Are today’s American racehorses softer than those of past?

14 thoughts on “Are today’s American racehorses softer than those of past?”

  1. I have a IL bred retired racer and not only was he raced two or more times a month when he was racing, I do x-country with him how every other weekend now. He is tough as nails and has never refused an obstacle or quit before the finish. He is very competitive and absolutely fearless. One the Romeo, formerly Three Dollar Max, is not it’s soft.

  2. I would argue the issue is not simply breeding a faster, more fragile animal; modern training and racing schedules simply do not allow a horse to build up the sort of bone and muscle mass they did in the past (and study after study demonstrates that hard, early exercise is necessary to produce a solid bone). The very fact that races are so spread out for elite few creates something of a feedback loop – fewer races and lighter training begets more of the same.

    That’s not to say breeding (especially breeding for auction) is not playing a key role – certainly it is a major factor – but it is not the only one. Add in drugs that mask injury and you create an even less certain foundation – but at least that’s a factor that could be addressed immediately, if the will were there.

    To address the comment above about Unbridled’s Song, I’ve been banging the drum about his offspring’s fragile feet (think Rockport Harbor) and legs (even leaving out Eight Belles, the fact that neither Old Fashioned nor Dunkirk came out of the Triple Crown unscathed in that department should be examined) for a few years now (most recently last week) – but good luck getting a publication that is largely subsidized by the breeding industry to notice that.

  3. I think Unbridled’s Song gets a lot of unfair press. He has had some high-profile horses break down (Eight Belles is a total red-herring, she wasn’t an unsound horse, she took a sloppy step, probably crossing tractor tracks, while pulling up; Rockport Harbor didn’t have any problems until he was struck into very badly in the Remsen), but it also bears considering that if we look at the ten Australian stakes winners he sired from shuttle crops we find horses who made 117 starts, 71 starts, 65 starts, and 60 starts.

    In the U.S. this year he has a six-year-old G1 winner, three 5-year-old stakes winners, and a four-year-old graded winner, so they can’t all be that fragile, even the good ones! In some respects, I think they might be there own worst enemies, as the appear ready early, but probably do best if given some time before being pushed.

    Was very pleased to see the Ragozin input, which is something of a confirmation of what we’ve been saying, which is in effect that horses run so hard these days (increased physical capacity + compression of range of ability = dramatically increased intensity of competition) that their ability to do it very often is inevitably diminished.

    In comparative terms, Stymie, Assault, Gallorette, and that group who met every week or two were like the local 5k runner who races most weekends, compared to the modern olympic athlete, who puts forth maybe two or three superlative efforts a year (or in extreme examples, such as Lassie Viren, only peaked in Olympic years).

    The more powerful the motor gets, the more severely tested becomes the chassis – I know from experience as a runner, that when you get injured is just after you’ve started running really fast!

  4. Everybody keeps talking about a “more powerful motor,” but that’s just not true. The modern thoroughbred is no faster now than decades ago – only more fragile. Look at when the track records were set – it’s rare when we get a new one these days. What went wrong since the 1970s was the abundance of legal medication in racing. There’s a good article in the HBPA journal about the evils of bute, and here’s a key paragraph:

    If you go back to when bute was first legalized, the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) has some interesting statistics: in 1960, the average number of starts per horse in the U.S. was 11.31; in 1973 (the year of Secretariat) it was 10.23; in 1998, 7.29; and, in 2008, horses averaged 6.2 starts per runner. That is not to say that bute is directly responsible for the decline in starts per runner, but it does lead to the question of whether bute use may be one of the major contributing factors.

  5. I have been following the races in Southern Illinois for more than forty years. I remember an old gelding named Ed R who made an incredible 248 starts in his racing career. I can also recall a horse from a slightly later era named Crying For More, a black type winner who made 192 starts over the course of a long career. If anybody doubts me, you can verify it on Equibase. Also, check Damascus and the number of starts he made during his championship season of 1967 and the short spaces between his races.

