There’s been some interesting discussions in blog posts and comments recently about the state of today’s American racehorse versus earlier models, and about just how sound and durable the dirt horse is today. One train of thought — mine included — is that today’s model is tested harder on the whole than the older versions were, and therefore they are less likely to make as many starts per year than horses from yesteryear. There are other observers who feel that the older models were hardier types who were bred for soundness. It’s certainly not a black and white argument, and the answer may lie in the shades of gray. Your comments are welcome.
Here’s a sampling of views taken from blog posts and blog comments. I have not corrected grammatical errors in comments to posts:
“Our mathematically generated historical records of thoroughbred performance show that horses that run extremely well during the Triple Crown almost never get back to their peak ability again. The exceptions who managed to maintain their top form include Secretariat and Spectacular Bid — two of the greatest thoroughbreds ever — and the best horse of this decade, Curlin.
“The underlying reason is that thoroughbreds put out bigger efforts these days than their muscles, ligaments, suspension systems and bones can easily sustain. Their physical structure is tested to the utmost to maintain the speed they can now achieve with modern training methods.” —Len Ragozin and Len Friedman (from The Ragozin Sheets), in The Rail.
“And on a second and quite different point, there is a concept in physics called the “strength of materials” that helps engineers and builders judge how much wood, steel, or concrete is needed to create something that will perform a function (think of bridges, buildings, and towers, for instance). That is the concept we are dealing with in the construction of Thoroughbreds.
“Unlike engineers, breeders cannot select a horse for legs of a specific diameter or density. But by using racing class as evidence of soundness and using the most capable trainers available, owners can maximize the potential of their racers.
“If a horse’s legs cannot stand the stress of racing any faster, it becomes unsound. If a horse is built with too much bone, it isn’t as fast as the one with somewhat less. So racing is selecting the horses with the minimum strength of materials needed to race as fast as possible and win. Therefore, horses with extraordinary speed and a tinge of fragility (Mr. Prospector, Native Dancer, Northern Dancer) are the best breeding prospects because they are right on the borderline of the perfect proportion of bone to weight and power.” — Frank Mitchell, in his blog bloodstock in the bluegrass.
“And the elimination of the FASHION factor from commercial breeding. Those that write on this topic of Thoroughbred breeding in journals and magazines need to have the courage and character to speak up.
“For example, today Unbridled’s Song is a very popular stallion, and his offspring are in great demand.
“Yet not one journalist from a trade publication has written about the fact that his offspring are extremely UNSOUND.
“No bloodstock advisor has spoken about this. The filly Eight Bells died after breaking down in the Kentucky Derby, and practically no one said anything about this.
“His sons are in great demand, and they are producing the same unsoundness.
“Just look at the stallion Songandaprayer. His offspring are very fast but break down very often too. Dunkirk sold for $3.7 million. He has made very few starts. Should we blame that on anything other than the fact that his father is Unbridled’s Song, who sires very unsound horses? If we did that, we would be less than honest. Following the Belmont, Dunkirk has a condylar fracture, and trainer Todd Pletcher says the colt will be back. And I could go on.” — Shimatoree, in bloodstock in the bluegrass.
“However……the bit that generally gets missed is while we’d all agree that the best horses have reached the peak of development (nothing surprising in that – with humans the same thing is starting to happen, as only one person has run faster over 800m. – by a fraction – than Sebastian Coe about 25 years ago), the ordinary or average horse has carried on improving.
“For example I’ve got a riding horse who ran seven furlongs in 1:22. and change, which would have put a scare into virtually anything 30 or 40 years ago, but now sufficed to make him a $50,000 claiming/NY 1x horse.
“The result of the diminished gap between the best and the rest is an increased intensity of competition. It may have less impact on turf or all-weather, where cruise and kick is the rule, but as far as the U.S. dirt horse is concerned, it means that any given race is much harder than 40 or 50 years ago. Believe me, if Bold Ruler had to run through a modern classic preparation, he would not want to tune up with a race between the classics. Any good allowance horse would push him hard enough that he wouldn’t want to repeat the effort a week later.
“For the same reason, you don’t see world-class athletes knock themselves out against each other in the lead up to the Olympics or World Championships.” — Alan Porter, in Sid Fernando + Observations.
“this weekend, fabulous strike ran 6 furlongs in 1:07 4/5 and munnings, a 3-year-old, ran 7 furlongs in 1:20.63. in general, i believe horses as a group are faster than they were as a group during the periods leimbach writes about — only at shorter distances. because they compete against faster horses on a more regular basis, they don’t have the ability to recover as quickly and make as many starts. also, as in baseball, the obvious use of drugs — steroids and broncho dialators and blood thickeners (for better oxygen in transmission) in racing — plus breeding for the commercial markets — meaning speed and early maturity — have created horses that in general are not as suited for the classics; therefore, when leimbach compares recent classic winners to past classic winners, the recent horses may not measure up. however, were he to compare sub-milers of today to the past, he’d probably find that the recent group is better and faster.” —Sid Fernando, in Sid Fernando + Observations.
“The fact that today’s top horses do not race as often as their predecessors of a few (equine) generations is not all about lack of soundness; commercial considerations are often a large part of it. But there is no doubt: today’s horse is softer than the horse of even 40 years ago. We have bred from inherently unsound stock, and unsoundness breeds unsoundness.” — Tony Morris (Racing Post columnist), in bloodstock in the bluegrass.
“This lack of durability is certainly reflected in a comparison to the race records of past greats. As a 2-year-old, Man o’ War began his career with 4 starts in just 18 days, once on a single day’s rest. Seabiscuit raced an incredible 35 times at two, but didn’t reach his prime until age 5. Citation won 19 times at age three, including the Kentucky Derby on three days rest and the Jockey Club Gold Cup on just two days rest. Native Dancer won four races in a one month at Saratoga.
“Today’s horses could not even dream of such feats. Racing twice in a month is now considered a stretch. The stress of the Triple Crown, run over five weeks, is now considered so taxing that few horses are able to complete all three races. Forty years ago Citation, Native Dancer, and Bold Ruler raced BETWEEN Triple Crown engagements just to stay sharp. Stymie raced an incredible 131 times before he retired to stud.” — Jay Leimbach, in bloodstock in the bluegrass.