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Why Are Racehorses Racing Less?

Posted on July 9, 2014 5:20 pm by

The modern trend in the racing industry is to race horses less frequently, giving them fewer starts. While being subjected to the pressure of fewer races no doubt leads to happier horses, experts agree that their wellbeing isn’t the reason for the decline. Rather, it’s maybe just one of several possible causes.

The Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit began Tuesday at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky, and is predominantly centered on the current state of the Thoroughbred and possible reasons for a decline in average starts per horse and average field sizes over the last 50 years. To kick off the first day, three veterinary professionals, a prominent equine surgeon, and racing’s all-time leading money-winning trainer met in a panel yesterday to discuss a variety of issues surrounding the subject. Several ideas were bounced around, from whether today’s Thoroughbred benefits from racing less, the importance of reputation, economic decisions, to the possible effects of medications on whether horses start less frequently these days. Although no definite conclusions were reached, the discussion was lively.

Sahvara winning the first poly track race in FairviewAccording to Ron Mitchell from TheHorse, the discussion started with moderator Ed Bowen noting that the average number of yearly starts per horse has gone down by half: from 12 in 1960 to just 6.2 in 2013. Moreover, the average field size has fallen from nine to just under eight horses per race during the same period.

Bowen also stated that 7.5% of all U.S. starts are represented by 31 mega-stables, each of which had 150 individual horses start in 2013.

Interestingly, the panelists agreed that the cause is more complex that just an increased dependency on drugs, which is the “usual suspect.” Different training techniques and priorities for horse owners are just as important.



Rick Arthur, DVM, California Horse Racing Board equine medical director, said that nowadays people are working their horses up to a race, rather than working their horses through a race and using it to prepare the horse for a competition of more prestige. As a result, each horse races fewer times overall.

“It used to be every trainer used a race to get ready to win a race,” he said, commenting on the difference between modern training techniques with those of years past. “Some horses are working as fast as they’re running.”

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Arthur said another reason for the decrease in start numbers is based on the interest of the trainers. Trainers want to have a good win percentage, and are therefore less inclined to risk putting a horse in a race if they don’t think its up to a top performance.

The trainer’s response? Agreement. Todd Pletcher, the panel’s trainer who just broke D. Wayne Lukas’ record as racing’s all-time leading earner, solidified the argument. “What we have been able to determine is we don’t need that prep race in between when going for major race in four to six weeks. … We have seen that horses run better with more time in between races.”

Fewer races could also be better for the horse’s welfare, given that the notion that today’s racehorses are more fragile than eras past has been bouncing around.



Inexplicable injuries to racehorses, although tragic, seem to be relatively common these days, and have inevitably led to speculations about the reasons behind this unfortunate increase. Questions circle many topics, such as the quality of the ground on which the horses run, the age at which they run, whether fillies should race colts, and, perhaps most pertinent of all from a science or natural history viewpoint, if breeding has caused a weakening of the racehorse talent pool.

Fairly recent scientific research publications help inform this last point; for it suggests that Thoroughbred racehorses around the world are becoming more inbred.

Just 21 horses mated in the early 1900s, founding most of the racehorses running today and accounting for 80% of the genetic makeup of the current population.

Not only have Thoroughbreds become more inbred over the past 40 years, the research shows, but the rate of inbreeding has accelerated over the past 15 years.

Thoroughbreds, by definition, suffer relatively high levels of inbreeding. Just 21 horses mated in the early 1900s, founding most of the racehorses running today and accounting for 80% of the genetic makeup of the current population. Other genetic analyses have shown that out of all breeds studied, Thoroughbreds are the most inbred.

But questions about the quality of the breed led Dr Binns, previously Professor of Genetics at The Royal Veterinary College in London, UK, and a founder of the Horse Genome Project, to investigate further.

Dr Binns has spent large part of his career investigating the genetic basis of racehorse performance, and has an extensive set of genetic data taken from horses sampled from the 1960s onwards.

“I realised I could answer the question about whether the Thoroughbred was becoming more inbred,” he told Matt Walker of BBC Nature.

Dr Binns and his colleagues, including Dr. Jackie Cardwell from the Royal Veterinary College in London, UK who did the statistics, Drs Bailey and Lear from the Gluck Equine Research Centre in Lexington Kentucky, US and Drs Lambert and Boehler, colleagues at Equine Analysis in Lexington, Kentucky, US where Dr Binns now works, studied the genetic makeup of 467 racehorses born between 1961 and 2006.

They looked at 50,000 separate markers, known as SNPs, on the genome of each horse, and then compared them to each other.

“DNA markers measure what was actually inherited rather than assuming an average as would be obtained by pedigree. For example, two full brothers on average share 50% of their DNA, but the real figure could theoretically range from 0-100%, depending on whether they inherited the same or the different chromosome from each parent.”

