceived via a love match, not just a whambamthankyouma’am five minutes in a breeding shed. But he also did his homework, and looked at the whole horse, not just the stopwatch. He was more matchmaker than horse breeder, and it resulted in horses like Ribot. 

But, when Northern Dancer hit the breeding industry, all the pondering, the guess-work, all the poring over pedigrees and looking at the real horse, went out the window. Here, finally, was their superstar. Breed to the Dancer and you’re certain to win. 

Modern American TB breeders hung their entire industry on one characteristic: speed. The fastest horse theoretically wins the race. However, anyone who can do statistics will tell you that winning the Derby isn’t just decided by speed.  The favorite seldom wins. This so-called Derby jinx isn’t a jinx at all. The horse that wins usually does so by luck. How can a loser like Mine That Bird win?  Well, he had one hell of a good jockey in Calvin Borel, who can weave a horse through a traffic jam like a thread through the eye of a needle. Dogs like Lil E.T. should never have been allowed on the track, never mind in the Derby. But…money talks, bullshit walks. 

In the process of breeding faster horses the breeders make the same dumb mistake that every other professional animal breeder makes, be it horses, dogs, or chickens. It’s basic biology. When you breed-or select-for one specific characteristic, the rest of the package suffers.

Greyhounds were bred, originally, to hunt rabbits. They are desperately fast. They have been bred to do one thing: chase the mechanical rabbit running ahead of them. In the process of whittling down the seconds, the racing dog breeders created an extremely fast dog, but they lost robustness in the process. Greyhound legs are slim as twigs. Their skin is so thin that a bump that your shelter mutt wouldn’t even remember will put your greyhound at the vet clinic needing five hundred bucks worth of stitches. 

28 years after Secretariat, you would think that the Thoroughbred should only be getting faster. Instead, they are losing ground. They can’t go any further in terms of bettering performance. They have become giant greyhounds. The Thoroughbred has hit the breeding wall. The horses are too light boned, too subject to respiratory bleeding, too ready to swallow their own tongues, too small footed. There is no more excess anything to be bred down. The horse is as light weight and fast as he can be and still be expected to run 45 mph carrying 125 pounds. The jockey’s equipment has  lost weight, and the requirement for the jockey’s weight hasn’t changed. Yet the horses may be experiencing trouble in carrying a tiny mite of a man balancing on his weightless saddle.

They can’t be whittled down anymore. There is nothing more to lessen. They have hit the evolutionary wall, the dead-end. There is no further improvement possible. 

The cost of this pursuit for more speed is depressing. The racehorse breaks down with alarming regularity, often with spectacularly horrible and public results. They are brought to the track as long yearlings. They are trained to know four things: break from the gate, run fast, change leads, turn left. They’re not given a rest for the winter, never allowed to gallop on their own, or roll in a pasture, or stand side by side with another horse, sparring or grooming. Their whole life is spent either in their stall at the track, or on the track itself. Many have no concept of what a fence is. If they survive the track, most must be retrained or ‘let down’, introduced to the world beyond the shed row and the groomed track. 

Some of the experts claim that the rich folk in other horse racing countries are skimming off the cream of the American foal crop. Bill Oppenheim, a pedigree expert, told The Washington Post, quote, “You can’t replace class. It has been leaving America and spreading around the world. American Thoroughbreds appear to be getting worse, yet in the rest of the world they are getting better.” 

Maybe so, but I don’t believe it is merely a case of the Euros and the Arabs buying the best horses and leaving us with the mutts.  Were that so, we would see a corresponding rise in breakdowns on their tracks, and a drop off in speed. But Oppenheim knows his horseflesh, so I’ll take his word that that isn’t happening. Yet.  

The problem is many-fold. It consists of several things.

One, the vast majority of American TB’s are related to each other. In 2010’s Derby, every one of the horses had Northern Dancer in his pedigree. Inbreeding to such a degree surely concentrated the speed, but again, when you select for only one quality, everything else suffers. If you don’t have anything but another Northern Dancer to breed to, you are merely repeating the errors. 

The horses are subjected to a myriad of drugs from the day they are born. One of them, Ivermectin, is a wonderful drug in that it kills intestinal worms. 

 However, (and this has dropped right off the radar), several years ago, OCD ravaged the TB industry. (osteochondritis dissecans. See for more information on it.) The disease is found primarily in the leg joints, specifically the hock, knee, and stifle. These joints, in a foal, are soft and cartilaginous. Normally, they solidify by ossifying, or turning into bone. This is done by calcium deposition, good nutrition, and time. Kentucky (and Ireland, another leader in horse production) is famed for its calcium rich soil that builds good bone. Once the plates or joints ossify, or solidify, the horse is theoretically done growing. This is what they mean when they say a horse’s knees have “closed”. 

Horses with OCD, even those born and raised in Kentucky, have thin or little calcium deposition in their epiphyseal plates (the end caps of the joint bones). In some cases, instead of a nice solid layer of bone, they develop bubbles, like cavities, in the bone.  Essentially, the plates aren’t plates, but Swiss cheese.

