Our Race Horses Are Broken, America

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Our horses are sick. Our thoroughbreds are thoroughly inbred. They are locomotives sitting atop toothpicks. They are fragile and friable, designed to run but not to recover from running. And each time they break down or wear out, we chalk it up to an individual horse's shortcomings, rather than the decades-long decline of the entire breeding industry.

I'll Have Another, who withdrew from the Belmont Stakes two days before the race, was not a healthy horse. The New York Times reviewed his veterinary records, and at just three years old, after just seven career races, I'll Have Another had the legs and joints of an elderly horse. He had been suffering from osteoarthritis for "a period of time." The tendinitis that scratched him from the race had also been a chronic problem for a while. He was receiving regular injections of multiple painkillers and anti-inflammatory fluids. A completely legal drug cocktail was the only thing keeping him going.


I'll Have Another, like all of his other distant cousins that make up American thoroughbred racing, was built to go fast, but not to go far, or to go fast repeatedly. The reason, says legendary horse writer Andrew Beyer, is that today's breeders are in it for a quick buck, and the quickest bucks can be found in producing sprinters, even at the expense of stamina.

Thoroughbred racing used to be dominated by wealthy dynastic families (the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts, the Phippses, etc.) who bred the horses they raced and imbued them with the stamina they deemed necessary to win the championship events that were contested at distances up to 11 / 2 miles.

Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of pedigrees can glance at the bloodlines of Kentucky Derby winners as recently as the 1980s and see that these horses were bred to run all day. During that decade, every Derby winner had a high-class 1 1 / 2-mile runner in the first two generations of his pedigree.

But as the racing dynasties diminished in importance, the sport came to be dominated by commercial breeders who sold their foals at auctions. Most buyers at these sales didn't have the patience of the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts. They wanted fast results, and breeders obliged them by producing horses who were quick and precocious. As sales of 2-year-olds-in-training came into vogue, a youngster who could fly one-eighth of a mile in fast time would often be more valuable than one with the genes to win the Belmont Stakes.


You would think I'll Have Another could serve as a cautionary tale. This is what an unnatural horse gets you: the shortest of careers. But to the hundreds of commercial breeders out there, he's an aspiration. He won nearly $2.7 million in prize money in his career, and he was just sold to a Japanese stud farm for $10 million. His genes, which served him well in the short term, and threatened his life and his livelihood in the long term, are the ones that the market has chosen to pass on to as many descendants as possible. Brief and self-destructive wins out over protracted and viable, again, as it does thousands of times every foaling spring. Horse racing continues to go the wrong way.