Saturday, May 1, 2004

Horse of a different color

Racing is much different today than it used to be. The careers of thoroughbreds are shorter, and theories why abound

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Thoroughbreds today are quicker than ever. So are their careers.

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To wit: While moviegoers last summer savored the saga of Seabiscuit's 89-start career, would-be superstar Empire Maker was retiring after eight races.

As the sport places increasing focus on speed, youth and spectacle, it has produced fleet but fragile specimens and perhaps jeopardized the long-term health of the breed. Making roughly half the starts horses did 50 years ago, these animals rarely linger long enough to provide the game a household name.

"We don't get to see stars like Seabiscuit, horses that stay for years and years and get the public acquainted with who you are," said Mike Battaglia, the handicapper of today's Kentucky Derby. "I would love to see something like that. But this is the nature of the business."

Gone are iron horses such as 1918 Derby winner Exterminator, who won 50 of 100 races; or Discovery, who raced 63 times and carried as many as 143 pounds; or Citation, who won 19 of 20 starts in 1948, including the Triple Crown.

Gary Biszantz, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, has said horses' careers are down from an average of four years to two over the past 30 years.

The average number of career starts per American thoroughbred, at a high of roughly 50 between 1940-49, was down to 21.2 between 1985-89, according to a 1995 study by John Sparkman, bloodstock/sales editor at the Thoroughbred Times.

Thoroughbreds on average made 6.62 starts in 2003, down 41.46 percent from 1960.

Though stats aren't kept on injuries, horses seem to break down earlier and more easily.

What has caused the decline? Experts don't agree, but here are some leading theories:

• Inflated yearling prices encourage owners to retire horses to stud. Those fees can reap a far greater financial return than the owner can yield on the track.

• There is a rush to the racetrack, as 2-year-olds are hurried into action for increasingly profitable juvenile racing.

• Shorter races nowadays force emphasis on early speed that can cause undue stress. Breeders also are producing sprinters rather than sturdy distance runners.

• Too much racing is on dirt, which is harder on horses than racing on grass. Many horsemen believe dirt tracks are packed harder nowadays, maximizing speed but also contributing to injuries.

• The onset of year-round racing and airplane travel have played a role.

• And the most controversial subject: whether the legalization of medications has led to a drug-dependent breed, weakening the gene pool.

Suggesting the depth of theories available, Sparkman offers this curiosity: Until the late 1960s, when city sewer lines were extended to the horse farms outside of the breeding capital of Lexington, most horses drank spring water, which is rich in limestone. They then switched to tap water, which isn't.


"You could list 20 possible factors," Sparkman said. "They could all have an effect, or it could be one primary factor."

A combination of fragility and economic viability surely conspires to limit top thoroughbreds' careers.

Breeders just don't make 'em like they used to, having emphasized speed over soundness and thus increased the likelihood of breakdowns.

Storm Cat, whose offset knees kept him from racing past his juvenile year, commands a $500,000 stud fee (per live foal) to transmit his questionable genes. Why? His offspring exhibit the uncommon speed that horsemen label "brilliance."

"There is commercially more of an emphasis on speed," said Dan Rosenberg, president of Three Chimneys Farm in Lexington. "Just like a pickup truck is a lot more durable than a Maserati, there is an inherent incompatibility between speed and durability."

Precocious colts Boston Harbor and Vindication, winners of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 1996 and 2002, respectively, each had a career-ending injury before even reaching the following spring's Triple Crown series. Two more Juvenile winners, Arazi (1991) and Brocco (1993), burned out and retired at 3.

The only one of the last five Kentucky Derby winners to be still racing the following spring was 2003 champ Funny Cide, largely because as a gelding he had no value off the track.

"We select for horses that are more brilliant and less durable," said Dr. Larry Bramlage, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. "Then we wring our hands because they race less. Yet it's a conscious decision."

The commercial market has gotten so lucrative that horses are all but whisked from the winner's circle to the breeding shed.

"Take a 3-year-old, and say it wins the Preakness and the Belmont," said Richard Mulhall, a longtime trainer and former racing manager for The Thoroughbred Corp. "His insurance will cost $400,000 to $500,000 a year, so you need $700,000 (including training fees and other expenses) just to pay his bills. It doesn't pay to keep him in training as a 4-year-old."

The average number of annual starts per horse is down 28.1 percent from the early 1980s, when the use of medications became widespread.

Medications found favor in the wake of Ruffian's tragic breakdown in 1975. The unbeaten filly was destroyed after falling in a nationally televised match race with Foolish Pleasure, and the public outcry was to take steps to protect horses' health.

Yet the thought that medicine would lengthen their careers might have been backward.

The first major drug was SALIX (formerly Lasix), a diuretic that reduces respiratory bleeding. Studies have shown the drug can improve performance of both bleeders and non-bleeders.

Clenbuterol is another drug that aids horses' breathing. Anti-inflammatories like phenylbutazone (known as "bute") and similar-acting corticosteroids numb pain.

Medication proponents say the anti-inflammatory drugs help horses cope with normal aches and run more often. Opponents say horses who need the drugs shouldn't be racing.

"Explain to me," Biszantz said in his 2002 Jockey Club Round Table Conference address, "how a horse that has an injury - suffering from a conceivable stress fracture, possibly a chip or maybe a soft tissue injury - treated with therapeutic medications and asked to run 6 furlongs in 1:10 and one-(fifth) with 10 horses chasing it around the track is in the healing process."

A 2002 study published by Ohio State University reported that bute suppressed healing and bone formation. Serial injections of corticosteroids, meanwhile, can seriously weaken the soft tissue in the joints of an active racehorse.

"I believe that permissive and injudicious use of medications get you to the next race, with less pain, but the long-term results are generally disastrous for the horse," Biszantz said.

In the past, if a bleeding problem went untreated, a horse might not have been effective on the track and thus never would be used as a sire. Yet now unsound horses can be patched together with medications and have successful careers, which will entice people to breed them.

"Medication plays a part in reproducing horses that might not have otherwise had a successful career," trainer Elliott Walden said. "... We could be breeding a weaker horse."

Reversing the trend of shorter careers can't happen without answering health issues. Even then, as long as the breeding dollar outpaces purses, the top thoroughbreds will take an early bow to go breed.

"I think it's less and less of a sport today and more of a business," racing author and historian Ed Hotaling said. "In the end, people are trying to make money."



• Click here to view a chart (GIF image file, 30k) showing the average price per yearling since 1908.

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