Could this country's thoroughbred breeding industry produce more durable horses?
"It would be possible - I don't think it's going to happen," said Alan Porter, a pedigree consultant with clients in the United States, Europe and Australia. "What happens usually in the industry, everybody thinks that
should do this that or the other, but that doesn't necessarily apply to I."
The conundrum the American industry faces is balancing the need for speed with the desire for durability, Porter said, since speed is required of a great racehorse. Despite that truth, industry leaders announced their awareness that steps need to be taken to satisfy the public.
"It's not publicly acceptable to have their stars dying in the big races," Porter said.
The horse industry has been thinking more about the issue - has been forced to think more about it - since Eight Belles broke down and was euthanized right after finishing second in last weekend's Kentucky Derby. This was the second catastrophic breakdown in three years in a Triple Crown race, after Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness, and two more horses have been euthanized on the track during the last two Breeders' Cups.
"The true story is nowhere near the popular one. There couldn't have been anything wrong with that horse going into the race," Porter said about Eight Belles. "That's like saying a guy who came in second in the Olympics was doing it on a broken leg."
The irony here, Porter said, is that this incident has brought up important issues. After the breakdown of Delaware Park-based Eight Belles, the Jockey Club, run by the heavy hitters of the industry, announced on Thursday that it has commissioned a seven-member Thoroughbred Safety Committee. Ogden Mills Phipps, the chairman of the Jockey Club, said the committee would be asked to review every facet of equine health, including "breeding practices, medication, the rules of racing and track surfaces," and would recommend actions to be taken by the industry to improve the health and safety of thoroughbreds.
Breeding issues have come up more especially since the Derby.
"The fact, is we have weakened our breed," said Headley Bell, president of Nicoma Bloodstock and a fifth-generation Kentucky horseman. "It started when everybody started racing on Lasix and [Phenylbutazone], when it became customary, 15 or 20 years ago."
Bell said he was talking about the industry in general. He made a point of calling Eight Belles a "brilliant" racehorse. But he said he believes that horses have been retired to the breeding shed who "normally wouldn't have qualified" if drugs hadn't hidden problems during their racing careers.
"They cover up a weakness," Bell said. "Whether it be the bleeding - Lasix is used to prevent bleeding - or other problems, and those weaknesses are now going into the mass herd of thoroughbreds. Horses that might have been unsound are now racing, and then breeding, and then put into the herd."
That's just an outgrowth of wider changes, Bell said.
"You have to realize that the whole breeding industry has changed in the last 24 years ... it changed from being the sport of those successful in business, to being a business," Bell said. "The costs are so exorbitant, and there's so much money out there. I don't care who you are - if you're not a seller, you become a seller."
Bell said of the current climate in the breeding industry after the Derby: "We care more about our horses than anybody. At the same time, there's nothing like public pressure to push you to do something that you might have delayed."
In March, a Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit was held in Lexington, Ky. Breeding was clearly down the list of priorities. But it was on the list: Recommendation Eight was titled "Genetic Diversity of the Thoroughbred." The primary objective was to "address large book size of stallions to determine if they can be detrimental either to the welfare of individual animals, to the breed in general, or to the economics of the industry."
Along with evaluating all this, the task was to research the legal, economic and practical implications of influencing the number of breeding sessions for each stallion in a given year, which had grown in recent decades. Statistics kept by the Jockey Club indicate that the number of stallions that have produced offspring has dropped more than half since 1992. Even in Kentucky, the breeding capital of the thoroughbred industry, the number has dropped from 467 stallions in 1992 to 356 in 2007, with the average book size climbing from 31.1 to 60.5.
And there is no telling when a great one will appear. Bell is the bloodstock adviser to Roy and Gretchen Jackson, the owners of Barbaro. He doesn't claim to have all the answers. His notes from 2001 show that he recommended three stallions for their mare named La Ville Rouge. It was the No. 3 choice, Dynaformer, who ultimately mated with the mare and produced the ill-fated 2006 Kentucky Derby winner.
If breeders don't know when they are going to produce a great racehorse - figuring out how genetics plays into horses breaking down can't be achieved with simple DNA analysis.
This year, special attention has been given to the genes produced by Native Dancer, since Eight Belles had his genes running all through her, from three different lines going back six generations. In fact, all 20 of this year's Derby runners had Native Dancer genes. While producing brilliant racehorses, Native Dancer also has passed on soundness issues. Native Dancer himself retired early from leg injuries, although he still raced 22 times, 18 as a 2- and 3-year-old.
Nobody knows why Eight Belles broke both front feet while galloping out after the Derby. If that hadn't happened, she obviously would have been celebrated for the great genetic makeup that allowed her to beat all the boys except Big Brown. And there was plenty of stability in her genes. Her mother, Away, raced 24 times. Going back three more generations, there is a mare named Straight Deal, who raced 99 times, and won stakes races at the age of 3, 4 and 5, and was stakes-placed at age 6. However, it is the sire lines that produced most of a horse's genetic makeup.
Porter, the pedigree consultant, (and his no relation to Rick Porter, the owner of Eight Belles), said he has looked closely at the pedigree of Eight Belles and characterized it in breeding terms as "a good proven cross ... high quality." He mentioned that Big Brown was extremely closely inbred, "a lot more so than average." But Porter pointed out, "inbreeding is neither good nor bad; it depends to who you're inbreeding, and through which sources you're breeding."
Porter, who made the point that top thoroughbreds are "probably right at the functional limit ... the peak of them running as fast as they can," also said that characterizing the soundness of horses based on how many times they race is difficult.
"The Jockey Club did a study and I analyzed it," Porter said. "The stallions who were getting the most starters, they were the cheapest. The fact that horses were at one point running more frequently doesn't mean that was a good thing."
Porter was not suggesting that studies shouldn't be done on these breakdowns or that safety isn't a primary objective. He just knows what would happen if he suggested to a client with a top mare that they should use a "second-class stallion" who is very durable.
"He's going to use the sire of Eight Belles," Porter said, even if there is a greater risk of injury. "The one he gets who can run is going to be very, very good."
See Eight Belles' family breeding tree