Soundness in the Thoroughbred

Soundness in the Thoroughbred
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

By Alan Porter

It has become conventional wisdom that the Thoroughbred in general is "less sound, rugged, and durable" than in the past, as David Schmitz recently commented. We can certainly reflect that back in the 1850s—the era of Lexington—races frequently consisted of multiple heats run over three or four miles. Well into the late 1800s, the Australian great, Carbine, frequently contested two races on the same day, and would be back in action 24 hours later. In the 1940s, handicap stars such as Assault, Stymie, and Gallorette might turn out against each other on consecutive weekends, or at least on alternate weekends. Later in that decade and on into the ’50s, classic horses such as Citation and Bold Ruler (with a month between the Preakness and Belmont) fit in an extra start between legs of the Triple Crown, something unthinkable today. A more recent and less anecdotal argument for activity diminishing over the years is the fact that the average number of starts per year for Thoroughbreds in the U.S. declined from 11.31 in 1960 to 6.37 in 2006.

A quick look at the information above would make it easy to assume that the physical integrity of the breed truly has declined. That, however, would be to ignore many other potential factors that influence the figures. The statistics themselves demand a closer look. To give them absolute credibility, we would have to believe that there has been a marked physical change in the breed in what averages out to about five or six generations (from the sires of runners in 1960 to the sires of runners in 2006). Given there are 25 generations of development from the founding fathers of the breed to the present day (which, for example, is the number of generations from the Darley Arabian to A.P. Indy), it does seem odd there should be such a rapid decline in capability in such a short period, especially at a time when type should be increasingly, not decreasingly, fixed.

Lacking a quick method to study whether the modern Thoroughbred has less bone, less dense bone, or more conformational deviations than horses five generations ago, we can still consider some potential external factors. The most telling of these might be intensity of competition. One hypothesis (first advanced to me by geneticist David Foye) is that the Thoroughbred has reached a peak of development and has now plateaued. It seems logical that after 300-plus years of selective breeding, we would inevitably reach a point when it becomes difficult to make further significant improvement. This is particularly so with horses who, unlike humans, cannot simply train harder and harder (and even in some human fields of endeavor it appears a plateau has been reached: for example, Sebastian Coe set a world record for 800 meters—the metric equivalent of a half mile—back in 1981, and in the 26 years since, that record has been bettered by only one man, suggesting 1:41 and change is about as fast as a human can run the distance). In the equine world we have a good marking point in Dr. Fager's then-world record for a mile of 1.32.1 set in 1968, and still unsurpassed on dirt.

I contend that, in North America at least, the Thoroughbred effectively reached a plateau in its development 30 years ago (perhaps three to five generations ago, depending on the individual pedigree). I also maintain that during this time, the athletic ability of the average horse has continued to advance—borne out by the times run by relatively moderate performers—so the gap between the best, 10th-best, 100th-best, and so on, is continually diminishing.

At the same time, the equine population has undergone consistent growth, so there are more horses running much faster than in bygone days. Add in the fact that the majority of races in North America in this period have been run on dirt, which leads to a physically more stressful running style emphasizing early speed, and some other possibilities suggest themselves.

Given the presence of more fast horses than ever before, competition is inevitably fiercer. And unlike the days of Stymie and company, when one might face the same horses every week or two, a modern horse on the same schedule would tend continually to find himself facing waves of fresh challengers. It's also far less likely that any modern horse will dominate his rivals in the style of Citation, whose ability differential turned a good proportion of his races into public workouts. It's no coincidence that while human recreational runners might race frequently, world class athletes, especially in the middle and long distances, hone themselves for a few superlative efforts a year (or even solely in Olympic or World Championship years).

Increased competitive stresses are best handled by giving horses more time to recover between races, and this has become the fashion of the day for top class performers. I would actually go even further and suggest that, while economics might make this difficult, more moderate performers might also often run better with more time between races, rather than lining up every two weeks for as long as they are physically able.

Concerning potential causes of the decline in starts, I have to conclude that either the North American Thoroughbred has undergone some radical change in physical constituency in the last 40 years (five or six generations), or that any combination of circumstantial factors, such as increased intensity in competition, fashions in training, or alterations in racing surface, have made themselves known.

Moving from the general to the specific, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation has compiled statistics related to percentage of starters to foals, and average number of races per starter for contemporary stallions.

The figures for average starts per starter reveal, as one might expect, that in general, cheap horses run more frequently and over a longer period of time than their more expensive contemporaries. Of course, whereas the principal goal of horses whose pedigrees give them little residual value as breeding stock is to make a living on the track, the primary objective of the offspring of the A.P. Indys and Storm Cats of the world is to establish their value as breeding stock. (The obvious first question before even considering starting an A.P. Indy filly is, “Can she win?” If she wins, the question normally asked before continuing her career is, “Can she earn black type?” If not, she more than likely will be worth more in the breeding shed than at the racetrack.) Thus, careers are limited by economic, not physical, factors. The hypothesis is confirmed when we look at the average starts per starter and realize that we cannot find a horse that would fairly be described as a current mainstream Kentucky commercial stallion among the first 50.

We might expect a different picture when we consider the percentage of starters from foals of racing age. There are several reasons which might give the more expensively conceived and raised horses an edge: generally speaking, more thought has gone into their breeding, which one hopes would lead to more correct, and therefore potentially sounder, individuals; they often have more money and expertise invested in their upbringing and training; and it might even be hypothesized that they would tend to run at more prestigious tracks, which could potentially be better maintained, reducing the possibility for injury. Against that, for commercial considerations, the offspring of more expensive sires are less likely to be asked to race if they appear unlikely to make the grade.

This is confirmed by the table listing percentage of starters from foals, which, if not exactly headed by a “Who's Who” of the commercial breed, does include more names which are somewhat nearer the commercial mainstream of the breed than the starts per runner table. There are also some ironies here. The list is topped by Turbulent Kris, a son of Kris S. (also sire of 11th-ranked You and I), a horse who only started five times (it is worth noting that Kris S. was frequently an influence for ability on turf, a trait of many of the list leaders). Raise a Native—a child of the ’60s, a supposedly sounder era—started only four times, and is often held to be a chief culprit in spreading unsoundness, particularly through Mr. Prospector. Yet the top 10 features one son and male-line grandsons of Mr. Prospector. Danzig, a horse whose career was limited to only three starts because of soundness problems, is represented by two of the more expensive higher-ranked horses, seventh-rated Anabaa (whose offspring have primarily been running on European turf) and 12th placed Langfuhr  . Storm Cat, another whose career was interrupted by injury, has six horses in the top 50. And, in a true slice of strange, Malibu Moon  —who is among the leaders of current U.S. stallions standing for $40,000 and up by starters to foals—started only twice!

I am not convinced that the basic constitution of the Thoroughbred has changed as much as the decline in starts since 1960 would indicate. That said, the attempt to give information with regard to the soundness of individual stallions is a laudable one, highlighting an area that is generally not given as much attention as it deserves.

There is a lot of room for refinement before these statistics become truly valuable, however. I suggest ranking sires by stud fee range—which would tend to create some equality of opportunity with regard to commercial factors—and ideally sorting by surface (which of course raises the question of the all-weather track, which might eventually see a checking of current trends, at least as far as the run of the mill performer is concerned). Then, irrespective of arguments regarding the past and present, breeders might have a valuable tool with which to plan for the future.

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