I gave my horse an extra hug yesterday.
After watching the Kentucky Derby yesterday, and seeing Eight Belles run a tremendous race, only to break both her front legs after crossing the finish line, I felt absolutely sick. And I've worked on a thoroughbred farm, so I'm not one of those who claim owners and trainers are greedy, heartless people, because I know that's far from the truth. Still, American thoroughbred racing is headed for a crisis, if it's not already there.
Once upon a time, horse racing was as popular as NASCAR is now, and some of that was because people found heros to root for among the horses. Even the least horsey of you out there probably know about Seabiscuit, from the recent movie if nothing else. The public used to have favorites that they followed and came to the tracks to watch. That was in a time when horses might race until the age of five or six or seven, and they ran enough times that people could get to know them.
Some years back, though, horse racing faded as a popular sport, and attempts were made to stop that slide. One predominant method was for big corporate sponsors such as Visa and Yum Foods to offer multi-million dollar purses to garner publicity for a race. They favored the races such as the Triple Crown that were already well known to most of the public. While the Triple Crown has always been important in racing, in days gone by a three year old Triple Crown winner would next be expected to prove himself against older horses.
But these days there aren't many older horses running. With the greatest incentives in the races for two and three year olds, that's what the industry has focused on producing: horses that can win at that young age. A three year old horse is akin to an eight month old dog or a fourteen year old person- neither skeletally nor mentally mature. And while that may make sound like it is
greed that motivates owners and trainers, it's really not. Breeding for young stars is a method of survival.
Raising horses of any type is very time consuming and expensive, hence the term "horse poor." Thoroughbreds in particular receive exceptional care. At the farm I worked on we gathered all 140 foals out of the pasture to take their temperature every day until they were one year old to make sure we would catch the earlist signs of illness. Each thoroughbred is a little bit of the American dream to the owner, and most feel very attached to their horses. The trainers and staff who take care of the horses are even more invested in them. It's no surprise that Eight Belles' trainer was in tears after the race, nor that he commented that he saw his grown son and daughter every few days, but he saw the horse every day.
Breeding for the young stars has favored certain lines of horses that develop quickly. Unfortunately, those same lines are also noted for fragility. One line in particular is the one that traces to the stallion Phalaris, born in 1913. His line has become so popular, it's almost impossible to find a modern thoroughbred that doesn't trace to him. With the increase in the popularity of the line has come the increase in the frequency of catastrophic breakdowns that now haunt the thoroughbred industry.
John Henry, Kelso, and Forego were examples of the old style horse hero. They were each enormously popular with the public, and each achieved multiple awards as older horses, racing to the age of eight or nine. John Henry and Kelso had no Phalaris blood; Forego traced to him once. In contrast Barbaro traced to Phalaris eight times, as did Eight Belles. Smarty Jones' owners disappointed the public by retiring the horse at the age of three, but it was the best protection of their priceless horse, because he traces to Phalaris eleven times. Now safely at stud, though, Smarty Jones will likely sire the next crop of fragile horses.
The public rightly won't stomach much more of these too frequent breakdowns, and the sport risks falling into ignominy. The overhaul it needs won't be easy. Changing purses to encourage the running of older horses is one step, but first the industry will have to get away from the fragile descendants of Phalaris that populate most barns.
I hope that horse racing can save itself. It's one of the oldest sports we have, and the horses do love to run. You can hardly restrain the "go" in a thoroughbred. My job at the thoroughbred farm was probably the best I've had. Long hours, low pay, but man was it fun. The horses and the people dedicated to them were very special, and the air was always filled with that bit of hope that characterizes the American dream.