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Fix the horse, not the tracks

I share Cyd's feelings 110 percent. The emerging problem with race horses has been out there in plain sight since Ruffian's heartbreaking death in 1975. Within the sport, some voices are demanding change... but so far not enough of them. But banning horse racing wouldn't be the best answer. The problem is not owners and breeders loving their horses enough. The problem is denial, and entrenched breeding practices, and billions of dollars of international investment that stand in the way of the fix.

Joe, your point is well taken...except that the growth in betting has actually resulted in a decline in track attendance. First the off-track betting, then interactive betting, where you watch races on TV and bet through an online account at TVG, is making couch potatoes out of many punters. I also suspect that fan unwillingness to watch horses break down is behind some of the slump.

What is the problem, exactly? For Outsports readers who are heartbroken over Eight Belles' death in the Derby yesterday, I'll share my view on what is going wrong with the horses.

The Thoroughbred racer is over 400 years old, and first began emerging in England out of a diversity-rich mix of native and imported Eastern horses, including Arabians. Genetic diversity means hybrid vigor and optimum health, especially in a horse's skeletal frame, which is put under extreme stress at speed. The old-time Thoroughbreds could routinely run several 3- or 4-mile heats in a day -- a feat that would cripple most of today's racehorses, who need a couple of weeks to recover from a single short-track effort! For some time, the stud books were open, so horses with unregistered parents could be registered as Thoroughbreds as long as they met performance standards.

But eventually England, the U.S., Australia, etc. closed their Thoroughbred stud books to horses of unregistered parentage. Today, with racing so global, it's important for registered Thoroughbreds bred in the U.S. to be acceptable for racing or breeding in Japan or China, or the UAE, or the UK or EU.

A closed stud book means a closed gene pool. Mother Nature does not like closed gene pools.

But inevitably Thoroughbred breeders were tempted to flout Mother Earth and do inbreeding. When you double up on a particular ancestry, your chances of getting that characteristic in a new offspring -- speed, or stamina, or the ability to race on grass, or over fences -- is intensified. Unfortunately when you inbreed, you also intensify your chances that genetic problems will show up.

With time, breeders have favored a handful of top-winning "families," or bloodlines, with the result that many less-winning families have fallen by the wayside. So the gene pool has gotten smaller and less diverse. Several years ago, a shocking DNA study done in Ireland indicated that 95 percent of all registered Thoroughbreds trace back to just one pioneering stallion, the Darley Arabian. In all, the genetic material of only around 28 founding horses can be detected in 80 percent of Thoroughbreds registered today.

In short, today's breeders can hardly avoid inbreeding even if they want to. Many of them evidently know what the problem bloodlines are -- my guess is that some struggle to do the best they can with the material allowed them by the stud book. But as pedigree expert Ellen Page said when she pinpointed the specific bloodlines that put brittle bone into Ruffian's legs, "If the legs cannot hold up the heart, it ends badly."

The Thoroughbred now routinely experiences routine congenital problems like heart defects and respiratory problems. Not to mention the lowered fertility and skeletal problems that are the deadly sign of too much inbreeding. Genetically, the horse may be reaching a genetic "bottleneck," something like the endangered cheetahs of Africa are going through -- the cats are now so few in number that they are practically clones of one another and experience breeding problems in the wild. And it's precisely in the best-bred horses that the genetic house of cards can be stacked the highest. Which explains why we're often seeing a horse go down in a big race.

But Barbaro and Eight Belles, and Pine Island, who died in the 2007 Breeders Cup, are just the tip of the iceberg. Race fans don't even see the quiet baseline attrition in the breed every year -- the total number of career-ending injuries and euthanizings traceable to lack of soundness in the breed, that happen quietly in the barns or back at the farm.

Right now the racing industry is trying to stem the tide of disasters. How? By installing synthetic surfaces on many tracks, that are supposedly kinder to horse's legs. This is like trying to lower the highway accident rate by redesigning highways instead of getting drunk drivers off the road.

In my opinion -- and I'm just one fan, albeit one who has a livestock breeding background -- they have to fix the horse, not the tracks.

There's also the practice of racing horses at the age of two, when they're babies, and campaigning them hard at three for a good race record. This way, they can be retired to breeding early. When you pay from $200,000 to $5 million for a good yearling or brood mare, and you're doing it as a business, you aim to earn back the investment quickly. But the practice puts extreme stress on the frame of a young animal that may be congenitally unable to stand up to the pounding. The bones and joints of horses don't stop growing till age five.

How can they fix the Thoroughbred horse?

One way would be by out-breeding. They could open the stud books to offspring sired by top performance stallions in Arabian racing. In recent years, this breed has made a comeback on U.S. tracks, and has its own Jockey Club and racing circuit. Since Thoroughbreds started out with Arabians so many centuries ago, then going back to Square A might provide the right kind of genetic fresh air.

This crossbreeding program would have to be organized internationally, with all Jockey Clubs in the world cooperating. Because the inbreeding IS an international problem now. The movement of horses for racing and breeding, and the movement of racing investment and betting money, is global. The biggest problem is the lack of POLITICAL WILL of movers and shakers in the sport to organize this enormous international effort, and make it work. It would be nice if the U.S. racing industry would step up to the plate and start the trend. In fact, I think they owe it to the horses to do this. The horses, with all their heart and spirit, have given them everything they have.

If the U.S. industry doesn't act on its own, it might be compelled to act by public fury -- the way motorsports were compelled to make race cars safer after a whole rash of driver casualties starting in the 1960s, ending in Dale Earnhardt's horrible death at the 2001 Daytona 500. In just a few years, stock cars were made so much safer that today drivers are walking away from hard crashes that would have killed them before. So it's amazing how a great big sports industry can change if people put their minds to it.

I would also be impressed with the U.S. racing industry if it decided, on its own, to ban the racing of two-year-olds.

In the very first generation, those half-Thoroughbred, half-Arab colts and fillies would come to the tracks with hybrid vigor and strong bones. A class of their own could be created for them, so they could compete against each other until enough of them have filtered into the breed to level the playing field for everybody. These hybrids might be a little slower than the over-bred young horses being raced right now. But hey...slow is better than crippled or dead. -- Patricia Nell Warren