Ivermectin, the revolutionary wormer, inhibits calcium deposition in the worms it’s been developed to kill. Is it such a far stretch to consider that it also inhibits calcium deposition on the growing foal’s bones?

What does it mean when you put 125 pounds on the back of an 1100 pound horse, allow him to run at 45 mph down a sometimes questionable track, on bones that are, essentially, hollow? 

It means the bones break. Easily. 

Even without ivermectin and OCD, most horses don’t completely ossify until they’re four, and, in some breeds like Arabians, up til seven years.

But breeders don’t want to wait. As the President of the Washington State Thoroughbred Breeders Association said, “We aren’t in the business to raise race horses. We are in the business of producing two-year olds.” 

Two and three-year old horses make up the vast majority of racehorses.  America doesn’t have many race cards made out for four-year olds, although the Breeder’s Cup is a step in the right direction. No, the big money races are all for three-year olds.   

We’re racing babies. And they break down because they’re still babies. The TB racer who is still racing at seven or eight is a rarity. And a gelding. 

Another aspect: the reluctance of breeders to refrain from breeding to a horse that broke down.

If you have a one hundred-dollar pony colt that breaks a leg in the pasture, you have it put down.

If you have a one million dollar TB colt that breaks a leg on the track, you spend umpty leven bucks to fix the leg so that he can breed mares. 

Is it smart to breed to a horse that broke down on the track but was rehabilitated?

No. The reason the horse broke down, if it survives, is because there is something wrong with its legs. Whether its bones were bad because of the drugs or the legs broke because the horse was not able to run that hard, that fast, either way, if you breed to that horse, you are going to get a foal with the same issues. In fact, because you are breeding him to a mare with the exact same bloodlines, you are concentrating the problem.

Common sense says you geld the broken down horse, or put him down. But when the horse cost a couple million dollars to put on the track and is now worth ten million because he won, you don’t geld him. You make him earn back your investment. 

Then you have the entire drug issue. Years ago, it was illegal to race a horse with drugs in its system. The two main drugs used are Lasix, and Bute. Lasix keeps the horse from bleeding from its lungs. I don’t know the mechanics of it, but I believe it’s the fact that the TBs of today race so fast their lungs can’t keep up. 

Bute is a pain analgesic, a pain-killer. 

These days, you can race horses with both drugs in its system. 

Pain is not a nice thing, but it is a valuable feeling. When you are injured in some way, the pain keeps you from repeating it, or making the injury worse. Instead, you let the pain inflicting injury heal. 

But when you take a drug that makes the pain stop, you may not remember to not repeat what you did to injure yourself in the first place.

This is what race horses are forced to do. The horse feels his leg hurt. He limps. You can’t race or make money with a lame horse.  So you dose him with bute to make the pain stop. The horse stops limping because he doesn’t feel the pain anymore.  Because he’s not limping, he’s not lame and he can race. 

Arthur Hancock, scion of a long, illustrious line of Thoroughbred breeders, places most of the blame for the decline of the horse on the use of drugs. “We’re the only nation that allows this stuff” he told The Washington Post, (racing horses while they’re on medications.)

“I think these medications are weakening the breed.” 

The racing industry doesn’t want to hear that. They managed to get the drug ban rescinded because otherwise, they didn’t have enough horses sound enough to race. The horse is merely a money-making machine as far as the racetrack is concerned.

(I won’t even go into what the jockey must feel: he’s on a drugged horse, going 45 mph in a crowd of other horses. I would be scared to death the horse breaks down and throws me.) 

The trainers are forced into a corner. Trainers have to be crazy or love the horse to do such a low paying job. It must hurt them to realize that either they run a sore horse on drugs, or they lose their jobs. Or the owner, who can’t tell a sesamoid from a salmon, says, run the horse, or you’re fired. 

All this may soon become moot. Racetracks are closing. The legalization of off-track betting spelled the end of tracks. You don’t need to go to Churchill Downs to bet on a Derby horse. You can do it on the internet these days.  Tracks are expensive pieces of real estate in the middle of cities. Fewer people know or care about horses in general, and find that all that room could better be used in high-rise office buildings or houses. The cost of everything: manure removal, hay,electricity, everything costs more. Attendance numbers are dismal except for big races like the Derby. 

At the base of it all is the horse. The Thoroughbred is a beautiful, courageous, high-spirited athlete that wants to run. There is something about seeing a Thoroughbred, his perfect coat gleaming in the sun, stepping onto the track, that takes my breath away. Especially when they throw their gaze to the horizon, and prick their ears, listening to the far off trumpet, that says, come, compete alongside your fellows, and let us see who the best horse is. And it is heartbreaking, and infuriating, when that horse breaks its leg trying to win, and suddenly is a frightened, bewildered, and suffering animal. That’s when the empathy cuts to my core, when I think, oh, why? Why did we do this to you? 

Why?  Because, to the racing industry, the horses are not living, breathing creatures that love, and fear, and feel pain, and sometimes die trying. 

No. To the racing industry, the horse is merely an animated investment.


About subodai213

Retired U.N.C.L.E agent. Living in Laurasia.
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