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Why Don’t We Race Them?

Some interesting angles on America and Europe

In an era of flagging industry fortunes, field sizes have become a hot topic in South Africa- with answers not readily available.

Should we be racing with barrier draws after acceptance and are trainers being consulted about programming? And what of the other multitude of reasons?

In this Letter From America – EBN 20 April – entitled ‘No Looking Back’, it is suggested that the American and European racing and training systems have always been vastly different, and, historically, American racehorses raced more frequently than European horses.

For more than 100 years after American racing finally transitioned from 4m heat racing to “dash” racing after the Civil War, American trainers habitually raced their charges every couple of weeks, building up records like the great 1950s Champion Round Table’s 43 wins in 66 lifetime starts that are now viewed as impossible for modern American champions. But is it?

Despite ample and incontrovertible evidence that the average number of lifetime starts for American Thoroughbreds has declined from more than 30 in the 1950s to less than half that number in the 2000s, geneticists tell us that genetic change simply cannot happen that fast.

While physical soundness may have declined measurably (if we could figure out how to accurately measure it) over the last 70 years, genetics alone cannot possibly account for a 50 per cent drop in the most obvious measure of the soundness of the breed.

Race day medications have taken much of the blame, and it is historically ironic that it is clear that they play a part in reducing the number of starts American horses make since they were initially sold to racing authorities as a way to do just the opposite.

Lasix was supposed to allow more bleeders to race more often, but instead forces trainers to give horses more time between races because it dehydrates and physically debilitates the horse. And non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like Butazolidin mask pain and lead to more breakdowns and therefore fewer starts.

The phenomenal rise in the value of thoroughbreds is also inversely related to the number of starts they are likely to make.


In Round Table’s day, the American record price for a thoroughbred yearling was $87,000 for the Hyperion colt Rise ‘N Shine in 1957, and the first $100,000 yearling did not appear until 1961. Secretariat’s record syndication in 1973 opened the floodgates to rising prices and, fittingly, he sired the first seven-figure yearling, the $1.5m Canadian Bound.

Soon it became more profitable to retire horses to stud than race them. All of those factors have doubtless contributed to the decline in the apparent soundness of the American thoroughbred, but another purely human factor may be just as important.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s the dominant American trainer was D Wayne Lukas, who trained his horses fast and hard and ran them often, but toward the end of that period, new owners coming into the sport with an analytical business approach began selecting trainers on the basis of their percentage of winners to runners.

That favoured trainers who avoided using prep races to get their horses fit, and trainers who favoured the old-fashioned method of racing their horses fit found it more and more difficult to attract patronage.

All of which leads us to this week’s lists of potential runners in our first Classic, the Gr.1 Kentucky Derby on 4th May.

Their career race records read far more similarly to the records of the list of favourites for the first Classic, the Gr1 2,000 Guineas run on the same day, than they would have 50, 40, 30, or even 20 years ago.

The top four likely Derby favourites, Omaha Beach (7), Game Winner (6), Improbable (5), and Roadster (4), have raced a bit more than Too Darn Hot (4), Ten Sovereigns (3), Magna Grecia (3) and Skardu (2), four of the top choices for the 2,000 Guineas, but the disparity is nothing like what it once was.

One difference that still remains is that three of the Europe based Guineas favourites will go into the race without having run this year, and no American trainer in his right mind would ask a horse to face the 20-horse madness that is Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May without a prior run.

Every likely entry has run at least twice this year.

Will American horses race more frequently when race day Lasix and other drugs are finally banned?

It has become clear to everyone except (apparently) trainers that is what has to happen for American racing to survive. I’m guessing the answer to that question is no, at least not right away. Habits die hard and our system remains very different from Europe.

European trainers are free to stage what are essentially private races among their charges for their workouts, while it is very rare for American trainers to do anything of the sort beyond working two horses together. Even that can cause owners to fire them on the spot.

Although a large segment of the American population has taken to looking back to “make America great again”, that will not work for racing. The way forward is clear. No looking back.


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12 comments on “Why Don’t We Race Them?

  1. Jay August says:

    This article mentions the usual suspects when discussing the decline of starters and the possible lack of soundness in modern racehorses; drugs, stallion values, and change in training method. However, there are other potential suspects which are seldom if ever discussed.

    Firstly, the nutritional value of fodder(food) may have dropped over the last 50 years. We hear all the time why human food, while more abundant in modern times, is less nutritious. Yet I’ve not heard this argument used with horses. Race day medication may simply be masking a very real problem with the nutritional value of horse feed and the resulting need to fix structural weaknesses which come about because of it.

