Some numbers to consider in the average-starts-per-year debate

14 thoughts on “Some numbers to consider in the average-starts-per-year debate”

  1. Very Importante article, Sid., thank you. I wrote about the one and only Kelso, yesterday, and I have to ask you. How could the industry find a good sponsor to bring back the historic Washington, D.C. International? Godspeed, Diego García Venezuela.-

  2. Though his numbers and logic are quite sound, various studies conducted (Including an excellent one in Backstretch magazine) have pointed out that the classier the racehorse and the more distance he runs, the sounder he usually is. For example, a G1 winner who goes 12F is more likely to be durable than a 5F claimer at Turf Paradise.

    Conclusion: We are simply breeding more of the wrong horses and less of the right ones.

  3. Let me get this straight. You, Bramlage (and others) are arguing that the stunning contrast in the number of starts made is due, in some meaningful way, to the inability of horses to find races?

    I don’t buy it – at least not as a major contributing factor. But rather than arguing that point, why not consider that it is, ultimately, a red herring. Why? Because even if the contraction of available races per horse does have a significant impact on the starts per year numbers, it is the lifetime starts that are truly meaningful in terms of soundness.

    In the 1970s, the average runner in the U.S. made roughly 30 starts in its career. Today, that number is less than 11. Would Dr. Bramlage (or anyone else) care to attribute that shocking disparity to a lack of available races?

    The primary contributing factors are:

    – the terrible trend of breeding to sell, rather than to race

    – promiscuous use of both legal and illegal drugs

    – no longer giving runners a natural break at some point in the year, allowing early stage issues to resolve themselves before they become serious and/or chronic

    The lack of available races is, in my view, trivial relative to the above.

    1. I’m not arguing anything. I read Bramlage’s statement, found it interesting logically and mathematically, and wanted to “test” it myself. As you will note, I have given, off the top of my head, several other anecdotal reasons, including Lasix and drugs.

      I don’t have access to lifetime starts numbers that you provided—where did you get them?—but I agree about the change from that period to now reflecting a shift from home breeders to commercial breeders. As you are aware, home breeders bred to race, were committed to their horses, and culled stock that wouldn’t make it—thereby increasing percentages. They also gelded much more frequently than now, which stats indicate and horsemen know, is kinder in a horse and increases longevity. They also existed in a time when distances were varied, financial pressures to run weren’t as great, and overall philosophy was based on a closer relationship with the animal, husbandry, and land. Societal mores have changed through the years in this regard. Nowadays, nothing is gelded, and the ability to make a sire early is paramount, isn’t it? As is the desire to get ROI as quickly as possible. There’s a reason 2yo sales have grown during this shift.

      There was a time, too, by the way, when pitchers made more starts and logged more innings. 200 innings pitched, 20- game winners, and 300-game lifetime winners were stats aspired to. Not as feasible now in that game, either.

      1. Hi Sid,

        The numbers came from the Jockey-Club, though I am traveling with my laptop at the moment and do not have the precise reference. However, the Blood-Horse put out a special issue in 2008 relating to soundness, and I do have a pdf of that, and here are some relevant numbers:

        Stallions which stood from 1970-79 produced:

        20.42% starts/foal and 29.03% starts/starter

        Stallions which stood from 2000-03 produced:

        13.15% starts/foal and 16.72% starts/starter

        Those stats, though not quite as extreme as the one that I referenced above, are still more than damning enough to expose Bramlage’s claims as highly questionable. I read his responses, and it is clear to me that he is biased. I say that because lifetime starts are obviously a better gauge of soundness than starts per year, yet he completely ignores that data set. Perhaps it is subconscious, but of course he does have an interest in supporting the notion that modern veterinary medicine (as it is often practiced) is not to blame for reduced soundness. He also has clear reason to avoid criticizing breeders, who are important clients of his.

        Arthur Hancock was presumably using accurate statistics when he included this is his open letter:

        “…even more sobering is the drop in the average number of lifetime starts per horse from 45.2 in 1950 to 12.97 for horses born between 2003 to 2007”.

        Now, whatever impact limitations on race availability may have had on such numbers, it can hardly be considered a primary factor.

        Here’s a link from which you can download the useful B-H supplement:

  4. Hi Tinky,

    Thanks for the Blood-Horse chart—it’s actually one of the best pieces of information they have published. And I agree, lifetime starts are much more indicative than starts per year.

    So, let’s clear up some numbers first, which you did yourself directly above. All are from The BloodHorse you referenced:

    Average starts per foal 1970-1979 was 20.42 as you note (and not the 30 that you mentioned in your first response, which, by the way, was sent out as fact by our friend Pull the Pocket in his blog and on Twitter).

    Second, average starts per foal 2000-2003 was 13.15, as you noted above.

    Now, if Arthur Hancock’s numbers which you quote are correct, average starts per horse was 45.2 in 1950.

    What that tells me is we went from 45.2 to 20.42 from 1950 to 1979 (30 years)—more than a 50 percent drop to what we consider a Golden Age through the 1970s. And this was before the lion’s share of Lasix!!

    That’s a helluva story right there before proceeding to today, and much of our commentary in the discussion above about cultural changes is applicable there as well.

