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The bloodstock commentator Jay Leimbach recently offered the following post to the subscribers of a web group of confirmed students of pedigrees and sifters of arcane information.

Some of the thoughts he wrote seemed worthy of repetition, and they are reproduced here with permission.

For readers interested in the subject line, the writer’s comments on the Kentucky Derby, its times over the past several decades, and those implications make especially interesting reading.

Your thoughts and observations are most welcome.

THE VANISHING THOROUGHBRED HERO:

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By Jay Leimbach

As a boy I fell in love with the great Thoroughbreds: Man o’ War, Exterminator, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Citation, Native Dancer, and Bold Ruler. Even their names had a magical ring. As a young man I saw legendary horses like Buckpasser, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid.

It’s easy to romanticize the heroes of our youth, but in the case of the Thoroughbred there is growing evidence to suggest this is more than just nostalgia. Decades later, stakes and world records of these great horses still stand, while many of today’s best young racehorses are retiring prematurely due to injuries and unsoundness.

This lack of durability is certainly reflected in a comparison to the race records of past greats. As a 2-year-old, Man o’ War began his career with 4 starts in just 18 days, once on a single day’s rest. Seabiscuit raced an incredible 35 times at two, but didn’t reach his prime until age 5. Citation won 19 times at age three, including the Kentucky Derby on three days rest and the Jockey Club Gold Cup on just two days rest. Native Dancer won four races in a one month at Saratoga.

Today’s horses could not even dream of such feats. Racing twice in a month is now considered a stretch. The stress of the Triple Crown, run over five weeks, is now considered so taxing that few horses are able to complete all three races. Forty years ago Citation, Native Dancer, and Bold Ruler raced BETWEEN Triple Crown engagements just to stay sharp. Stymie raced an incredible 131 times before he retired to stud.

Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham observed that the great horses of the ’40s and ’50s, “were built like Russian tanks.” Shug McGaughey speaks for most trainers when he says, “I think we’re dealing with a lot softer type of horse today.”

It is also significant that imported Thoroughbreds from Europe and South America are now exerting a major influence on the racetrack, often leaving their American counterparts in the dust. In the million-dollar Santa Anita Handicap of 1997, the first three finishers were all from South America. (Siphon-Sandpit-Gentlemen).

Clearly something has gone wrong. Not only are we seeing an epidemic of unsoundness, but winning times for the major stakes races have shown no improvement in recent decades – despite advantages in faster shoes, faster racing surfaces, performance enhancing medications, and a much larger Thoroughbred population – all of which should have improved times significantly.

From the 1880s to the 1930s average winning times for the Belmont Stakes improved by 13 seconds for the mile-and-a-half race. In the first decade of the 20th Century the average winning time for the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby was 2:09 3/5. This time dropped to 2:04 3/5 by the 1940s, and 2:01 4/5 by the 1960s. But winning times actually slowed slightly in the 1970s, (despite secretariat’s stakes record), and again in the 1980s and ’90s. (See tables)

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KENTUCKY DERBY LIFETIME STARTS

AVERAGE WINNING TIMES DERBY WINNERS

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1900-09 2:09 3/5 52.9

1910-19 2:06 4/5 55.5

1920-29 2:07 34.2

1930-39 2:04 3/5 20.5

1940-49 2:04 4/5 33.0

1950-59 2:02 3/5 27.3

1960-69 2:01 4/5 25.6

1970-79 2:02 1/5 26.1

1980-89 2:02 2/5 20.5

1990-99 2:02 2/5 21.0

TEN FASTEST DERBIES

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Secretariat 1:59 2/5 (1973)

Northern Dancer 2:00 (1964)

Spend A Buck 2:00 1/5 (1985)

Carry Back 2:00 2/5 (1961)

Proud Clarion 2:00 3/5 (1967)

Grindstone 2:01 (1996)

Lucky Debonair 2:01 1/5 (1965)

Affirmed 2:01 1/5 (1977)

Thunder Gulch 2:01 1/5 (1995)

Whirlaway 2:01 2/5 (1941)

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It can quickly be seen that most of the fastest Derbies came before 1978. While the Derby is not the sole measure of the breed it remains the ultimate standard for American Thoroughbreds. Apparently we are now seeing a breed that is no longer growing faster, but simply more fragile. A recent survey of the sport’s top 50 sires showed they averaged only ten starts lifetime: at best a dubious genetic pool from which to draw.

