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Soundness of the Modern Racehorse

by Avalyn Hunter ©

In a series of thought-provoking articles in Thoroughbred Times, John Sparkman has discussed the decline in the apparent soundness of the American Thoroughbred. His argument is based on the observation that modern horses make about half the average lifetime starts made by their counterparts of fifty years ago. The statistics are incontrovertible. But is his interpretation of their significance - that the American Thoroughbred has grown more unsound - correct?

Given the circumstances of the modern Thoroughbred industry, some reduction in lifetime starts per animal has probably been inevitable. Because the residual value of breeding stock has risen tremendously over the last several decades, many well-bred colts and fillies are retired well before their racing careers might otherwise end. Honour and Glory was a recent example: although physically sound at the end of his three-year-old season, he appeared to be losing interest in racing. Prospects for the next year were uncertain, and the colt's sire Relaunch had just died, leaving an obvious gap in the commercial stallion market. In 19 starts, Honour and Glory had earned $1,202,942. But his value as a stud prospect turned out to be $8 million. Small wonder owner Michael Tabor took the money and ran!

Likewise, well-bred fillies are usually retired at the end of their four-year-old seasons, if not sooner. It is hard now to imagine a Princess Doreen or a Gallorette racing until age six, given that they had won top races at three and four. And Cigar's six-year-old season was a rare gesture of sportsmanship on the part of Allen Paulson, given that the horse could have been retired to stud at a healthy fee the year before.

The explosive rise in bloodstock values cannot account for all the decline in starts, however. Geldings also do not start nearly as often as their earlier counterparts, and they have no residual value for breeding. Thus, other explanations must be sought.

Training techniques have, of course, changed with the years. Whereas trainers like Ben and Jimmy Jones often raced their horses fit, it is more common now for trainers to train up to a target race. Few trainers would give a colt a race four days before the Kentucky Derby, as the Joneses did with Citation, but plenty would schedule a final blowout work from three to five days before the race. This change in training philosophy naturally results in fewer starts. Also, animal welfare issues are far more in the forefront of the culture than they were early in the century, and the Thoroughbred industry is not immune to cultural pressures. At least at major tracks, it is rare now to see horses racing on grossly swollen ankles or other obvious signs of injury. Having healthier horses racing mostly when they are good and fit might result in fewer starts than before, but few people would consider this a negative change.

Other training changes may not have been so positive. Ironically, the rise of winter racing, while it makes more starts per year possible, may result in fewer starts due to injury. In Man o' War's day, most horses got several months off during the winter simply because little racing was available. The enforced rest provided time for minor ailments to heal, and since every trainer faced the same circumstances, no one lost money to the competition by giving his horse a winter's rest. Today, racing goes on year-round on most of the major circuits. Horses who are not racing are not earning money either, and it is all too easy for even a conscientious trainer to miss subtle signs of trouble and give a horse one race too many when a rest is needed.

Owners, too, have changed. The blue-blooded owner of yesteryear, who ran his stable for the sake of sport and not profit, was generally in the game to see his (or her) horses run; thus, horses such as Equipoise, Mate, and Crusader kept running long after they had established top reputations - and sometimes, long after they had acquired injuries that permanently compromised their form. Today's owner is far more likely to view his stable as a business, and even if an injury can be rehabilitated, if a colt or filly has less to gain from further racing than from breeding, he or she will probably be retired. Point Given is an excellent recent case in point.

Nonetheless, economic incentives, changes in ownership philosophy, and changes in training techniques do not seem to be enough to account for the decline in lifetime starts. As Sparkman has pointed out, geldings have no economic incentive for retirement, and they predominate in the lower echelons of racing, where frequent racing is an economic necessity for the small owner and trainer. Yet their decrease in lifetime starts parallels the decrease for the breed as a whole almost perfectly. Why?

Sparkman is one of the leading advocates for the banning of race-day medication, and his contention that medication has harmed rather than helped the ability of racehorses to keep running appears to have some truth to it. Provided a horse is basically sound and is in the hands of a conscientious trainer, the intelligent use of medications can be a great blessing, enabling an animal to train and race through minor problems. But the same medication that enables a horse to ignore aches and pains born of overuse or a misstep can also enable a horse to ignore aches and pains born of conformational problems.

Medications can also mask the severity of problems such as pulmonary bleeding. The masking effect is not great - it cannot be for the animals' safety - and so the difficulty with race-day medications is not that they enable bad horses to beat good ones, or horses with serious physical problems to beat healthy ones. But they may mistakenly be used until a minor physical problem becomes a major one.

More importantly, they are a factor enabling genes for various inheritable defects to maintain a higher frequency in the Thoroughbred population than might otherwise be the case. Inherited defects, in fact, appear to be the primary cause of the apparent decline in soundness. While medication is probably a factor in the spread of these traits, two other trends have played greater roles: the shift towards greater financial rewards for earlier maturity, and the greatly increased value of breeding stock.

