S P E C I A L REPORT
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Part 1: Breeding for Breakdowns »
Part 2: The Rise of the Ill-Fated Gene Pool »
Part 4: On the Brink of Extinction? »
Written and Researched
by JANE ALLIN
Racing has always been anchored in prestige, money and entertainment merit.
Unfortunately, as the desired qualities in the race horse shifted from endurance and robustness in favor of speed and aesthetic allure, the grandiose scale of expansion of the industry developed such that these creatures are now the basis of global financial empires.
The 1970’s and 80’s proved to unearth the establishment of large partnership groups that would control the major proportion of breeding and Thoroughbred ownership on a global basis.
Although not the only syndicates, two of the most influential of these organizations are the Coolmore and Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley operations. Together they comprise the world’s biggest marketers of stallions, with breeding bases spread throughout Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. Each of these operations breed heavily from stallions descended from the 1960s North American flat racing champion runner, Northern Dancer – the grandson of Native Dancer.
With such dominance and the inherent and fierce competition that spontaneously arises between economic super powers, the prices for young unproven bloodstock sky rocketed.
"Prices for young, untried horses reached phenomenal levels, with $13.1 million being paid in 1985 for the Nijinsky yearling Seattle Dancer. More extraordinary was the $10.2 million paid for the Northern Dancer yearling, Snaafi Dancer, who – despite the huge price on his head – was never fit or fast enough to race and was found to be infertile when tried at stud." 
With such autonomy and wealth-infused empires governing the racing industry therein lies the inevitable; an influence so formidable that there are few counteractive forces to prevent the disquieting proliferation of an ever-growing narrow gene pool. The control of the most sought after stallions and the financial capacity to outbid anyone but each other lends itself to indeterminate, yet measured compromise of the genetic pool of the modern Thoroughbred.
One need only look at the reigning sires of our times and their profuse liaison with the recurrent Native Dancer genes.
Table 1 below shows the top twelve sires in the world for 2010.
Table 1. The 2010 World Top 12 Stallions/Sires: Bloodlines
|SIRE||FARM||LOCATION||PRIMARY BLOODLINE||PROMINENT SIRES IN PEDIGREE|
|A.P. Indy||Lane's End||KY||Nasrullah||Bold Ruler, Seattle Slew, Secretariat|
|Smart Strike||Lane's End||KY||Native Dancer||Raise a Native, Mr. Prospector|
|Distorted Humor||Winstar||KY||Native Dancer||Raise a Native, Northern Dancer, Mr. Prospector|
|KY||Native Dancer, Nasrullah||Northern Dancer, Bold Ruler, Secretariat|
|Street Cry||Darley||KY||Native Dancer||Raise a Native, Mr. Prospector|
|Galileo||Coolmore||IRE||Native Dancer||Raise a Native, Mr. Prospector|
|Montjeu||Coolmore||IRE||Native Dancer||Northern Dancer|
|Danehill Dancer||Coolmore||IRE||Native Dancer||Northern Dancer|
|Dansili||Juddmonte||GB||Native Dancer||Northern Dancer|
|Oasis Dream||Juddmonte||GB||Native Dancer||Northern Dancer, Nasrullah|
|GB||Native Dancer||Northern Dancer|
|Dubawi||Darley||GB||Native Dancer||Raise a Native, Northern Dancer|
This decrease in starts per horse over time also sheds light on another contemptible fact directly related to the absurdity of the economic covetousness of the industry. With exaggerated breeding fees and bloodstock sales that generate literally millions of dollars it has forced breeders to resort to breeding something fashionable that people will be interested in buying. Unfortunately the fastest sires are usually the most unsound. In the commercial sense of the word, horses are no longer bred to race but rather are bred to sell.
"Dr. Larry Bramlage, an equine surgeon, says a supercharged auction market is even transforming the physical attributes of modern thoroughbreds. When horse racing was a pastime rather than a business, families like the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts and breeding farms like Calumet and the Hancocks’ Claiborne made stallions out of the horses who had performed well and over time.
"It was the era of Iron Horses like the 1941 Triple Crown champion, Whirlaway, who made 60 starts in his career; and the 1946 champion, Assault, who raced as a 7-year-old. In fact, the 11 Triple Crown winners together made 104 starts at age 4 or older and won 57 of them.
“You used to see a taller thoroughbred, narrow chested and bit knock-kneed, who could run forever, but not as fast,” Bramlage said.
"Affirmed, who in 1978 became the 11th and most recent Triple Crown champion, was perhaps the epitome of this body type. He raced 29 times, won 22 and sired more than 80 stakes winners and 9 champions. Over the past 30 years, billions spent on horses — $1.1 billion alone at auction last year — has put a premium on what Bramlage described as a “toed-in, wide-chested, lighter-bone horse built for speed."
The breeding market and the lucrative profits to be had from sales of offspring rather than racing have enticed many to retire their stallions to the breeding shed before they have matured. Accordingly horses are put on the track much earlier and retired to stud earlier.
In particular, horses that become superstars by winning several graded stakes or celebrated races such as the Kentucky Derby are considered so valuable that they are habitually retired after their 3YO campaign. This way any limitation of racing beyond their primary years is masked and it is unknown whether they will sire any progeny capable of enduring several years of racing.
This trend amongst top breeders has also led to a diminishing number of sires producing the foal crop in any given year, further concentrating the gene pool.
Many of the most sought after stallions will cover as many as 200 mares in a single year; these are the very sires that transmit the most susceptible genes to their offspring.
According to Jockey Club statistics from 1991 forward to 2010 the number of sires in North America has dropped about 65% from a high of 6,696 in 1991 to only 2,437 in 2010. This situation in North America is typical of the global picture.
Figure 2 illustrates the decline in the number of sires and the increase in the average number of foals per sire over time.
What’s more, in North America these young horses are unnaturally supported with the use of drugs - forbidden in other countries of the world - that mask skeletal weaknesses and other biologically inbred deficiencies. In effect these horses are allowed to achieve artificial success and then are ushered into the breeding shed to pass on these flaws to future generations of expensive progeny.
"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. The cortisone reduces inflammation and allows horses to run pain-free on the damaged limbs or joints, a dangerous practice, if done repeatedly, because it can lead to a more serious injury and to the much-feared catastrophic breakdown.
"When I started going to races in the 1950s, I hardly ever saw a fatal breakdown on the Chicago dirt tracks; but when I started covering the sport in 1972, in New York, I began seeing numerous breakdowns during a race meet, sometimes two or three a week. One veterinarian told me that this was no accident, that this was the time period when cortisone began to get widespread use on U.S. racetracks, the first signal to me that drugs were a culprit in the sudden increase in catastrophic breakdowns." – William Nack 
"Medication is a symptom," Parker said. "They need medication because they're not sound to begin with. Why else would you give it to a horse?"
– Ellen Parker