Horse Racing: Breeding for Trouble

Furthermore, the fragility of the modern Thoroughbred has led to shorter and shorter racing careers prior to going to stud. It is well documented that Thoroughbreds today run fewer races than in the past. Statistics from The Jockey Club clearly demonstrate the decreasing trend in the number of starts per horse since the 1940’s. As shown in Figure 1, since 1945 the average number of starts per horse has decreased approximately 2-fold from high of about 11 to a mere 6 in today’s racing climate.

Figure 1. Number of Starts per Horse as a Function of Time (1945-2009)

This decrease in starts per horse over time also sheds light on another contemptible fact directly related to the absurdity of the economic covetousness of the industry. With exaggerated breeding fees and bloodstock sales that generate literally millions of dollars it has forced breeders to resort to breeding something fashionable that people will be interested in buying. Unfortunately the fastest sires are usually the most unsound. In the commercial sense of the word, horses are no longer bred to race but rather are bred to sell.

“Dr. Larry Bramlage, an equine surgeon, says a supercharged auction market is even transforming the physical attributes of modern thoroughbreds. When horse racing was a pastime rather than a business, families like the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts and breeding farms like Calumet and the Hancocks’ Claiborne made stallions out of the horses who had performed well and over time.

“It was the era of Iron Horses like the 1941 Triple Crown champion, Whirlaway, who made 60 starts in his career; and the 1946 champion, Assault, who raced as a 7-year-old. In fact, the 11 Triple Crown winners together made 104 starts at age 4 or older and won 57 of them. ‘You used to see a taller thoroughbred, narrow chested and bit knock-kneed, who could run forever, but not as fast,’ Bramlage said.

“Affirmed, who in 1978 became the 11th and most recent Triple Crown champion, was perhaps the epitome of this body type. He raced 29 times, won 22 and sired more than 80 stakes winners and 9 champions. Over the past 30 years, billions spent on horses — $1.1 billion alone at auction last year — has put a premium on what Bramlage described as a ‘toed-in, wide-chested, lighter-bone horse built for speed.’ ”

The breeding market and the lucrative profits to be had from sales of offspring rather than racing have enticed many to retire their stallions to the breeding shed before they have matured. Accordingly horses are put on the track much earlier and retired to stud earlier. In particular, horses that become superstars by winning several graded stakes or celebrated races such as the Kentucky Derby are considered so valuable that they are habitually retired after their 3YO campaign. This way any limitation of racing beyond their primary years is masked and it is unknown whether they will sire any progeny capable of enduring several years of racing.

This trend amongst top breeders has also led to a diminishing number of sires producing the foal crop in any given year, further concentrating the gene pool. Many of the most sought after stallions will cover as many as 200 mares in a single year; these are the very sires that transmit the most susceptible genes to their offspring.

According to Jockey Club statistics from 1991 forward to 2010 the number of sires in North America has dropped about 65% from a high of 6,696 in 1991 to only 2,437 in 2010. This situation in North America is typical of the global picture. Figure 2 illustrates the decline in the number of sires and the increase in the average number of foals per sire over time.

Figure 2. Decline in Sires and Increase in Average Foals per Stallion Over Time

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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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