    Secondly, stallions 50+ years ago were covering books of no more than 50 mares. Today they can easily cover 200 or more and do so over two breeding seasons per year, with arduous travel schedules in between. To what extent does this concentration (and perhaps overuse) of productive ability dilute the soundness of the average horse? We know for sure it does not decrease the ability of the best horses or even the average horse, but we have no way of telling if it impacts soundness, or do we?

    Thirdly, foal crops today are much larger than they were 70 (Round Table) and 100 (Man o’ War) years ago. There is a fair degree of statistical data – in the US – supporting the notion that as foal crops increased over the last century so did average race times, and that the stagnation in recent race times is because foal crops have not grown but have in fact dropped.

    Increased foal crops ensure much stiffer potential competition which requires horses to run harder and faster than they would with lesser competition. In 1920 when Man o’ War was racing the foal crop in the US was around 1700 foals.

    In 1973 when Secretariat was competing the yearly foal crop was 24000 foals. Horses that compete in Grade 1 races are in the top half percent of any foal crop. As a result Man o’ War would have likely have had 9 horses potentially equal to himself while Secretariat would have had 120!

    The Kentucky Derby field size has remained constant at around 20 starters so the likelihood Secretariat, and today’s competitor, is facing a much stiffer set of horses and therefore having to run faster to win, than was Man’ o War, should be obvious.

    When horses have to run harder and faster they must have a higher probability of sustaining an injury. If so, is that a soundness issue or just the natural consequence of stiffer competition?

    I think we too easily fall into the medication is bad argument and from there extrapolate very simple but potentially wrong assumptions. Soundness in thoroughbreds is an extremely complex issue and blame cannot simply be laid at the medication table.

    Hoping a ban on medication is the solution, without any serious actual data to validate the assumption, could have very serious unintended consequences down the line. When those unintended consequences occur what will then be blamed? Will there be another emotional debate devoid of any serious analytical study? Knowing humans I fear so!

  2. Barry Irwin says:

    This post has so many erroneous comments that it is difficult to narrow them down or even to find a starting point, but let me mention just a few. Keep in mind that I lived and reported these events, so I was there and I know whereof I speak. First, D. Wayne Lukas did not work his horses fast. But he had the greatest influence in the game because he worked his horses every 6 or 7 days, whereas prior to that trainers worked them every 4 or 5 days. Secondly, that nonsense about Secretariat not being able to cut it today because he was racing in smaller foal crops. Look, the size of a foal crop is not directly related to the quality of the horses in that crop. Not only is Secretariat in a league by himself as a racehorses, his rival Sham likely would have won any Triple Crown in any other year. I covered both horses, knew the connections, had a good frame of reference for their achievements and they were two of the best racehorses I have ever seen. I was there when drugs were introduced in the early 1970s and they have completely changed the game. And worse yet are the illegal designer drugs related to EPO. This more than anything else accounts for the lack of number of starts of top horses, as they are programmed to peak on certain days and they cannot be brought back in short order. Drugs, both legal, are killing the game in America.

  3. Jay August says:

    Barry, I am assuming you refer to my comment rather than the post as you eventually talk about foal crops after your opening diatribe.

    If you want to convince someone of the veracity of your argument I suggest you avoid using the ploy of stating that you were there and therefore must have better knowledge. That is as awkward as saying “trust me”. Usually cogent and persuasive arguments suffice to convince others.

    You clearly have not read my foal crop statement with any degree of understanding or if you have you most certainly have completely misunderstood it. I am unclear how you believe I said that Secretariat would not “cut it” today. I have said the exact opposite.

    It should not take a PHD in maths to know that larger foal crops lead to more competition for the twenty starting spots in the KYD. That increased competition means horses are likely to have to run faster in such a race. Running faster has the inherent risk of introducing more injury.

    The set of competitors that Secretariat faced were likely far more competitive than those faced by Man o’ War. Sham is but one of them. The same holds true for any KYD starter today. Perhaps you need to reread my comments rather than impute your own preconceived notion of what I meant.

    Your reference to D Wayne Lukas training his horses less often is irrelevant as I am talking about horses running harder in competition not in training. I make no reference to training methods.

    You make very serious allegations about drugs none of which you back up with any solid evidence. I’m afraid I don’t trust statements that are based on mere hearsay and are qualified with a “trust me, I was there” statement.

