Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Ever Less Durable Race Horse

Very comprehensive article by Bill Finley in the Thoroughbred Daily News Magazine today with much detail about what we already know. The modern thoroughbred, at least in the US, runs less often each year, and far less often over a career, than race horses did half a century, or even a generation, ago.

The statistics, many from the Jockey Club Fact Book, are absolutely clear. In 1950, the 22,388 horses that raced averaged 10.9 starts for the year; in 2009, that average was 6.23 starts, a decline of 43%. In the same period, the number of races run has doubled, from 26,932 in 1950 to 54,121 last year, and the number of thoroughbreds that actually started at least one race during the year has increased by 220%, from 22,388 to 71,662.

As I and many others have said before, that's too many horses and too many races. Even with the huge increase in the foal crop over the years (now beginning, at last, to shrink), average field size has actually decreased since 1950, from 9.07 starters per race to 8.27 last year, a decrease of 9%.

And the number of starts that a horse makes in its career also continues to decline, to somewhere in the mid-teens. Clearly, horses today don't run as often or for as long. Finley's article raises some possible reasons.

The first possibility, which one often hears around the backstretch is that "we're not breeding as tough a horse as we used to." That's correct to some degree, but not in the sense that equine genetics have somehow changed over the past half-century. Evolution doesn't happen that fast. Horses have been around for thousands of years, and thoroughbreds have been around for hundreds of years. It's not that thoroughbred genetics are suddenly falling apart, but rather that the particular thoroughbreds being bred, and hence their descendants that are populating North American race tracks, are being systematically selected for a combination of precociousness, speed and, as part of the package, a lack of durability. Since the explosion of the bloodstock market in the 1970s and 1980s made it more profitable to breed than to race, and since the emergence of Mr. Prospector as the dominant sales stallion, the particular gene combinations embodied in North American race horses have indeed changed, and we see the results breaking down on the track every day.

This tendency is exaggerated by the rush to stud of stallions that didn't even have double-digit numbers of races before they were retired to cash in at the breeding shed. Take, for example, some of the new stallions for 2011. As Jeff Scott points out in today's Saratogian, the top two stallions for next year, Blame and Quality Road, each have only 13 lifetime starts, and Quality Road showed both distance limitations and temperament problems during that brief racing career. Good luck with his colts in the classics. As for some other stallions-to-be, Wood Memorial winner Eskendereya, sprint sensation Majesticperfection, and Iowa Derby winner Concord Point each "retire" after exactly six lifetime starts, while Travers winner Afleet Express is the grand old man of three-year-old retirees, with seven starts.I guess the theory, even in a down market, is breed 'em to 150-200 mares a year, rake in the money for three years, until someone notices how their progeny are actually doing, then ship them off to Japan, Korea, China, Turkey, etc.

Speaking of shipping, we've been exporting many more thoroughbreds from the US than we've been importing for many years. Last year, more than 3,000 horses were exported, while fewer than 1,000 were imported. And the flow has been systematically skewed, with longer-distance pedigrees leaving, until the point has been reached that there are hardly any true distance sires remaining in the US. That's reflected in the paucity of distance races at US tracks as compared to, well, anywhere.

But even taking into account the shift in breeding patterns, there are other factors that affect race horses' durability and frequency of running. The use of Lasix and other drugs is justified by vets and trainers who say that horses need it to race. If that were true, why are horses running so much less frequently now that they're all on Lasix? For a start, Lasix causes a horse to lose something like 30 pounds of fluids, and it takes several weeks for the horse to regain that weight. And, in place of the half-century old cure for aches and pains and bleeding -- giving the horse time off -- trainers now use Lasix and other drugs to squeeze as many starts as they can out of a horse before it falls apart completely.

A third reason for fewer starts per horse, at least according to Finley, is trainers' focus on keeping their win percentage up. The old practice of racing a horse into shape might have worked when owners' attention spans lasted the length of a horse's career, rather than just to the next race. But today, trainers don't want to run unless they have a good shot at finishing in the money and keeping their numbers up. If one trainer doesn't do that, he or she will very soon lose business to someone who does, and who, as a result, has better numbers. So horses sit in the barn until just the right race comes up.

Some of these problems are pretty intractable. Many of the newer owners in the game want results, and they want them now. (I'm not immune to this myself; anyone running a racing partnership knows that keeping the partners happy with wins and in-the-money finishes in very very important.)

But some of the trends can be reversed. Fewer foals. Fewer races. A ban on raceday medication, like that in most of the rest of the world, introduced over time to allow breeders and buyers to adjust to the new requirements, might well shift breeding patterns to emphasize toughness. Purse subsidies skewed to longer-distance races might make some distance stallions viable. All these changes would take time to percolate through the system that's evolved over the past half-century, but they could result in the return of the tough, durable horses of yesteryear.

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