Berkshire Eagle, The (Pittsfield, MA) – April 7, 2014


The thoroughbred racing industry erupted recently when PETA released a shocking video on YouTube. The secretly recorded tape revealed employees of trainer Steve Asmussen, one of the most successful ever in the business, showing contempt for the suffering horses in their care, excessive use of non-therapeutic medications to enhance performance, and subjecting horses to painful treatments such as shock-wave therapy to keep them running.

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame withdrew Asmussen’s nomination. One of Asmussen’s employees appears to have committed suicide over the affair. While breeders and owners are pointing to trainers, as they should, they need to look in the mirror.

The modern thoroughbred is a walking equine pharmacy subjected to heaven- knows-what procedures to keep the horse running. Today’s race horse has little durability and this was evident in the PETA video, where many expletives (and little sympathy) were provoked from the incessant health problems of Asmussen’s horses. The YouTube film shows Nehro, a horse that came in second in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, suffering horribly painful hoof problems, but the Asmussen barn just kept running him.

While the focus has been on Asmussen’s training methods, little has been said about what is happening in the breeding shed that provoked the use of the methods in the first place. It doesn’t take a genetic specialist to figure out if you constantly breed horses for speed and ignore their soundness, you will get fast horses that break down a lot. There needs to be a simple new rule: only horses that have retired sound and have a sufficient number of races under their belt should be allowed to breed.

Just look at the top two American studs today. Tapit, who stands for $ 150,000, only ran six times. The other $150,000 stud horse, War Front, was sired by the famous Danzing, who raced only three times. Danzing, in turn, was sired by the immensely important Northern Dancer, who broke down after his run in the Queen’s Plate and had to retire. The hugely influential Mr. Prospector was sired by Raise a Native, who only raced four times. The breed is often justifiably mocked as a locomotive on champagne glass legs.

While in actuality the modern thoroughbred descends from English mares and numerous stud horses that were Arabian, Barb, or Turkoman, the modern race horse has a direct male line from the Darley Arabian (b. 1700), the Godolphin Arabian (b. 1724), and the Byerly Turk (b. 1680), leading to the technically correct but misleading statement that “All thoroughbred horses descend from three original English stallions.”

For most of the breeds 300 years, these three sire lines jockeyed for dominance. But in the 20th century, there has been a “Phalaris revolution,” whereby nearly all horses of today have descended from Phalaris, a horse born in 1913, whose sire line goes back to the Darley Arabian. The Phalaris bloodline is known for its speed but fragility.

Simply look at the body type of a human sprinter and a long distance runner, and you can see how the race horse has changed as he is bred for today’s competition. Thoroughbreds are much taller, bigger and more massive in the chest than their predecessors; they race far less frequently and have much fewer races; they are much more precocious and start and end their careers much sooner; they have far less stamina since race distances have shortened dramatically; and they breakdown much more frequently since they are not being bred for durability and bone and tendon strength has become worse.

The Godolphin Arabian (from which Man O’War derived) is represented only by a handful of viable sires today in North America, namely Tiznow and Successful Appeal and their descendants. The Byerly Turk, the progenitor of the great Lexington who lead the American sire list 16 times in the last half of the 19th century, is now almost completely extinct from North America.

There is a serious lack of biodiversity among thoroughbreds – and it is a closed breed.

Rinaldo Del Gallo is a columnist, local attorney, and horse racing fan. He helped initiate local ordinances to benefit farm animals in Pittsfield.

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