  6. Not a single mention of the widespread use of drugs in this post and ensuing discussion? I’m not nearly as experienced a horseman as the commenters above me, but my understanding is that in decades past, the use of lasix, bute, steroids, and other medications wasn’t nearly so prevalent. It seems to me you can’t separate a discussion about durability from a discussion about drugs. But maybe I’m wrong.

  7. David: See this line in my comment:

    the obvious use of drugs — steroids and broncho dialators and blood thickeners (for better oxygen in transmission) in racing

  8. You can’t put a horse through speedwork once every 7-10 days, and zero times in the 14-21 days after a race – and expect him to grow stronger bone.

    Now we add bouncy synthetics to the mix, which is 50% easier on a horse’s skeletal system, further exacerbating the problem.

    The tendency these days is to ‘baby’ the fragile breed in order to stop injuring them, which is exactly the opposite of what needs to be done.

    I’m not suggesting to run them into the ground, but in other countries speedwork is done 2+ times per week and breakdown rates are lower than in the US.

  9. We do speed work two or three times a week, and return to speed a week or so after a race. But far, far more important, we allow NO RACE-DAY MEDICATION. The key to breakdowns is so obvious and I just can’t believe people can’t accept it.

  10. The powers that be in this sport are NEVER going to outlaw race-day drugs, so I try to sharpen up the training process like Gina does in France in an effort to improve conditioning.

    The US thoroughbred is akin to a human weekend warrior: sits at a desk/stall all week, goes to play sports/race on the weekend and eventually gets injured due to lack of toughness and consistent physiological activity.

    As long as horses are deemed expendable by owners and trainers, they will continue to buy talent and condition their horses via the syringe instead of good old fashinoned horsemanship.

    The average US based TB sees the track 9min a day, I bet Gina spends closer to an hour with hers-

  11. Thanks, Bill! Closer to an hour is on a day when we’re pressed for time. All of my horses are out 1 1/2 to 2 hours, with lots and lots of walking before and after work. And you’re right about the drugs – I don’t think the U.S. can ever close Pandora’s box.

  12. A few years ago there was a filly I knew who was running so-so for a cheap price….never really fired but was sound enough and capable of running fairly often…..one day, i was told, the trainer decided to use epogen on her, and that day she won the same cheap race she’d been running in by 17 lengths!….in fact, her time was huge — faster than allowance colts that day……she ran so hard, however, that physically she never recovered…and never won again and was plagued by soundness issues because her “infrastructure” was not suited to run as fast as she did with the “rocket fuel.”

    recovery times for epogen horses are long as well, because the blood has to be worked on to thin it…plus the huge run usually takes longer recovery time for muscle and joints.

  13. Makes sense Sid-

    A 50 year old mother who sits on the couch all day can suddenly summon the strength to lift a car off of her baby in the driveway when pushed to the brink by adrenaline.

    Of course, she may be sore for a month and tear many muscles in her back during that effort.

    Horses race like that every time out – like they have a gun pointed at their head, that’s their instinctual make up.

    Just another reason to train their insides (blood, lungs, muscles, enzymes, etc.) to catch up to their outsides (muscles and nature).

    Humans have to train for years towards running a 4 minute mile, many never make it that far. First they have to develop to run a 8 minute mile, then 7, etc.

    Horses are all born and bred to run the equine equivalent, we’ll call it a 12 second furlong. They can all do it, some further than others – but they aren’t necessarily trained to develop at all the necessary levels, i.e. 2 minute lick, 14 sec furlongs, 13’s, etc.

    They skip steps to get to the races quickly and it eventually comes back to haunt them when pushed past exhaustion.

  14. comparisons of horses racing prior to the 1950’s and in some cases 60’s and current runners are difficult because of the introduction of stonedust prescription bases on the better race tracks after those dates. Earlier racing was conducted over deeper surfaces, some with clay bases. the modern tracks do not have adequate banking and no transitional turns that are required for auto and motorcyle racing. these tracks are responsible for the increase in bone chips and cannon bone fractures but fewer bowed tendons. Seattle Slew was probably the soundest horse that raced in modern times.

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