The breakdown of Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby has reignited the debate over whether breeders are sacrificing durability for speed.
Young horses breaking down on the track has become all too common. Eight Belles is the fourth high-profile thoroughbred to suffer catastrophic injury on the track in the past two years. Since the 2006 Preakness, that includes Barbaro, George Washington and Chelokee, who survived his mishap last weekend at Churchill Downs in Louisville.
"We are not in crisis, but we are approaching a crisis situation at a relatively rapid rate," said Dr. Larry Bramlege, the attending veterinarian at the last weekend's Kentucky Derby when Eight Belles went down and at the 2006 Preakness when Barbaro pulled up. "For a while, we ran clean - for six or seven years. And there has never been a fatality in the Kentucky Derby, that we can determine. Now, this crops up in our most prominent events.
"I think we are approaching crisis on two levels. One, a crisis in public confidence in racing. And two, I do believe we've disregarded durability long enough that it has become a crisis.
"If when you're breeding and you don't select soundness over a long period of time, you lose by default for not selecting it. What we're seeing is a less durable athlete with potentially more ability and a lesser degree of soundness."
Dr. Tom Bowman, a veterinarian and general manager and partner of the Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City, doesn't blame track injuries on breeding. But he does have a strong opinion about the direction breeding has taken.
"For a long time, the thoroughbred was bred as a horse that can go a distance and take your breath away," Bowman said. "We are starting to sacrifice some of those qualities for a short racing career and cheap speed overall.
"We're not selecting animals that are necessarily less sound; we're selecting animals to do things that are much more difficult to do - run real fast, real hard. When we do that, we're selecting for horses that are less durable."
Tracing bloodlines and experimenting with genetics has long been the breeders' game. No breeder wants to produce an unsound runner.
Jim Steele, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, who runs a breeding business at Shamrock Farm in Carroll County, calls it a consequence of breeding, not a design.
"People do think about it," Steele said. "A lot of people think, 'If I'm in the commercial end of it, I have to breed to [bloodlines] the buyers want to see.' I need to find an animal that has some sizzle that attracts people to want to breed to this animal.
"I'm personally trying to breed the best horses I can. The best horse I can breed has to be the fastest horse."
Dr. William Solomon, a veterinarian and a breeder in New Freedom, Pa., doesn't believe the choice has to be one or the other.
"Since the beginning of time, we've bred for both endurance and speed," Solomon said. "I don't think you sacrifice one or the other. There has been a tendency to push horses to do more at an early age."
Bill Boniface, general manager at Bonita Farm in Darlington and breeder of Maryland's last Preakness winner, Deputed Testamony, is adamant when he says there's no connection between breeding and breakdown.
"I don't think we've gotten to the point where we're causing unsoundness problems," Boniface said. "Looking back at three or four generations, we've been doing the same things for 100 years. ... I don't think there is a breeding problem."
While the industry has used technology and synthetic surfaces to make the racetrack a safer place for horses, the perception of racing suffers a major hit with each high-profile breakdown.
"I don't think there's any question the perception is that we have too many injuries," said Dan Rosenberg, who runs a thoroughbred consulting firm. "To me, this is not a question of needing to clean up our image; we need to clean up our act."
Two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito, who will bring 3-year-old colt Stevil to this year's Preakness, laments the diminished durability he sees in horses today.
"We've certainly debilitated the breed," he said in Louisville. "We've been talking about that for 15 to 20 years. They don't make horses like they used to. Right or wrong?
"We know that. You can't blow one out on Tuesday and race him on Saturday, like Calumet used to do. You can't run them every week like they used to do. You look at the 2-year-olds of years ago, they ran every week. They just don't make them like they did. That's obvious."
The commercialization of the sport, escalating stud fees and pressure to produce early returns on investments have lent a bottom-line, syndicate atmosphere to what once was a family-run operation. Roy Jackson, one of racing's most venerated breeders, notes the rise of commercial breeders and the changing face of ownership.
Jackson was the breeder for both Barbaro and George Washington.
"[Wife] Gretchen and I feel strongly that there's an overemphasis on commercial breeding and thus, breeding for speed," Jackson said from his home in West Grove, Pa. "Of course, we're really more interested in the racing end of it."
The racing industry, he said, "may be a microcosm of our times, where everything centers around the money."
Reiley McDonald grew up in Maryland around horses and now works in Lexington, Ky., as a breeder and seller. Derby runner Visionaire was foaled and raised on his Eaton Farms.
McDonald says there is a lot more to breeding than simply matching fast bloodlines.
"In addition to speed, a horse has to have the scope and size and length to carry speed over a distance of ground," he said. "A horse has to have courage to carry speed over distance, and soundness to carry speed over distance. This notion that people are breeding nothing but speed would be a crazy philosophy of breeding."
McDonald said he believes catastrophic injuries are down. In a study of 2007 injuries, Dr. Mary Scollay found there were 1.47 fatalities per 1,000 starts on synthetic surfaces and 2.03 fatalities per 1,000 starts on dirt tracks.
Rosenberg acknowledged that there is pressure for the industry to change its breeding tactics, nonetheless.
"Everybody wants a simple, easy answer, but I'm not sure there is one," he said.
Instead, he opted for an analogy: "I can buy a pickup truck and change the oil every once in a while and go bombing across fields. But if I buy a Maserati or a Lamborghini, it's going to spend a lot of time in the shop."
The competitive nature of the thoroughbred is another factor that very well might have played a role in Eight Belles' demise and in the deaths of other horses.
"When you have athletes competing at the highest level, they push themselves beyond the limits of endurance," Rosenberg said. "They are all plagued by injuries.
"I'm not trying to excuse injuries in horse racing. It's imperative we do everything we can to minimize them. Is it dangerous? You bet. When you have an athlete competing at the very limits of endurance, you're going to have injuries."
Sun reporter Sandra McKee contributed to this article.
Tuesday: Pee Wee Preakness, 11 a.m., Federal Hill Park. Wednesday: Preakness Frog Hop, noon, War Memorial Plaza, City Hall. Thursday: Preakness Crab Derby, noon, Lexington Market; Preakness Balloon Festival, 3 p.m., Turf Valley Resort; Miller Lite Nites, 7:30 p.m., Power Plant. Friday: Ryan Shaw concert, 6 p.m., Harbor East.
Horse Trainer Jockey Last start
Big Brown Rick Dutrow Kent Desormeaux Kentucky Derby, 1st
Behindatthebar Todd Pletcher David Flores Lexington Stakes, 1st
Giant Moon Rick Schosberg Ramon Dominguez Wood Memorial, 4th
Hey Byrn Eddie Plesa C.C. Lopez Holy Bull Stakes, 1st
Icabad Crane Graham Motion Jeremy Rose Tesio Stakes, 1st
Kentucky Bear Reade Baker Jamie Theriot Blue Grass Stakes, 3rd
Macho Again Dallas Stewart Julien Leparoux Derby Trial, 1st
Racecar Rhapsody Kenny McPeek Robby Albarado Lexington Stakes, 4th
Riley Tucker Bill Mott Edgar Prado Lexington Sakes, 3rd
Stevil Nick Zito John Velazquez Blue Grass Stakes, 4th
Tres Borrachos Beau Greely Tyler Baze Arkansas Derby, 3rd
Yankee Bravo Paddy Gallagher Alex Solis Santa Anita Derby, 4th
Harlem Rocker Todd Pletcher Eibar Coa Withers Stakes, 1st