One of the little ironies of the hype leading up to the Preakness a couple of weeks ago was trainer D. Wayne Lukas complaining that the Triple Crown was too tough. His main point was that the schedule was too taxing for a young thoroughbred. I wondered if there might be two D. Wayne Lukases, because the D. Wayne Lukas I remember is a trainer with the reputation of overworking his two year olds, leaving them woefully overtaxed to have a full year of success at three.
But there was something else he said a few weeks earlier that took me aback, and it got me thinking about what I see as a major and unaddressed problem of the thoroughbred industry—breeding practices.
No, I’m not talking about the act of breeding. That’s pretty well controlled these days. Breeders go to the extreme of videotaping each mating to assure the mare’s owner that the stallion paid for is the stallion that covers the mare. And there’s the charming practice of testing the stallion’s semen immediately upon breeding to assure that there is sufficient active sperm for the stud to be considered fertile. There are also ramps to lessen the risk of the stallion falling, muzzles to keep the stallion and mare from overenthusiastic love bites, and (this is my favorite touch) teaser stallions to get the mares all hot and bothered so the real stud doesn’t have to waste time on foreplay.
So if it isn’t the act of breeding that causes concern, what does? Lukas told Gary West of the Dallas Morning News, “People are breeding more for speed, now.” Whoa there cowboy! If it is indeed true that the sole consideration of U.S. thoroughbred breeders is speed, no wonder the breed is in trouble in the United States.
In the not too distant past, thoroughbred breeders had a goal—improve the breed. Thoroughbreds were bred for three things, yes, speed was one of them, but equally important were soundness and stamina.
What has changed that? Money. Thoroughbred breeders don’t have a long-term vision based on building the breed and racing their own horses, they have a short-term impetus to make money by selling their horses. Young horses are rushed into training, pushed to run fast as two year olds to be sold at higher prices. They’re bred to become bigger, younger, thereby exacerbating shortcomings of conformation and making them susceptible to breaking down. If horses, sore from badly formed legs and feet, can run on anti-inflammatories and win one or two stakes before breaking down, the horses can be bred for more money and the mares can produce foals that sell for more.
There is no sense of responsibility on the part of the breeder and no sense on the part of the buyer. Why bother to breed, train, and race sound horses when you can charge tens of thousands of dollars to breed a mare to your stallion that won a couple of stakes and broke down as a three year old? Why bother to avoid breeding bleeders (who suffer from respiratory bleeding when they race) if you can run a horse on Lasix to get those two stakes wins and then breed more bleeders?
Why is that bothering me? Well, what makes racing exciting for those who are not gambling addicts? Has a sprinter ever caught the imagination of the general (or even sports mad) public? No. the horses who can go a classic distance—1 ¼, 1 ½, 2 miles—are the ones who gather fans and live on in our memories. And those distances aren’t classic because some PR guy decided it sounded cool. They’re classic because they separate the wheat from the chaff.
In a race at a classic distance, coming out of the final turn, rounding into that stretch run it becomes crystal clear to everyone watching, from experts to neophytes, who the real racehorses are. These horses are the ones capable of drawing fans, not just gamblers, to the tracks, not just betting parlors. These stars are the horses that can draw people to watch races on television and read about them. These breathtaking creatures are the ones who will become extinct unless something changes the priorities of thoroughbred breeders.
Malamute breeders will not breed a dog with an underbite, because that dog is (and his progeny would be) unable to clean snow and ice out of its paws, and thus is unable to fulfill its purpose of hauling freight in the snow. Tell me, why do thoroughbred breeders breed unsound horses that cannot fulfill their purpose of running fast and far?