    Since 1979, this downward trend has continued, with average starts per foal dropping 35. 6 percent from 1979 to 2003 (30 years).

    Once again—as we should and do, in this case—we lament the good old days, but which one? The 1950 figure? The 1970s era of three Triple Crown winners and Forego, which compares poorly with the earlier era?

    In many ways, racing is a microcosm of society, and the cultural shifts in behavior, mores, breeding, ownership, focus, drugs, and quick returns are obviously causes. And perhaps just a bit (let’s say 5 percent?) can also be attributed to Bramlage’s math?

    Whatever, we should—as you are—be concerned, and we should always strive to make this sport as best as we can, even individually. Thanks for participating here, as you frequently do.

    1. Sid,

      You’ve misinterpreted those numbers. The B-H numbers are limited to a certain number of ‘representative’ stallions (they explain their methodology in the issue). My original numbers and (presumably) those of Hancock are based on all starters. Furthermore, mine were from 1970, while the B-H included the whole following decade (at least). So the decline had already begun, distorting, or diluting the individual number.

      Having said that, even if one were to take the 45 and 30 numbers at face value, the decline is remarkable, as you suggest. And you are certainly right to point out the coincidental ramping up of the use of medication (esp. Lasix) during the next big leg down (in career starts).

      To my mind, one of the most interesting aspects of this ongoing discussion is that of genetics. As you are no doubt aware, geneticists maintain that 30, 40 and even 50 years is too short a period for soundness to change dramatically in the Thoroughbred population. As one who has closely observed the American Thoroughbred for nearly 40 years, I cannot accept that viewpoint.

      Here is a relevant, slightly modified post that I wrote on another site some time ago:

      Let me attempt to get at the “too short of a (genetic) time frame” issue from a slightly different angle.

      First, while any stallion is theoretically capable of siring anomalous runners, the best are prepotent, and tend to transmit identifiable traits to a high percentage of their offspring. That means that it is, for the most part, relatively easy to categorize stallions in terms of their influence on conformation, surface preferences, stamina, precocity (or lack thereof), and temperament. Traits can even be parsed out more finely (e.g. Relaunch got free-runners, etc.), but that isn’t directly relevant to this discussion.

      Now, I could use any of a number of examples to illuminate my point, but let’s look at Pulpit, and his influence. Pulpit is by A P Indy. I watched the latter train and race, and he had a relatively stable temperament. Pulpit was atypical of his sire’s offspring both in terms of his speed and temperament. In fact, his career was cut short in large part due to his highly strung nature.

      As a stallion, Pulpit has notably (and unfortunately) passed on his fragile temperament to a high percentage of his offspring. Setting aside the profound stupidity of breeders who have compounded the problem by breeding mares from hot lines to him, the trait is still easily identifiable.

      Pulpit’s influence can be further traced through his highly successful son Tapit. That one also tends to get highly-strung horses.

      While Seattle Slew, the sire of A P Indy, certainly got high-energy horses, some of which were highly strung, that trait was not predominant. So, Neither Pulpit’s sire nor his paternal grandsire passed on that trait in as pronounced a manner.

      What we see, then, is that a single stallion can have an impact on the breed in a very short period of time. And if such a stallion proves to be a successful sire of sires, the impact can be compounded.

      No one would argue that the stallions standing in the U.S. over the past 20-30 years aren’t capable of getting the odd (true) 10-12f. runner, or durable horse; of course they are. But relative to the stallions standing in the 1960s and ‘70s, they are, again as a group, passing on far less stamina and far more unsoundness. Why should this be a surprise to anyone, including geneticists? The typical stallion standing today was lightly raced, bred more for speed than stamina, and highly medicated. Some had corrective surgery as foals (a profoundly stupid procedure, in my view), while others had throat surgeries. The same would be true of his sire and dam, and so forth.

      In the ‘60s and ‘70s many breeders were breeding to race, and therefore an emphasis on soundness of both limb and mind was essential. In recent decades, many breeders chose to take the commercial route, and those fundamental characteristics were essentially ignored.

      Sure, there are other factors, but it is incomprehensible to me how anyone could deny the important role of breeding in the sad degradation of the American Thoroughbred over the past 40 years.

      1. I think breeding has played a huge role in the (un)soundness issue, as you note, and as books have become larger and the gene pool has shrunk vis a vis succeeding generations, this has been exacerbated in my opinion. Certainly at the highest levels of the game, the variety of distances has disappeared, reflecting the homogeneous 8.5F to 9F type horse we breed for sprints and 10F alike. Yes, we are breeding less stamina, and yes, we are breeding what appear to be more fragile horses, but I like to put this in context to changes in our own society and the evolution of those who also breed and race horses now versus the 1970s and 1950s—and the environment in which they do so. In all sports, for example, the last decade and a half have been particularly awful for drug use, from steroids to EPO, much less Lasix. There isn’t one magic bullet answer, which is what I try to add to much of the zealotry on every side of the equation out there. There are, however, layers of truth, and together they paint a more comprehensive picture.

  5. Yes, Tinky, the BH figs use sires who had lifetime more than 40 foals. That was explained in the article. I would like to see where you got your figures. In fact, I would like to chart lifetime starts per foal from 1940 to 2010.

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