There was a period, not so long ago, when mavens of horse racing were lamenting that “modern horses just can't compete in, let alone win, the Triple Crown.”
Such fainting lilies have been jerked up short the last few years, first as American Pharoah sailed across the finish line for the Belmont Stakes in 2015. Then, just three years later, Justify added another Triple Crown to the rolls of history.
Clearly, contemporary horses can win a Triple Crown.
And I am here to tell you that the breed today can do anything the Thoroughbred of 50 years ago could do … if they are raised and trained and campaigned in much the same ways.
A large number of the best prospects today, however, are not raised the way the best horses of the 1950s or 1960s were brought up. Instead of having much of their time outdoors, it is much easier on the nerves of farm managers to keep them as much as possible indoors, where they cannot crash into fences, trees, each other, or just scamper about in awkward ways and scrape themselves up.
Scrapes and scars are solidly frowned upon by buyers paying either large or moderate sums for young prospects, and most breeders cannot afford to breed horses unless they sell some or all of their young horses year to year. And for those young prospects to sell, they need to be as nearly perfect as possible. Not just functionally perfect, but as cosmetically and aesthetically close to perfection as the horseman's art can make them.
They rarely are, and yet the result is now several decades of the best prospects being housed through much of their youth, being fed as much as they can eat without becoming absolutely porky and growing rather more than they likely would in a more natural setting.
Perhaps most breeders should quit. Perhaps we should allow the numbers bred by private breeders to support the demand for racing and breeding stock because the men and women breeding to race are those most likely to allow their horses time to bang around in the fields, to harden tendon and bone naturally and athletically, and then to judge them as athletes rather as investment vehicles. If this were the future course of the breed, foal registration numbers would drop precipitously, but the stock remaining would increase in value geometrically as the volume of horses on offer declined.
Aside from that reversion to a much older manner of breeding horses, then racing them oneself, there are simply too many yearlings available to support an agricultural endeavor like raising horses that is overloaded on expenses.
There are also many owners who don't want the expense and uncertainty and aggravation and loss of time that is inevitable in breeding one's own racing stock. That's the origin of the market for racing prospects at the yearling and at the 2-year-old sales.
Given that the disappearance of commercial breeding is very unlikely, is it possible to have racehorses as sound and capable as those of 50 years ago?
Yes, it is.
Breeders and buyers-agents-owners have to come to an understanding about the realities of raising a good horse and the unrealistic expectations for presentation at the sales.
Take, for example, Arthur Hancock. Noted as the co-breeder of Kentucky Derby winners Gato del Sol (by Cougar) and Fusaichi Pegasus (Mr. Prospector), as well as being the co-breeder of Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Risen Star (Secretariat), Hancock is also a believer in keeping horses in big fields for exercise, giving horses lots of time outside for exercise, and letting the chips fall. Sometimes they fall in the cheap seats.
Intriguingly, however, Hancock's better horses look the part often enough to sell well. In recent years, Hancock bred the War Front colt Air Force Blue, who became the top 2-year-old colt in Europe in 2015 with victories in the Group 1 Phoenix, National, and Dewhurst Stakes, and just a year later, Hancock bred and sold the unbeaten Mastery (Candy Ride), who became a highly fancied classic prospect with a victory in the G1 Los Alamitos Futurity of 2016.
Now, Hancock is represented by highly regarded Roadster (Quality Road), who was a talking horse in California after his debut victory last July and has returned to high form as a 3-year-old with victory over last year's juvenile champion Game Winner (Candy Ride) in the G1 Santa Anita Derby on April 6.
Now the big challenge for Roadster is the Run for the Roses on May 4.
Frank Mitchell is author of Racehorse Breeding Theories, as well as the book Great Breeders and Their Methods: The Hancocks. In addition to writing the column “Sires and Dams” in Daily Racing Form for nearly 15 years, he has contributed articles to Thoroughbred Daily News, Thoroughbred Times, Thoroughbred Record, International Thoroughbred, and other major publications. In addition, Frank is chief of biomechanics for DataTrack International and is a hands-on caretaker of his own broodmares and foals in Central Kentucky. Check out Frank's lively Bloodstock in the Bluegrass blog.
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