Dr. Fager’s world record for the mile on the dirt (1:32 1/5) has stood since 1968, Secretariat’s dirt record for 1 1/2 miles (2:24) has stood since 1973, and Spectacular Bid’s record for 1 1/4 miles (1:57 4/5) since 1980. This is in stark contrast to the Standardbred of harness-racing, where records fall almost monthly. This breed has grown out of a wide genetic background providing the variation needed for long-term improvement and vigor.

The basic purpose of all livestock breeding is to reinforce the best traits of a breed, while improving the weaknesses. Reinforcing the best traits is usually done by selective inbreeding to great ancestors, while improving the weaknesses is accomplished by adding fresh bloodlines. In other words, a combination of inbreeding and outcrossing.

This calls for a delicate balance. Inbreeding is needed to fix a type, particularly in the early evolution of a breed. But too much inbreeding over too long a time will inevitably lead to defects and a general loss of vigor. On the other hand, too much outcrossing will undo the very traits that were selected for over decades.

Ideally such patterns of inbreeding and outcrossing can be worked out experimentally, as they are for many breeds of plant and animal livestock. Unfortunately raising racehorses is an expensive proposition and breeders cannot afford to cull 90% of their offspring as failures. We can learn a great deal about breeding theory from agricultural breeders, however. They enjoy the advantage of being able to produce many generations of offspring quickly and inexpensively to confirm their results.

In the successful breeding of corn, wheat, chickens, sheep, and cattle we see a recurring pattern. Initially a few outstanding individuals are chosen for breeding. This is followed by a period of selective inbreeding to fix the best traits in the breed–which continues until signs of decline set in. At this point experiments in outcrossing with new strains begin to see which crosses will eliminate the faults and produce the best specimens. Then another cycle of selective inbreeding usually begins.

If we trace the Thoroughbred’s inbreeding back to its roots circa 1700, we find a steadily rising “coefficient of inbreeding” for the breed. This is largely because the Stud Book was closed in 1827, leaving only the descendants of three stallions: Herod, Matchem, and Eclipse. In effect, the Thoroughbred then grew out of a small “island population” of three stallions and a few dozen foundation mares. No matter how many thousands of Thoroughbreds followed, they all came from the same closely related population.

From the existing Thoroughbred gene pool, it appears that genetic limits may have already been reached, but today’s racehorse is not simply stuck at the status quo. Many of the highest priced yearlings, selling for upwards of a million dollars, cannot stand up to hard training, cannot race beyond a mile, and often come out of a race lame or bleeding from the lungs.

To improve soundness the genetic solution is almost surely outcrossing, but because all Thoroughbreds are so closely related this difficult if not possible. Cross-breeding to other horse breeds may offer the best long-range hope, but the Jockey Club does not permit anything but pure Thoroughbreds to race, nor are they likely to in the near future. If the current epidemic of unsoundness continues, however, they may be forced to re-examine this policy. At the very least, breeders will need to conscientiously select for soundness and durability, more than just commercial appeal or precocious speed.

Broodmares from Argentina and New Zealand are renowned for the stamina and durability, and could become key figures. The recent Horse of the Year, Cigar, in fact comes from a South American maternal family, as did the undefeated mare Personal Ensign, and the sire Pleasant Colony–now a major influence for stamina.

Experiments in outcrossing and cross-breeding are not uncommon among other forms of competition horses, and most of the top Olympic horses are cross-breds carrying at least some Thoroughbred blood. Clearly this is deliberate.

Experiments in cross-breeding have increased egg, wool, and dairy production by as much as five times in the past century. Simply stated, the greater the genetic variety of a breed, the greater potential for long-term growth and vigor.

On the other hand “purebreds” with closed stud books and no cross-breeding inevitably find there is a limit to their growth before negative qualities become ingrained. This pattern has been repeated many times from corn, to show-dogs, cattle, and horses. (The infamous Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s is a perfect example.)

Thoroughbred breeders have been justifiably proud of the noble animal they have created in the past. But the growing signs of unsoundness, breathing problems, and lack of stamina are typical of many other livestock breeds which have solved these problems with programs based on scientific breeding principles. The Thoroughbred breeding industry is now big business, with profit sometimes coming before quality. Long-term breeding programs may be looked at as economically impractical. But is it practical to breed horses that retire with injury before they can even earn back their sales price?

Sports fans want to see bigger than life heroes: horses who can break world records and run week after week, year after year. Owners need to know that their $100,000 yearlings are not going to break down after two or three starts leaving them deeply in debt. Network television does not want to show horses breaking down before their national TV audience. This is not good business.

The Thoroughbred world simply needs to breed better horses. The good news is there is some rhyme and reason to all livestock breeding.

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