The Thoroughbred Safety Committee
Soundness Issues
Dr. Larry Bramlage Dr. Larry Bramlage - Member, Thoroughbred Safety Committee

Stuart S. Janney III: When we invited people to talk to the committee, we weren't looking for them to supplement and endorse preconceived notions that we might have had. We just wanted to examine science and data that existed and then make our recommendations as we saw fit.

Well, in the course of the last few months, we found out some important things that do not require recommendations.

We've asked Dr. Bramlage, one of our committee members, to talk about some of those findings.


Dr. Larry Bramlage: Thanks, Stuart. In light of recent events in Thoroughbred racing, charges concerning soundness have been leveled by supporters and detractors of the sport. The Thoroughbred Safety Committee felt these charges had to be examined where possible and the facts established. Statements have been made in the popular press, read, re-quoted and in some instances misquoted to the point that they began to be regarded as fact.

We believe that the charges must be addressed based upon data not opinion. Therefore, for the information that we examined our conclusions are rooted in the pragmatic "the data shows" rather than the dubious "we believe."

Charge number one: The training and racing of 2-year-old Thoroughbreds is predisposing these horses to accelerated rates of injury and prematurely shortened careers.

This charge is leveled by some people in and out of the horse industry, especially people outside of racing. It is a very popular theme with animal welfare organizations that are ill informed on the topic of racing and the horse; it is also parroted frequently in the popular press.

To examine these data The Jockey Club Information Systems extracted one-year windows at five-year intervals, using the years 1975 through 2000 as data sets. Horses were divided into the categories "raced as two-year-olds" and "raced, but not as two-year-olds." The data shows a definitive answer to this charge.

The first category of data examined was average starts per starter lifetime. The data shows that horses that raced as 2-year-olds raced many more times in their lifetime in each of the years examined when compared to horses that did not race until after their 2-year-old season. Some of these starts were made in the 2-year-old year for the horses that raced at 2, but the difference was more marked than the 2-year-old year alone would account for.

Average lifetime earnings per starter for horses that raced as 2-year-olds are almost twice the amount earned by horses that did not race as 2-year-olds.

Career average earnings per start for horses that raced as 2-year-olds exceeded average earnings per start for horses that did not race as 2-year-olds in every one of the years from 1975 to 2000 examined.

Lastly, the percent stakes winners in horses that raced as 2-year-olds is nearly three times higher than in horses that did not race until their 3-year-old year or later.

This data is definitive. It shows that horses that began racing as 2-year-olds are much more successful, have much longer careers, and, by extrapolation, show less predisposition to injury than horses that did not begin racing until their 3-year-old year. It is absolute on all the data sets that the training and racing of 2-year-old Thoroughbreds has no ill effect on the horses' race-career longevity or quality. In fact, the data would indicate that the ability to make at least one start as a 2-year-old has a very strong positive affect on the longevity and success of a racehorse. This strong positive effect on the quality and quantity of performance would make it impossible to argue that these horses that race as 2-year-olds are compromised.

These data strongly support the physiologic premise that it is easier for a horse to adapt to training when training begins at the end of skeletal growth. Initiation of training at the end of growth takes advantage of the established blood supply and cell populations that are then converted from growth to the adaptation to training. It is much more difficult for a horse to adapt to training after the musculoskeletal system is allowed to atrophy at the end of growth because the bone formation support system that is still present in the adolescent horse must be re-created in the skeletally mature horse that initiates training.

Charge number two: The Thoroughbred industry is raising horses only to sell, not to race. This is weakening the breed to the point they are unable to race.

This accusation is leveled at breeders for choosing matings poorly, at commercial horse operations for raising what some call "hot house" horses and not athletes, at pinhookers for abusing the 2-year-old in training concept and at veterinarians for performing surgery to correct angular limb deformities and remove fragments from juvenile joints.

The data examined was sampled again in one-year windows at five-year intervals over the last 25 years. The data shows that preparation for sales did not compromise the horse's ability to race when compared to the breed average. Over the 25-year period the breed average to reach the races was approximately 70% in each year examined, the probability to race for horses entered in yearling sales was approximately 80%, and for horses in 2-year-old sales the probability of racing rose to the upper 80% range. In no instance did the preparation for sale drop a group of horses below the average for the breed, or therefore, below the horses not prepared for sale. Some horses in the breed average are not intended for racing, but the data shows that a very high percentage of sale horses reach their intended purposes and there is no indication of harm for these horses.

