Horse breeding

Eight Belles' breakdown: a predictable tragedy by William Nack
What Ellen Parker wanted to know, when I spoke to her following the Derby, was why no one was picketing Robert Clay's Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., one of the pillars of the Blue Grass breeding establishment and the place where Eight Belles was bred and from where she was sold as a yearling, at Keeneland in 2006, for $375,000.

"They're the ones who created this tragedy," Parker said. "Robert Clay is smart enough to know better. He bred her. That's where it starts. You don't blame the trainer, who does not have the reputation of breaking horses down, and you don't blame the poor little jockey. ... She was inbred three times to Raise a Native! [She broke down] right where Raise a Native was the weakest, right in the ankles, and everybody acts like they don't know what caused this filly to break down. It's written right there for everyone to see! Except they refuse to see it. To admit it is to address the fact that all these stallions that are bred like that, that all the yearlings that are bred like that, are potential accidents waiting to happen. And they've got so much money wrapped up in this crap!"

[. . .]

Through the first 60 years of the 20th century, most of the major stallions and many of the best mares were owned and controlled by some of the oldest families and richest sporting patrons in America, by the Whitneys and Woodwards, the Bradleys and Wideners, the Klebergs and Mellons. They bred horses to race them, not to sell them, and they did so in order to compete against one other -- to beat their fellow members of The Jockey Club, to see who had the fastest horse. A cardinal article of their faith was to "improve the breed," which meant to breed a horse with great speed, stamina and soundness. In fact, on the C.V. Whitney farm in Lexington, a foal born with a crooked leg was usually taken into the woods and shot, lest he or she pollute the Whitney bloodlines with this inherent deformity.

By the middle of the last century, this tight-knit racing world began to change. As these families died out and their blue-chip breeding stock was sold at dispersal auctions, the best stallions and mares fell into the hands of commercial breeders, whose central motivation was to breed, not so much a sound or durable horse, but rather an attractive horse, a "cosmetic horse," who showed well, who had a pedigree filled with fashionable names, preferably sire lines that glowed with speed, and who thus would draw the biggest price at the fanciest yearlings sales. Because they needed to look like show horses, these hothouse yearlings were often raised in small pens and not allowed to run free, or to kick, bite and roughhouse with their peers.

[. . .] This gradual softening and weakening of the breed has led to the use of more medications to keep these horses running sound, among them the corticosteroids injected into injured knees and ankles. [. . .] Drugs are only one way that the industry has been trying to make up for the weakening of the American thoroughbred. A number of racetracks have already replaced their dirt tracks with softer Polytrack surfaces, for the purpose of reducing breakdowns, but all we know about these tracks is that they often are the bane of true speed horses, favoring come-from-behind plodders. They have made the outcome of races so unpredictable that they have driven the high-rolling, sophisticated gamblers away from the betting parlors; and they may or may not save horses' lives. The jury remains sequestered.

All such expedients are aimed at forgiving commercial breeders for what they have done to the breed. At the core of the problem is the fact that the fastest and most popular sire lines in the world are the least durable and sound.

Alex Linder comments.

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