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Who Would You Geld Today?

In the wake of the Derby, one comment that seemed to come up often was a belief that ‘too much’ is asked of top-level three-year-olds at this point in their careers and that delayed training or a lighter schedule could help prevent injuries of the sort Eight Belles suffered. While well-intentioned, it goes against both much scientific data and the historical record.

First, the science: many studies indicate that early training and exercise not only help thoroughbreds to develop bone mass, but also stronger tendons and overall ‘better’ legs. Here are just a few studies worth reading; they don’t all agree on a particular ideal method, but they all seem to suggest that young bones need stress to build better bones:

Let’s also compare how horses racing careers have changed in the US since the 1940s; obviously this is anecdotal, but comparing historical data regarding number and timing of lifetime starts could prove useful and I would be interested to see the results of a real survey of the available data:

  • Whirlaway
    As a 2 year old in 1940: 16 starts: 7-2-4
    Lifetime Record: 60 starts: 32-15-9
  • Nashua
    As a 2-year-old in 1954: 8 starts: 6-2-0
    Lifetime Record: 30 starts: 22-4-1
  • Secretariat
    As a 2-year-old in 1972: 9: 7-1-0
    Lifetime Record: 21 starts: 16-3-1
  • Easy Goer
    As a 2-year-old in 1988: 6: 4-2-0
    Lifetime Record: 20 starts: 14-5-1
  • War Emblem
  • As a 2-year-old in 2001: 3 starts: 2-0-0
    Lifetime record: 13 starts: 7-0-0

Obviously, this does not speak directly to the case of Eight Belles, who had 5 starts at 2 (and of course taking into account that horses can injure themselves under the most benign of circumstances) — that’s certainly more than a lot of the current crop of runners.

It’s also possible that today’s horse is simply not as robust as that of even 30 years ago (and with most thoroughbreds sharing 47% of their genes, that’s not surprising — the problem is perhaps most evident in the US because of the influence of Northern Dancer); if that is indeed the case, there is ample data on the equine genome to begin making more educated decisions about breeding:

However, the analysis of thoroughbred genetics is also revealing the other side of the coin, notes Matthew Binns of the Royal Veterinary College in London, UK. Many negative traits are associated with inbreeding in the diminutive gene pool, he says. “The selections we’ve made for fantastic beasts have had some detrimental consequences.”

One tenth of thoroughbreds suffer orthopaedic problems and fractures, 10% have low fertility, 5% have abnormally small hearts and the majority suffer bleeding in the lungs, says Binns. But as well as allowing breeders to select for performance-related genes, elucidating the horse genome may allow researchers to breed out negative traits, he says. “Now we have a good amount of the horse genome, there are interesting times ahead,” says Binns. “Over the next 10 years there will be some changes in this very traditional industry.”

It’s about time.

I’d eventually like to see some real oversight into who we breed and why – many other sporting breeds force their ‘approved’ stallions and mares to undergo rigorous (and repeated) quality control testing to assure that they are improving the breed, not simply making a buck at stud or auction. Clinging to the ‘live cover only’ rule seems like a quaint anachronism if other basic traditional breeding goals — like soundness or the ability to run drug-free — are an afterthought.

4 comments to Who Would You Geld Today?

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