Horse Racing: Breeding for Trouble

Commercialization – The Descent of the Thoroughbred

Racing has always been anchored in prestige, money and entertainment merit. Unfortunately, as the desired qualities in the race horse shifted from endurance and robustness in favor of speed and aesthetic allure, the grandiose scale of expansion of the industry developed such that these creatures are now the basis of global financial empires.

The 1970’s and 80’s proved to unearth the establishment of large partnership groups that would control the major proportion of breeding and Thoroughbred ownership on a global basis. Although not the only syndicates, two of the most influential of these organizations are the Coolmore and Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley operations. Together they comprise the world’s biggest marketers of stallions, with breeding bases spread throughout Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. Each of these operations breed heavily from stallions descended from the 1960s North American flat racing champion runner, Northern Dancer – the grandson of Native Dancer.

With such dominance and the inherent and fierce competition that spontaneously arises between economic super powers, the prices for young unproven bloodstock sky rocketed.

“Prices for young, untried horses reached phenomenal levels, with $13.1 million being paid in 1985 for the Nijinsky yearling Seattle Dancer. More extraordinary was the $10.2 million paid for the Northern Dancer yearling, Snaafi Dancer, who – despite the huge price on his head – was never fit or fast enough to race and was found to be infertile when tried at stud.”

With such autonomy and wealth-infused empires governing the racing industry therein lies the inevitable; an influence so formidable that there are few counteractive forces to prevent the disquieting proliferation of an ever-growing narrow gene pool. The control of the most sought after stallions and the financial capacity to outbid anyone but each other lends itself to indeterminate, yet measured compromise of the genetic pool of the modern Thoroughbred.

One need only look at the reigning sires of our times and their profuse liaison with the recurrent Native Dancer genes. The chart below shows the top twelve sires in the world for 2010.

Table 1. The 2010 World Top 12 Stallions/Sires: Bloodlines

Clearly, the breeding of Native Dancer’s bloodlines plays a critical role in the decline of the diversity of the modern Thoroughbred pedigree and further highlights the excessive narrowing of the gene pool from which the current breeding population is drawn. Historically, thoroughbreds have always been inbred in the quest to produce a better breed however what’s important today is the “relative” inbreeding of the current prototype and the modern obsession with speed, a breeding strategy of greed and failure to recognize the inevitable.

Some experts say that Thoroughbreds are faster than they were 100 years ago but the breed has not seen any measurable increase in speed over the last 30 years or so despite larger foal crops and therefore a large pool from which to draw from. Rather, the sport is producing evermore fragile horses and endangering the long-term health of the breed. Additionally racing fans, especially in NA, have become fixated on shorter, faster, more exciting races such that breeders have turned to producing sprinters as opposed to more robust distance runners.

Although larger at a younger age and more muscular, their bone structures have suffered and appear to be getting lighter and frailer – a recipe for disaster given that the lower parts of a horses legs have no muscle but are composed of a network of bones, tendons and ligaments. With muscle mass concentrated in their upper bodies and massive hind muscles, running on ankles not much bigger than a human puts enormous stress on the lower extremities which has led to higher incidences of catastrophic breakdowns. Built for speed perhaps, but at the expense of strength, stamina and durability.

Renowned American equine specialist Dr. Robert Cook FRCVS PhD in a letter to the Thoroughbred Times states:

“Because of the annual increase in the coefficient of inbreeding that occurs in any population with a closed stud book, the Thoroughbred horse is getting more fragile with every succeeding generation. It will undoubtedly take less stress and less of an impact to break down today’s Thoroughbred than it might have taken 100 years ago. A program of genetic conservation is needed to safeguard the future of this endangered breed.”

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4 thoughts on “Horse Racing: Breeding for Trouble”

  1. i agree Suzanne, i was watching when this horrible tragedy happened i will never forget Eight Belles , this kind of disaster makes my blood run cold, this one could have been avoided… run mares against , geldings or stallions should never be allowed in the first place a mare will run herself to death just to beat a stallion…………… This is fact and all thew trainers know it……………………….. Rest in Peace Beautiful Eight Belles………..


  2. This is not only heartbreaking, it is infuriating – just like so many other things that are happening to our horses. And, sadly, I haven’t a clue as to what to do about it.

    As long as the God Mammon is worshiped to the exclusion of everything else by those who control the futures of our breeds, things can only get worse. I have NEVER watched horse races for fear of what I might see. It’s bad enough to read about it and see pictures. To watch it happen… I can’t stand it.

    Things like this make me ashamed to be a human.


  3. I had never seen this actual picture before, how very very tragic. I remember Robby Albarado saying, at the time, it was the worst thing he had seen in horse racing. And I believe he was right. RIP Beautiful EIGHT BELLES. You will NOT BE FORGOTTEN.


    1. The pictures of the horses that gave their lives for the sport of racing are some of the most heart-wrenching of the many atrocities that are committed against the horse.

      Of course slaughter is ultimately the worst.

      Why does this continue to happen? It is the lowest of low that we have cast upon the noble and ever-trusting animal that the horse is and has been since the dawn of time.

      Too painful to think about, at least for me.


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