To address questions concerning the more aggressive surgical management of yearlings and the more aggressive preparation for sale with mechanical exercise systems that began in the early 1990s, the yearly data from foal crops 1989 through 2001 were examined. There is no inclination toward decreased probability of racing. The data shows that the probability of racing has, in fact, risen from 65.8% for the foal crop of 1989 to 72.5% for the foal crop of 2001. So, the surgical management of yearlings and preparation techniques for the sale are actually helping rather than hurting the chances for a horse to race.

As a measure of durability, we looked at the number and percentage of aged starters - 5-year-olds and up - that made up the racing population for the last 30 years.

The data shows the number of aged starters is amazingly stable above 30% of the racing population, dipping slightly during the glut of the 50,000-plus foal crops of the mid-1980s but rising again in the last 15 years.

Aged starters make 30% of the starts, and their earnings parallel their proportion of the racing population, remaining steady just above 25% of the available purse distributions. There is no indication from these data that in the last 30 years the Thoroughbred has become less able to sustain training. And the data indicates the aged starters have been and are currently making up a consistent third of the racing population.

The Jockey Club Fact Book indicates that the number of starts per horse per year is declining steadily, but no simple explanation for the decline suffices. Starting opportunities are a product of the number of races available times the decision to run; this decision determines the field size. The number of annual races has declined 6,570 races from 1997 to 2007, and the field size has declined one starter per race in the same period. This reduced the number of starts by 58,236 starts in 2007 compared to 1997. This combination decrease of .93 starts per starter accounts for 76% of the decline in starts per year in the last 10 years, but 65% of that decline in the last 10 years is determined by the reduction in field size alone.

The field size is determined by the decision of the trainer to run the horse. Field size was nearly static at 9 horses per race for 40 years; then it dropped by 0.7 horses per race in 7 years in the mid-1990s. This coincides with the appearance of the mega-stables and an increased emphasis on trainer statistics. The top 5% of trainers in 2007 controlled 30% of the starters, 31% of the starts, and accounted for 41% of the wins. This testifies to the influence of intra-stable handicapping and the emphasis on win percentages, and to their large contribution to the decrease in the average starts per starter. Horses don't run if they don't have a good chance to win, whether they come from a large or a small stable, but large stables magnify the effect.

When the number of races declines and the number of starters rises as it has in the last 10 years, the number of starters in a race must rise, or the number of starts per horse must fall. Since the demand to fill the 9th through the 14th positions in a race has not risen in 60 years, field size is not likely to rise. As an example, scratches due to "fever" are very frequent in horses that are 30-1 on the morning line. The emphasis on trainer statistics is likely to drive field size down farther. With more horses and less races, average starts per starter must decline if the field size does not rise, which it's not likely to do.

Many have fallen into the trap of comparing the 1950s to the 21st century. We now raise four times the number of foals raised in 1950. The number of races has only roughly doubled. This statistic alone would halve the starts per starter with a static field size, but attention to trainer statistics has depressed the field size as well. So most of the decline in career starts can be attributed to these factors of management of the horse. The horse itself probably plays some role, but the data shows it is likely a lesser role.

That the current rate of decline in the number of career starts matches the simple mathematics of inflow vs. outflow is unlikely, but the data indicates the quality of athlete, its adolescent care and its early training is not the primary problem. Preparation for sale does not harm horses, in fact it maintains or improves the chances of a horse racing; and racing as a 2-year old does not harm the racing career, it improves it in quality and quantity of performances. Five-year-old plus starters remain a stable third of our racing population. But, horses in all classes make fewer starts, because of a host of economic pressures.

The environmental and economic realities of racing the young adult horse are the areas where we must concentrate our efforts to address safety and soundness components. The data shows the Thoroughbred approaching a racing career is capable as an athlete and the successful older horse is racing a sustained career. If genetic regression plays a role it appears to implicate the transformation from a quadruped to a biped more than it does the evolution from Eclipse to Curlin.

Stuart S. Janney III: Thank you, Larry.

Back Agenda Next