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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Racing Two-Year-Old Thoroughbreds: Does It Promote Longer, More Successful Racing Careers? Kiwi Numbers Might Not Tell the Whole Story

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Zenyatta was the exception to the rule, if judged by the New Zealand statistics. She began her phenomenal racing career in the fall of her three-year-old season. (Dave Cooper photo)

Just published: The association of two-year-old training milestones with career length and racing success in a sample of Thoroughbred horses in New Zealand JC Tanner, CW Rogers, EC Firth Equine Veterinary Journal. doi: 10.1111/j.2042-3306.2011.00534.x

New research, published this month the Equine Veterinary Journal (EVJ), has suggested that exercise early in life has a positive effect on musculoskeletal health and may have a positive impact on the future racing careers of Thoroughbreds.

The study looked at the association of two-year-old training milestones with career length and racing success in a sample of 4683 Thoroughbred horses in New Zealand. Retrospective data were obtained from the Thoroughbred foal crop born in 2001/2002. Three training milestones were observed: 1) registration with a trainer, 2) trialling to assess race potential and 3) racing.

The association of the training milestones with career length was measured by assessing the number of race starts and the number of years raced.

The results:

1. The horses that raced as two-year-olds had significantly more race starts during their careers from three-years-old onwards than those first raced as three-year-olds or older.

2. Horses that raced as two-year-olds had significantly more years racing.

3. Horses registered with a trainer, trialled or raced as two-year-olds were more likely to have won or been placed in a race than those that achieved these milestones as three-year-olds or older.

4. In addition, horses that first trialled and raced as two-year-olds had greater total earnings than those that first trialled or raced at a later age.

Jasmine Tanner of the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand, who instigated the study, concluded: “Musculoskeletal injuries are one the main causes of wastage in racing and days lost from training. This early study indicates that horses in training or racing as two-year-olds may have better musculoskeletal health throughout life than those first in training or racing at a later age. This could have a positive impact on their future success in racing. If this is indeed the case then it may be possible to manipulate the initiation and structure of race training to reduce the risk of such injuries in the future.”

Tanner previously analyzed statistics of racing milestones for Standardbred racehorses. She is pursuing a Master's degree while also training Standardbreds and recently received an award for her achievements as a trainer. According to the university web site, her research is funded by the New Zealand Racing Board.

Before jumping to conclusions and overlaying this research on American Thoroughbreds, remember that there are environmental and medical differences in Thoroughbreds as you travel around the world. The way that horses are raised differs in the two countries, and in New Zealand, horses are racing almost exclusively on grass. They also are not stabled at racetracks but just travel to the track on raceday. The expectations placed on horses for a number of career starts differs around the world. Also, the medication rules for racing horses are very different from country to country.

It would be simple to say that these results from New Zealand are self-evident. A horse that misses its two-year-old career launch misses it for a reason, usually. It is true that some owners and trainers carefully delay a horse's introduction to racing because they want the horse to be physically mature, but most two-year-olds would have been started had they been healthy or sound enough to do it.

If comparing three-year-olds that have been healthy and in training with horses of the same age that have been unhealthy, it seems obvious that whatever caused the horse to miss its two-year-old start might turn into or be related to a chronic health or soundness issue that would compromise the horse's long-term career.

Hopefully this research won't discourage responsible owners and trainers from treating each horse as an individual and starting its training at the optimum time for that horse.

Take heart: Champion mare Zenyatta did not start in her first race until the end of her three-year-old season. Likewise, Australian champion Black Caviar did race three times as a two-year-old but kept up her undefeated record after a seven-month layoff in her three-year-old career.

Many routes can lead to success in racing. Comparing the statistics from New Zealand with comparable data from the United States and other countries would be fascinating.

How do different countries or even different owners define "success" in terms of a horse's race career? How do you define it? And what about the bigger picture of racing: should we be judging success on the status quo of racing ten years ago?

How can we use this data to help Thoroughbred racing move into a more sustainable future?

The paradigm of "success" needs to evolve to meet a new standard that includes a horse's exit status as well as its entry age.

In an ideal world, research like Tanner's might look at both ends of a horse's career. Data should reveal how many horses exit their racing careers in a sound, healthy condition after an acceptable number of starts and with acceptable results. That would be a great measure of success and give us information we need to improve all the numbers in a horse's life.

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