Seabiscuit and Scintigraphy

By W. Cothran Campbell -- The pursuit of Thoroughbred horse racing as a hobby or business has always been a formidable, uphill struggle, and much of the world is aghast at the idiocy of we who pursue it. They have a point.

We stagger gamely through the dark valleys searching for the heavenly peaks that we know exist--crazily optimistic, resilient, and childlike in our faith that the Holy Grail is attainable. And it is.

I began my connection with the Thoroughbred racehorse 62 years ago, and I could never put a price on the incredible moments it has given me. I have cheerfully paid the monetary and emotional price, aware that anything truly wonderful is likely to be terribly expensive in some sort of currency.

But, folks, there is a fact of life that could make the racing of horses an untenable proposition.

Our main worry: the extraordinary degree of unsoundness and frailty of the American racehorse. If this alarming deterioration cannot be arrested, the racing of horses could become an unacceptable exercise in futility.

When I came on the racetrack, a horse would often run with a week between races. The great stables, trained by the cream of horsemen, customarily ran their horses in the Derby Trial on Tuesday and then came back and won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. They "tightened up" for the Belmont Stakes by running five days before in the Metropolitan Mile. Insane, you say? We're talking about such trainers as Ben and Jimmy Jones, Woody Stephens, and Elliott Burch.

Great horses like Ridan, Carry Back, Cicada, Citation, Bewitch, Alsab, Bold Ruler, and Round Table came out scorching as 2-year-olds in February, March, and April.

Man o' War ran three times in 15 days. Stymie ran 28 times as a 2-year-old, 131 times in all. Seabiscuit took 18 starts as a 2-year-old to break his maiden, and then got serious the rest of that season with 17 more starts.

It was nothing for horses to run 20 times during a year. Today most don't run that often during their careers. The difference in durability of horses then and now is astonishing.

What kind of horses are we breeding? Sales yearlings, with never a saddle on their backs, have chips and OCD lesions galore. Many can't breathe properly.

American racing in 2002 is, of course, greatly influenced by trainers and veterinarians, and God bless both, say I (generally speaking). Most are hard-working, dedicated men and women. But some are--perhaps unintentionally--in concert in creating a staggering and discouraging economic obstacle to the happy ownership of a racehorse. The vet administers; the trainer understandably encourages.

Our vet bills for horses on major circuits average around $7,000 per year--sometimes more than the horse is worth. Care of stakes-caliber horses can run around $15,000.

But here's the squawk. IT DOESN'T PAY OFF! All the vitamins, massage therapy, acupuncture, tonics, ultrasound, steroids, analgesics, diuretics, bronchodilators, and scoping do not result in a satisfactory number of sound racehorses.

On paper we have made wonderful veterinary advances. But have scintigraphy, ultrasound, shock therapy, etc. helped the bottom line? Do we see a significant number of accidents avoided, and, therefore, sounder, tougher horses in the entries more often?

The problems may have been identified, but where are the solutions?
If Citation, Forego, Kelso, and Seabiscuit had benefited from the findings of ultrasound, scintigraphy, and xeroradiography, think what they would have been!

Retired early. That's what they would have been.

Those immortals danced every dance, traveled, carried staggering weight, and did it on guts and talent, supported by wonderful horsemanship.

Hurrah for the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. Its quest to find answers in equine research is wonderful. Also, I applaud the growing trend in providing retirement homes for old racehorses.

But clearly we need more research, answers as to why the Thoroughbred horse is increasingly frail. Not just vague murmurings about winter quarters, hard racetracks, or breeding for speed.

If we don't get some answers, we sure better start working even harder on the retirement homes. We'll need them.

W. Cothran Campbell is founder of Dogwood Stable.