Is the American Thoroughbred a Separate Breed?

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By Scot T. Gillies


In the September issue of The Blood-Horse MarketWatch -- hitting the press this coming week -- Alan Porter reviews the post-WWII history of bloodstock exchanges between Europe and the U.S.  He concludes that, following several waves of imports and exports across five decades, the tide (in the shape of breeders' interest) now has turned against continued transfer of top stallions across the Atlantic.

Porter argues in his "Close Encounters" column that "there is virtually no European demand for a U.S. runner." He also contends that "dirt performers have a similarly-reduced appeal in countries such as Australia and New Zealand."

While the English Thoroughbred was once the world standard, and the goal of every breeder to replicate, it is now a distinctly different type than what we're producing in America. Racing throughout the world has moved away from multiple heats and marathon distances, but nowhere is this more evident than in the States. Our runners are meant to mature physically at 18 months and continue sprinting throughout their careers. We favor dirt to grass -- to the point of turning up our noses at synthetic surfaces, arguing that they're too much like the turf. We breed Thoroughbreds that bear as much resemblance to Quarter Horses as they do to the long, sleek, lean runners of Thoroughbred racing's early days. And we consider 10 furlongs to be an absurdly long race; contests at a mile and a half are belittled as archaic (the Belmont) or quaint (steeplechasing).

The world is not with us in our steady reshaping of the Thoroughbred racehorse. Fans in Japan and Hong Kong -- where racing is a respected and growing sport -- want to see two turns. German breeders -- whose Stud Book's strict requirements for stallion eligibility might prove to save the breed in the long run -- purposefully produce late-developing, sturdy runners that are anathema to the U.S. industry. The trend in Australia and New Zealand has shifted to a European-style Thoroughbred type, with an emphasis on durability. Even in South America, where U.S. discards have been popular for more than 100 years and shuttle stallions are still in high demand, breeders use our bloodstock only in deliberate matings, wanting to infuse some of our fragile speed with the hearty South American families but not to reproduce the U.S. Thoroughbred "type."

Where does the American Thoroughbred go from here? Will we continue to lose buyers from Europe (and Asia, and the Antipodes) as the breed type becomes more and more disparate? Will our average race distances continue to drop? Should we expect to see the classic races reconfigured to a six-furlong Preakness, one-mile Kentucky Derby, and nine-furlong Belmont? Or, having exported much but imported little during the past several decades, are we on the verge of another wave of stallion imports that will realign our future foal generations with those of the rest of the world?

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