    You may find that the consequences of “pushing” a potentially false narrative on drugs, and their eventual banning, may not solve the issue, but may actually point to the other compounding factors which you choose not to consider or simply ignore. Trust me!

  4. Barry Irwin says:

    You write “It should not take a PHD in maths to know that larger foal crops lead to more competition for the twenty starting spots in the KYD. That increased competition means horses are likely to have to run faster in such a race. Running faster has the inherent risk of introducing more injury.”

    There is no evidence that a foal crop of 50,000 would produce better racehorses than one that contained 25,000.

    When stallion books were smaller in America, the quality was better.

    There are only so many quality mares to go around. Having more foals does not mean there will be more quality.

    Proof of the pudding is the precipitous drop in the percentage of black-type runners and champions for today’s over-bred stallions than in the past when books were comprised of 32, 40 and 66 mares.

    And the further extrapolate that the more runners, the harder and faster the races, is totally absurd.

    Horses today are not as good as they were 50 years ago in America and this relates directly to the rise in commercialism.

    As for my comments on drugs, I know what I am writing about and I stick by everything I have written. I happen to have knowledge on the subject that is not readily available to the public.

  5. Jay August says:

    Barry, you make a statement such as “There is no evidence that a foal crop of 50,000 would produce better racehorses than one that contained 25,000”, and you then proceed to make a large number of statements which have no evidence other than your own anecdotal ones.

    You cannot make anecdotal statements without any serious evidence and then not allow other’s to do the same. Perhaps I can suggest you take a simple course in statistics to see how more foals can quite clearly lead to more competition. Your assumption that these extra foals must all be of lower quality has no evidence to back up that assumption.

    Once again you fail to read my comments properly and make an absurd statement like “And the(sic) further extrapolate that the more runners, the harder and faster the races, is totally absurd.” Where have I extrapolated any such idea? You really need to read a little more carefully!

    What I have said, and this is now the third time I say this, is that the numbers of starters in the KYD has not increased beyond 20, yet the foal crop from 1917 to 1970 has increased from 1700 to 25000. Therefore it must be likely that the number of above average horses running in 1973 compared to 1920’s KYD is quite high. That implies better competition in 1973 compared to 1920 and the likelihood of better race times and harder races.

    Your last statement is perhaps the most telling – “I happen to have knowledge on the subject that is not readily available to the public”. To paraphrase Thomas Sowell, who anointed you as guardian of this knowledge?

    PS – to open a sore wound and one I know will not get a straight answer from you; you really should tell us how many of Team Valor’s horses that ran in the US ran with race day medication and why.

  6. Barry Irwin says:

    Sorry to spoil your party.

  7. Ian Jayes says:

    Whatever happened to the 1 July 2009 Report on the “Lasix” trials that were conducted at the Vaal racecourse. This was supposed to be the definitive test for the legalising or banning of furosemide throughout the world.

  8. Barry Irwin says:

    Robin Bruss told me they were tainted and useless because of how they were conducted. I rely upon him as my authority on this subject. P. S. Have you ever heard this one: “Figures don’t lie but liars figures?” I see it a lot with figure filberts in our sport.

  9. alan says:

    Mr Irwin i agree whole heartedly with you and your assesments. I have a good friend that used to bring medications into South Africa from Australia and Argentina and sell it to the racehorse trainers in South Africa and Mauritius. The products ranged from anabolics to epo to stanazolol to the famous brown bottle that was manufactured in Argentina(growth hormone) by a private chemist. This was in the late eighties. Some of the trainers that bought these medications are still training today here in Sa and overseas namely Australia. Now none of this is heresay or creating sensation. These guys(ONE WAS A VET SURGEON STILL PRACTISING TODAY) that were importing these products were caught by the narcotics bureau and were charged in a court of law in South Africa.The court records are there for everyone to see.
    So Mr Jay August there have been drugs in the industry in the past and i am sure there is still now. I believe Mr Irwin knows what he is talking about.

  10. Jay August says:

    Alan, just where have I said that there have not been drugs in the industry? I doubt very much you actually understand what I have said, but in case you have, please answer the question!

  11. Daniel says:

    Jay August thinks he knows everything in racing. Including who rides best or not. He’s so clued up he should apply for a trainers licence. Poor industry 😳

  12. Jay August says:

    Daniel (or whatever your name is), Ad hominem reasoning betrays your own intellect, but as long as it makes you happy I guess it works. Poor you!

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