In the last few decades of the 20th century, the purse structure has favored the horse capable of winning major races at three and upwards. But this was not so around the turn of the century, when the major races for two-year-olds carried disproportionately high purses. The rise of rich races for two-year-olds, combined with a slow decline in the prestige and availability of the old "Cup" races for older horses - typically contested at distances above 1-1/2 miles - encouraged the production of animals possessing early maturity and speed with lessened consideration given to soundness. Domino and his descendants were particularly well suited to the new economics of racing, and thus managed to spread their genes far and wide despite serious soundness problems. Nonetheless, this influence was tempered by the large number of sounder animals available as potential mates.

As the 20th century wore on, however, a wave of European imports introduced new problems. Horses such as *Sickle, *Pharamond II, and *Turn-to introduced brilliant speed, but they also introduced a massive, heavy-bodied phenotype which was in distinct contrast to the rather rawboned American runner of earlier years. The new physical type was extremely powerful and tended to mature quickly, but it was also often too heavy for its underpinnings, resulting all too frequently in a horse that showed brilliant promise but broke down before reaching classic contention or leadership in the handicap ranks.

An increase in overall size has also been problematic. 17-hand runners, once considered giants, are now relatively common, and some of today's top horses routinely compete at body weights of 1200 pounds or more compared to the 1000 pounds once considered average. But even given correct conformation, it is harder to maintain soundness in a large animal as compared to a small one. A more massive horse places much greater stresses on its legs at racing speed, and the larger horse is also apt to have less bone in proportion to its size since the cross-sectional area of the bone (and its weight-bearing capacity) increases less rapidly than does mass.

kenilworth horse racing

The most likely culprit in increased unsoundness, however, is the greatly increased commercial market. Unsound horses were generally not an attractive proposition for breeding in the early part of the century, and those that succeeded did so either because they were exceptional performers despite their physical problems or because they made the best of initially limited opportunities. But in today's market, if a colt of fashionable pedigree can win one or two major races, he is almost certain to receive a reasonable opportunity at stud even if he broke down with only a few starts under his belt. Fillies of similar credentials are routinely sent to the best sires. And established stallions will be forgiven almost any faults they may transmit so long as a good percentage of their youngsters manage to win notable races.

Although the juvenile-heavy purse structure that allowed the early spread of unsoundness no longer exists, early maturity still drives the market for young horses, where a quick return on investment is considered desirable. And most top commercial sires excel at producing horses that can race well at two or, at the latest, early in their three-year-old seasons. But serious faults are more the rule that the exception in this population. Storm Cat, himself an unsound horse who did not race past his juvenile year, routinely transmits his own offset knees; Mr. Prospector's get frequently turned out at the knee and had small feet; Raise a Native contributed top-heaviness and upright pasterns; and Seattle Slew, A.P. Indy, and Unbridled have all tended to sire large, massive specimens who are either very good or woefully unsound.

A horse who routinely transmits such severe problems that his get cannot be used as racehorses will not last long as a sire. But the faults tolerated by the commercial market are another story. Upright pasterns, calf knees, offset knees, and small feet seldom keep a horse from racing, and they do not impair speed in the least. They are, however, severe handicaps to durability. Because they individually and collectively reduce the ability of the leg to absorb concussion, horses possessing them are more prone to breakdowns than horses having correct conformation. It is no coincidence that horses from the most popular commercial lines are conspicuously underrepresented compared to their overall percentage of the Thoroughbred population when it comes to the major races for older horses. Conversely, horses from sounder but less fashionable lines have a disproportionately good record in such major races as the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and of course the Breeders' Cup Classic.

What can be done? In theory, the solution is simple: breed to sound stock as much as possible, and choose mates who do not reinforce each others' conformational faults. Another pairing to avoid is one where the stallion and mare have different faults that compound each other: mating a top-heavy, upright-pasterned stallion with a bad-kneed mare is asking for trouble. Avoid horses who consistently needed medication to train or race. Choose the sounder, more correct representatives of fashionable sires and families when trying to get those bloodlines. And don't join the lemmings who rush good mares to the latest unsound speedster with a pretty pedigree; let the horse prove himself able to rise above his faults first.

Practice, however, is another matter. So long as the commercial market continues to reward precocity with little concern for potential soundness, unsound horses who produce good percentages of quick youngsters will continue to be well patronized. Hopeful breeders will continue to flock to brilliant but bad-legged young stallions, trying to get in on the next Mr. Prospector before he becomes too expensive. And unsound mares from good families will continue to be bred so long as their foals sell well.

No easy solution is likely to emerge to the dilemma, and each breeder must choose his own balance between soundness and commercial viability, based on the goals of his or her breeding program. Nonetheless, because of its importance both to the welfare of the animals and to the image of the sport, soundness cannot be ignored. We neglect it at our own peril - and that of our horses.