Sound Off - by Dan Liebman

Something important must happen before a problem can be solved. It must be acknowledged that a problem exists.

After analyzing the data in a study released this week by The Blood-Horse, and listening to a discussion of the information by six industry participants, it is clear that a problem exists.

It is far from clear what must be done to fix it.

More than six months ago, The Blood-Horse began compiling data going back to 1970, searching for trends that relate breeding to racing. The results are not all that surprising. But they are very revealing.

Interestingly, the topic of where the breed is heading has come to the fore since the collection of data began, making headlines following the breakdown of Eight Belles in the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

One of the key statistics in The Blood-Horse study is the average number of starts per foal, which was 20.42 in the 1970s, 17.84 in the ’80s, 16.89 in the ’90s, and so far this decade (crops from 2000-03) is registering 13.15. Starts per starter has seen a similar decline, from 29.03 in the ’70s to 16.72 today.

What makes these numbers more disturbing is that during the same period, the percentage of starters from foals has increased. So, more horses are getting to the track and starting, but they are making fewer starts.

For two hours July 11, The Blood-Horse invited Bobby Trussell, Rob Whiteley, Duncan Taylor, Rob Keck, Mike Pons, and Arthur Hancock III to discuss the trends as seen in the study.

A few snippets from the participants are revealing about their strong opinions on the subject of current breeding practices:

• Trussell wants to know why the horses he sends to race in Europe routinely make more starts and stay sounder than his domestic runners. He is quick to point out the differences in medication policies and produces a lengthy list of drugs administered to his U.S.-based horses so far in 2008. “We need incentives for the owners. If I can avoid $100,000 in vet bills a year, and my horses run more, not less, that would do it for me.”

• Keck sees a different mindset among breeders. “Success is now breeding a sales horse, not breeding a grade I winner,” he said. His best line: “We don’t have sound horses because people aren’t breeding to sound horses.”

• Whiteley stated his belief that the breed has not changed, but the handling of the breed has. With the current practices, he said, “We may not be damaging the breed, but damaging the industry. Perhaps what we need is a structural analysis of how the game has changed, not how the breed has changed.”

• Hancock, a proponent of federal guidelines, also decries medication and believes the industry would best be served by a return to the days of hay, oats, and water. “We need a level playing field, zero tolerance,” he said.

• Taylor, an advocate for a national governing body, said it is important to “give the fans what they want­—drug-free racing.” Because much of the evidence about breeding is anecdotal, Taylor said more studies should be done because “what we need to search for is the truth.”

• Pons said owners need to be in control of their stables. “What I see today is less horsemanship…if we don’t agree with the vet or the trainer, then we need to make a change,” he said.

Owners lose money, hoping to hit the one big lick. As Trussell eloquently stated about the industry: “We have the biggest collection of optimists ever assembled in one place.”

Hopefully this study, and others to follow, will help continue the ongoing dialogue on the current state of the Thoroughbred breed.

The Blood-Horse presents "Losing the Iron Horse?", an in-depth report, available as a free PDF download, which investigates whether the Thoroughbred racehorse is as tough today as it was 30 to 40 years ago. 

Video: Losing the Iron Horse? Part I Six prominent breeders and owners debate the durability of the modern racehorse. 

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