Round Table: An International Perspective On The Question Of Thoroughbred Durability

For years, people have debated why and whether the modern Thoroughbred racehorse is a more fragile creature than he was decades ago. At this year’s Jockey Club Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing, three top trainers from different countries gathered to consider this and other questions about the durability of the Thoroughbred and the safety of racing.

John Gosden, Mark Casse, and Jessica Harrington gathered for the first digital edition of the Round Table, broadcast Aug. 16, to voice their opinions.

Gosden suggested that the shift from breeding to race to breeding for sales may have had some unintended consequences on the gene pool. When breeders kept a mare throughout her career and raced the offspring, they could figure out if there was a flaw in the family such as a breathing issue or a fragility brought on by “soft bone.” If that was the case, the breeder wouldn’t continue the line.

“What happened I think from 1980 onward is a lot of people began breeding for the sales and not to race and therefore certain weaknesses were tolerated because it was a well-bred filly related to this and maybe a stallion had got away with it,” said Gosden. “The greatest example was the great stallion Danzig who didn’t even win a stake but became a great stallion.”

Harrington, who is known for her success with both flat horses and steeplechasers in Ireland, agreed and also suggested that the physical attributes that are valued at the sales – conformational correctness sometimes installed via surgery – aren’t the ones that are most valuable to racing ability.

“It’s become a beauty contest at the sales,” she said. “If they’re not correct, the agents and people looking at them will take them off lists. A lot of owners and breeders will send you a horse that they couldn’t sell at the sales because they weren’t correct and yet they’re very good racehorses.”

Harrington and Gosden agreed that some of their best horses, including Group 1 winners, had come to them this way, as anticipated sale rejects. Those horses had the elements of physical durability that counted, however.

Casse reflected on the issue somewhat differently. For one thing, he said, people have the belief horses are less durable because they believe they start less. One of many reasons for that in Casse’s experience is the difficulty of the entry box. Although he saddles 1,000 starters per year, he estimates he has to enter 4,000 races to get those starts in. His best horses could run 30 to 40 percent more often than they do because races don’t fill.

As to breeding durability, Casse pointed to state-bred programs as sometimes incentivizing irresponsible breeding choices.

“I’m going to upset a lot of people when I say this but probably the thing that has hurt our breed the most in the U.S. is the state programs,” he said. “I think there are stallions and mares that are being used as broodmares and stallions that if we didn’t have a local program, they would never cut the mustard.”

Naturally, the topic of medication is central to the question of racehorse durability and welfare. Casse has recently been outspoken in the press about his concerns about clenbuterol, a drug which is used therapeutically to treat respiratory disease. It also has the side effect of acting similarly to an anabolic steroid, building muscle over time. Casse has been shocked and disappointed to discover there are breeding farms using it on yearlings and even weanlings to prepare them for sales, where more mature (more muscled) horses are more successful.

As some American jurisdictions seek to change their policies on race-day medications, Gosden was asked his opinion on the use of Lasix and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like phenylbutazone as pre-race treatments. Gosden began his training career in California, attaining success at the graded stakes level in the early 1980s before moving to Newmarket in 1989, so he has had experience with American and British pre-race regulations. Lasix is not permitted pre-race in Britain, but can be legally used in training. Gosden said he does employ it when he feels it’s necessary.

“If I have a really bad bleeder ahead of a major workout, I may well give Lasix,” he said. “I don’t use bute much at all. I’m not very keen on it. I feel if the horse needs time, it needs time. I’m not a great user of that.

“There has to be an issue in this day and age to know that a horse, the night before the race let alone the morning of a race, this is an athlete in a competition, is actually permitted to have an intravenous injection? It’s a little hard to think of any other athlete in any sport that that would be tolerated.”

Casse said for his part, he won’t miss the ability to give a pre-race bute treatment if he races in a jurisdiction that doesn’t permit it 24 hours out. He has always been pro-Lasix, but mostly because he worries about what other trainers will do if they don’t have access to Lasix, like withdrawing water farther and farther out from the race to create the same diuretic effect.

“As John alluded to, there’s a lot bigger problems out there in the U.S. than Lasix,” said Casse. “Personally I’m so fed up with it I question how long I want to even train.”

Gosden admitted that concerns about medication – legal or otherwise – do creep into his mind when looking at a sale horse in the States.

“You would know from certain farms and certain families, where you stood, whether that farm was in New York, in Kentucky, Florida or Pennsylvania … You knew where you stood when you saw their stock,” said Gosden of the old days. “Now I got to the sales and it’s not so much that I don’t know the families, it’s that I don’t know these horses and what they achieved and how they achieved it, and I think to myself ‘Oh I wonder what they were running on.’

“The moment you start correcting the validity and purity of that result … you think, ‘How real is this I’m looking at? It might have been reared properly but what was it racing on?’ It’s rather like a counterfeit coinage, it becomes a worry. That’s something I hope American racing can get hold of.”

Until it does, Casse says trainers like him who want to play by the rules are faced with a difficult choice.

“I told my son, I have a 17-year-old son and I was recently elected to the Hall of Fame and he said, ‘Dad what’s that mean?’” he said. “And I said, that means you can do things right and still get it done with dignity, because through this game you’re going to have to decide which is more important: winning at all costs, or your dignity.”

See the full panel discussion below.

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