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Are Breeding Practices Keeping Horses From Breaking Records?

Every single human running record from 1973 has been broken. Why aren't horses making the same kind of progress?

by Greg Couch
Jun 5 2015, 3:50pm

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Earlie Fires got to see history up close. Well, sort of close. Briefly. And then, history ran off and left him in the dust. Fires, now a Hall of Fame jockey, was on Gold Bag in the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Secretariat's Kentucky Derby.

"Secretariat was a great horse, I'll tell you that,'' Fires said the other day. "The best I've ever seen. But the last I saw of him was at the starting gate.''

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There was no shame in finishing 22 lengths behind Secretariat, chasing but losing ground the whole way. In the 42 years since that day, the entire sport of horse racing has been doing the same thing. On Saturday, American Pharaoh will try to win the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes. If he does it, he'll be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, and the fifth in 67 years.

But he's no Secretariat. No horse is. All these years later, and Secretariat is still the fastest and best thoroughbred ever. It's not even up for slow-morning-at-First-Take debate, like Tom Brady vs. Joe Montana or LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan. Secretariat ran the fastest Kentucky Derby ever, the fastest Preakness ever, the fastest Belmont Stakes ever. No horse in history has finished within four-tenths of a second of his times in any of those races.

Only here's the thing: Every single human running record from 1973 has been broken. Sprinting, distance, you name it. From Carl Lewis to Usain Bolt, we keep finding ways to cover more ground in less time. And that raises a question, one for American Pharaoh and every other Triple Crown contender since Secretariat.

Why aren't horses making the same kind of progress?

Secretariat's statue at Belmont Park. Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it might be that Secretariat was just that good. A physical freak. A generation-spanning talent. But there are other possibilities. There are all sorts of theories, actually, and I'll get to some of them, but first let's start with mine:

If horse breeding is a science, then this experiment has blown up in the faces of the breeders conducting it.

Through creepy, excessive inbreeding, horse breeders haven't sped up thoroughbred evolution. They've stunted it. They have bred for speed, bred for bigger muscles on lighter skeletal systems and skinnier ankles.

The result? The entire thoroughbred breed has become destabilized: able to run less and less often, while getting hurt—and even euthanized on tracks—more and more frequently. For Secretariat's bred-for-speed successors, particularly the more modern ones, their increasingly lightweight skeletal structures are no longer able to withstand the strains produced by their increasingly muscular bodies.

"It's like putting a 400-horsepower engine into a Volkswagen beetle,'' said Nat Kieffer, a population geneticist, longtime horse breeder and professor emeritus at Texas A&M's College of Agriculture. "And all thoroughbreds are now about 25 percent related, meaning they're like half-brothers and sisters.

"The thoroughbred people are wising up. They're avoiding inbreeding like the plague now, but it's almost impossible to do it. All the best horses are already related. And you can't do anything about the inbreeding that has already occurred.''

Think about it: This is a sport based on manipulating genes to create super horses. And yet, we have American Pharoah on the verge of dominating his generation in the way only a handful of horses have done to their generations, even though his winning time in the Kentucky Derby (2:03.02) was 3.82 seconds slower than Secretariat's (1:59.2), which would have left him 19 lengths behind.

They would have had to use Google Earth just to keep them on the same TV screen at the same time.

Comparing times through the years can be a little unfair, as weather conditions change, and other jockeys can play off the pace of a specific race. Still, the conditions did not line up better for Secretariat on the exact days he ran the three legs of the Triple Crown than they have lined up for every other horse who has ever run them. The second fastest time in Belmont history was two full seconds slower than Secretariat's, meaning every horse in history would have finished at least 10 lengths behind him.

Stagnant times are hardly the only issue.

In 2012, The New York Times conducted a comprehensive study of injury rates of 150,000 horse races. The paper found that from 2009-2011, an average of 24 horses died every week on tracks across the U.S.

Over the same span, 6,600 horses broke down or were injured.

"It's hard to justify how many horses we go through,'' Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California racing board, told the Times. "In humans, you never see someone snap their leg off running in the Olympics. But you see it in horse racing.''

