filly eight bellesThe gallant filly, Eight Belles.

The last two runnings of America’s most famous race, the Kentucky Derby (Gr.1), have been remarkable for two different reasons. Last year we witnessed one of the greatest ever winners in Barbaro, and this year we saw another magnificent performance from Big Brown. However, those renewals are equally remembered for a tragedy in common, and that’s the life ending accidents inflicted upon last year’s winner (in Barbaro’s next start in the Preakness Stakes), and the fatal break-down in 2008 of the gallant filly Eight Belles, shortly after she passed the winning post in second spot.

Americans have been left pondering whether or not the breed has been compromised in terms of its soundness; if so, what they’ve done to contribute towards this state of affairs, and how to address it. The matter has reached such proportions that it’s become the subject of inquiry and debate in the Congress on Capitol Hill yet in the end, it’s not really a matter for politicians, it’s a cause for concern among the nation’s horsemen.

It would seem that if it is so that racehorses might be getting “softer”, any number of causes may be contributing to this state of affairs. Yet there is no scientific evidence to support the argument that American horses are any “softer” than their forebears, other than the irrefutable data which reveals that they are starting less frequently in their careers than they were in earlier times. For example, in the 70’s, it was expected of a horse during his career that he would go to post somewhere approaching 30 times, whereas the average number of starts in the early 2000’s is of the order of 15-16. On the face of it, this suggests quite a dramatic turnaround, but there may be a number of contributing factors that have nothing to do with unsoundness and these include:

The cost of keeping horses in training. It’s estimated to be of the order of $40,000 - $50,000 per annum in the States. There are parallels in this country of course, and owners don’t have the appetite for persevering with below average horses once their performances drop.

Coupled with this is the fact that when a good horse has established his status, as well as a substantial value from the perspective of his stud career, there’s almost too much at stake to risk his continuing in racing, for every loss impacts on the public perception of his value. As a result, colts (to a greater extent) and fillies are rushed off to stud, and it’s become the vogue, where horses have had successful three-year-old careers, to pack them off with little opportunity of proving their mettle against their elders, discarding the chance of racing at four and five in favour of the lucrative returns in the breeding shed.

Initially, Ireland’s Coolmore Stud were those inclined to this practice, yet today they have revealed a different dimension to their sportsmanship by keeping the likes of Dylan Thomas, Duke Of Marmalade, Soldier Of Fortune and Yeats in training for an extra season. Of course, one might argue that these horses had not done enough by the time they’d turned four to warrant their retirement to stud, so this might have less to do with sportsmanship than it has to do with enhancing their value, but whatever the reason, it’s brightened up the racing scene in Europe as a consequence.