After more than a week of fun at the September yearling sales, there are numerous observations to make. One of them that set me and a colleague to thinking was the question of size in the Thoroughbred.
Surely, there is nobody who goes to a sale or visits a stud farm and finds a growthy and substantial yearling and fails to note, “big and impressive,” etc.
Yet “big,” in itself, isn’t the answer to the great question of who is the better horse, and it is most certainly not the answer to which is the faster horse.
Northern Dancer and Hyperion are often mentioned as stellar examples of small horses who did great things and became landmark sires. They might have stood 15.1 or so on a tall day, but can you name a horse of equivalent ability or stallion success who stood 17 hands?
And that is an interesting question for those of us who seriously study the physique of racehorses, trying to judge the best prospects for racing success from the evidence of untrained yearlings and unraced 2-year-olds.
The closest king-sized opposites to the pair above would surely be leading sire Unbridled and his best stallion son Unbridled’s Song. The former won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the latter won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Florida Derby.
Unbridled’s Song was also a massive media favorite for the Kentucky Derby, but the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune were all against the big gray. After having an interrupted preparation and wearing an odd shoe to protect a sore foot, he finished up the track as Unbridled’s “other” son, Grindstone, won the Run for the Roses.
Both sire and son were racers of amazing talent. Unbridled, in addition to his classic performances, defeated champion sprinter Housebuster in the Deputy Minister Handicap at Gulfstream Park, going seven furlongs in an exhibition of tremendous class. Trainer Carl Nafzger told me that he could have trained Unbridled to be a champion sprinter. The horse had that kind of speed, and he passed on speed of the highest order to many of his offspring.
Both Unbridled and his famous son, like Northern Dancer and his famous great-grandsire, are outliers. They are exceptions to the norm of the breed, and yet they succeeded at the highest level of competition and represented athletic ability of the highest order.
At the yearling sales, however, only one sort of outlier is acceptable. The big one. Show a prospective buyer a small yearling, especially a genuine peanut like Northern Dancer as a yearling, and they will pass in record time. Nobody would buy the tiny bay when he went up for sale at Taylor’s annual yearling presentation. That’s why E.P. Taylor ended up racing and standing the classic winner and classic sire.
If this dislike of small horses were an equal prejudice, it would at least be just. Both types of outliers are challenged. Most small horses cannot compete with their bigger competitors because a small horse will have shorter legs, will not cover as much ground, and must be superior athletically to outrun a taller horse.
So, if that is the case, why is there a problem with bigger horses?
This is the logical issue that yearling buyers and evaluators confront. They almost always fail by grasping the big horse, just as quickly as they shy away from the small ones.
The reasons that the big horse fails to deliver the expected success are largely twofold, and both directly relate to the great lump of a body a horse has to wheel around a racecourse. First, to show speed and the athletic agility to produce a change of pace, the bigger a horse is, the more perfectly geared and proportioned it must be.
Just like any other mechanical effort, pushing a bigger weight requires a bigger gear if we are to accomplish the task in the same time, and if we want to go faster than the competition, then the gearing must be that extra bit bigger.
The second problem for the larger horse, and the larger it gets the more this is a problem, is the strength of materials. Bone and ligament can only remain stable under so much force, and as the bigger horse has to push itself harder to generate the speed of a mid-size racer, the forces on the bigger horse’s bones and tendons are increased.
The answer is already made to the questions posed by the temptations of outliers. The breed has told us simply and repeatedly that the mid-size racer, neither too big nor too small, is the best bet.
Mr. Prospector, A.P. Indy, Gone West, and Storm Cat have all provided solutions to the question of the “best horse” by contributing speed and power in different relationships, but they all fall within the general norms for the breed. They help the breed by producing a racier athlete and one that will mix well with other types to produce the next generation of stars.
*The story above was first published earlier this week at Paulick Report.