Arthur later told Slate that horse racing fatalities were up 30-40 percent over the past 20 years. And that came despite several rules changes for safety after Eight Belles broke both front ankles after crossing the finish line second at the 2008 Kentucky Derby and subsequently was euthanized.

Eight Belles suffered a ghastly injured in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and had to be euthanized. Photo by Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Times blamed the carnage on trainers drugging horses to mask injuries. But injuries continued to rise even after precautions--including increased injury reporting, drug testing and the creation of a national safety board--were put in place. That suggests that other factors were at least partially to blame, and that perhaps the horses weren't structurally sound in the first place.

Why would that be? Last week at Arlington Park in suburban Chicago, chart caller David Miller, who also is a pedigree analyst advising clients on breeding, said that over the past 20 years, horse breeding in the U.S. has changed dramatically. In the past, horses were bred to race. Now, there has been a steep rise and organization of people who are breeding horses for the related-but-distinct purpose of selling them.

And most buyers, he said, are interested in purchasing one thing: speed. Not durability. Not toughness.

Speed.

So Miller disagrees with the idea that breeders aren't producing faster horses. But he does agree that horses in general aren't as sound for races longer than a mile, such as the Triple Crown races.

"People say we aren't building a faster racehorse and I always say, `At what distance?' '' he said. "Because what we've done progressively at the shorter sprint distances is make faster and faster and faster horses. The six furlong time, the world record time has consistently come down over the years.''

He points out that Secretariat came from Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, which was started by Arthur Hancock in 1910 and has been run by family members ever since. He was a horse that was bred to race.

To win a Triple Crown race, horses need speed, strength, size, durability. But Miller said much of the market is interested only in one thing: speed. That's all that buyers want because it excites them. So it's all that market-breeders focus on.

And it comes at the expense of durability and soundness.

"If I say, `Listen, this horse will be really good at a mile and a half (the distance of the Belmont), trainers don't want to hear that,'' Miller said. "That would not make me popular with anybody. They want you to give them something that's going to break on top and go to the front.''

But when you keep breeding only for speed, and you keep inbreeding and don't introduce qualities from other genes, doesn't that destabilize the entire breed?

"That's the question that's being debated very passionately,'' Miller said. "Are we breeding softer race horses?''

Miller added that horses used to run as many as 15 races a year, but now are able to go only six or eight.

Fires, the jockey who ran against Secretariat, said he doesn't think horses are any different now than they were years ago. He said that breeders are trying to "breed knees and ankles out of horses,'' but that injuries are just the nature of the sport. In fact, he said, it's amazing that horses don't get hurt more often running on legs skinnier than human legs while carrying maybe 1,200 pounds.

Still, not one horse has outrun Secretariat, even while breeders focus on speed, even as humans get faster and faster? Sure, we have the benefit of better shoe and track technology, and perhaps we're a bit more sophisticated about how we use and stack performance-enhancing drugs in our own bodies, as opposed to how we administer them to horses.

But something has to be up. I think it's the breeders. Kieffer agrees. Of course, there's an irony to all this: generations of breeders attempting to create the next Secretariat are playing the same genetic lottery that produced him in the first place.

"Those superior horses that pop up like Secretariat, Citation, Man o' War are a creation of a special combination of genes," Kieffer said. "They're not going to be passed on in the special combination they received them.

"One inbred line with another inbred line was crossed that gave Secretariat a really favorable combination of genes. When he went to stud, those combinations were broken up. He didn't fail, but he didn't produce anything like himself. And Citation had a brother who couldn't outrun a fat man.''

Jockey E.T. Baird came off the track at Arlington last week, having finished just out of the money in fourth. Baird ran in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and his father, Bobby Baird, was in the Derby five times. His last was during Affirmed's win, the first leg of the most recent Triple Crown.

Baird sat and had a smoke before his next race. Why can't they build a horse better than Secretariat? Baird paused, a lifetime of experience and knowledge percolating. This was his insight:

"Sometimes,'' he said, "lightning only strikes once.''

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