The study revealed that there had been a small but significant (i.e. real) increase in inbreeding over the past 40 years, and that most of the growth was from the mid 1990s to present.

“And this is the time period during which many things have changed in the breeding of Thoroughbred horses,” says Dr Binns. “In the 1960s it was usual for each stallion to cover 40-50 mares per season, in the mid-1990s this tripled to over 150.”


Eclipse unbeaten thoroughbred Race Horse

Eclipse was a famous, unbeaten founding Thoroughbred


Nowadays, high quality stallions are also “shuttled” around the world to cover mares; for example, being sent to the southern hemisphere to breed with mares during the northern hemisphere’s quiet season. This is partly due to a modern priority switch: demand for producing yearlings that sell for high prices at auction is now more important than producing superior racehorses. Basically, this means that fewer stallions are siring more offspring.

The current trend toward greater inbreeding is “worrisome”, say the scientists in the journal Animal Genetics, which has published their research.

Dr Binns told BBC Nature he doesn’t believe the inbreeding is, at the moment, greatly contributing to the number of fractures sustained by racehorses, but he suspects it is contributing to the failure rate of pregnancy among breeding Thoroughbreds. So-called “reproductive depression” is one of the first signs of inbreeding problems seen in populations of animals.

Still, as of yet it isn’t possible to say whether Thoroughbreds are being bred to destruction, or to link horse injuries to inbreeding, or to conclusively say that inbreeding is damaging the fertility or fecundity of these horses. But the trend isn’t good.

To avoid seeing Thoroughbreds fall and break under their own weight and heritage,  Dr Binns suggests that the Thoroughbred industry should periodically, every 5-10 years, re-check to see what the levels of inbreeding area to maintain the genetic health of these most athletic of animals.

That way, he says, it can “make sure that dangerous levels of genetic variation are not lost from this fantastic breed.”


Industry Economics

Back to yesterday’s panel. Pletcher also cited another reason why horses are racing less: industry economics. Sometimes the market makes it more lucrative for a top graded stakes-winning horse or mare to be retired and go into breeding while its reputation is at its peak. Pletcher spoke of statistics showing that since 1990, the average broodmare price has increased 305% while the average purse size has gone up 166%.

Mary Scollay-Ward, DVM, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission equine medical director, agreed that many owners decide to retire a horse once it has hype built up around its name rather than risk waiting for the value to decrease by continuing to race.

Scollay-Ward went on to explain another possible reason for fewer starts: pre-race veterinary screening. With more stringent criteria and stricter regulation, she said many horses that raced in the mid-1980s would not pass a veterinarian’s inspection today.



“There are some who dance too close to the fire and you can’t feel sorry for them when they get burned.”

Interestingly, none of the panelists agreed with the commonly held notion that increased use of therapeutic medications is to blame. The problem starts when certain drugs (especially the anti-bleeder medication furosemide (marketed as Salix)) are used to cover up a problem rather than do the necessary other veterinary work to diagnose it. “It’s whenever you get into a pattern of using them (therapeutic medications) indiscriminately where we see there are problems,” said Larry Bramlage, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, an equine surgeon and partner in Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington.

Hazel Jay Winning at Kenilworth Race Course in Cape Town

“Therapeutic meds don’t hurt horses,” Scollay added, explaining that over-reliance on therapeutic medications can give a trainer or veterinarian a false sense of whether a horse has a problem or not. “It’s the intent in which they are used that can result in injury or harm to the horse.”

Bramlage said the biggest problem with therapeutics is the tendency to repeatedly injected horses without understanding or having knowledge of underlying issues.

Pletcher said his stable’s policy is not to use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain in horses when they are training, only Salix.

“As a rule we don’t try to mask pain,” he said.

While increased use of medication use might not be the reason for fewer starts in American Thoroughbreds, there is no doubting the fact that its use is more extensive.

“It is rather phenomenal the number of (therapeutic) medications in barn searches” stemming from drug-positive testing, Arthur said.

Despite this growth in drug use, there have been much progress within the racing industry to establish drug thresholds: minimum levels of legal medications that can be present in post-race samples. These thresholds have greatly strengthened their regulations of the limits for trainers’ drug administration.

However, Arthur said gaining uniformity in these medication regulations across different racing jurisdictions has been difficult. Some trainers, despite knowing the threshold, still stretch the limit. Sometimes they get caught.

“There are some who dance too close to the fire and you can’t feel sorry for them when they get burned,” he said.

While the panelists did not arrive at a definite reason for why horses are not racing as often, the summit session did provide food for thought, and plenty of fodder for future discussions.