08/11/2010 4:19PM

The Demise Of 2-Year-Old Racing

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We're starting to get some 2-year-old racing now. Finally. Saturday's straight maiden race for juveniles at Saratoga (the one that isn't for New York breds) looks at first glance like it might be a very hot race, and we are seeing 2-year-old stakes races now with a bit more frequency. Still, 2-year-old racing isn't anything like it used to be in the true glory days of this sport.

I'm writing this on the afternoon of Aug. 11, and it ocurred to me that by this point, some of the greatest horses this sport has ever seen had by this date already made themselves familiar to fans as 2-year-olds thanks to how often they raced. This is certainly no scientific study, but it strikes me as interesting that by Aug. 11 in their respective 2-year-old seasons, Affirmed had started four times, Buckpasser had started seven times, Citation had started five times, Equipoise had started 10 times, John Henry had started five times, Man o' War had started six times, Round Table had started seven times, Ruffian had started four times, Secretariat had started three times, Shuvee had started five times, Swaps had started five times, Whirlaway had started eight times, and - hold on to your hat - Seabiscuit had started 23 times.

Maybe the next addition to this list has already started this year at 2. We don't know. But we can say that if the next Hall of Famer has already begun his or her juvenile career, he or she certainly hasn't started four times, or eight times, and might never make 23 starts total. And I can't help but wonder if there isn't some sort of connection between a sport that has been desperate for a genuine, true superhorse through the 1980's after Spectacular Bid, the 1990's, and the 2000's (hold your fire, Zenyatta fans), and the drastic contraction of early and mid-season 2-year-old racing.

Stuart P Slagle More than 1 year ago
Mike, Let's celebrate at least one two-year old who has built a fan base in 2010: TWELVE PACK SHELLY. Her two victories from four starts for trainer John Salzman, Jr. include a New Track Record and a Stakes victory!!! I saw her debut victory in person. Now I look for her on the simulcast dial whenever she runs. I am excited about the prospects of seeing her live again at my home track for the 25th Jim McKay Maryland Million on October 2nd.
Jeff T. More than 1 year ago
Mike... Great topic and thread; it looks like you have had the knack for "blogging" after all. With regard to 2 year old racing, every contributor on this thread has brought up valid points. Specifically... Binky, Stable Girl, Nathan, and Anonymous (at August 12, 9:41AM) pretty much cover the debate. The truth as I see it is that the breeders and owners have watered down the breeding DNA by breeding for speed versus distance and longevity. The only way to consistently win by breeding for speed is to add medication to aid in the recovery for the non-stop aggressive tactics of “the need for speed.” The fans of horse racing have had to painfully watch as the Saudi’s have rescued the best breeds for themselves. While they have overpaid a great deal to obtain their “stock,” they have done what is best for the horses and “the game.” The “industry” (by “industry” I mean breeders/owners/trainers/race track owners/”turf writers”/”handicapping” turf writers/and the fans) has already “swung at the worst pitches” when it comes to the necessary custodial obligations that would protect the longevity of the breeds that supply and support the sport of horse racing. The debate about Polytrack vs. dirt is merely a "symptom" or evidence that few if any really understand that 2 year olds shouldn't really be running aggressively until they are more physically mature.
binky mcfadden More than 1 year ago
Several of the prior posters are correct. Breeding practices, farm and training practices, and the market demand for a blemish-free, precocious yearlings has diminished the soundness and stamina of the breed. Our farm has bred on a small basis for over twenty years and we would estimate that better than 90% of our produce have made it to the track and run. Some couldn't beat a fat lady, and some were MSWs, but the vast majority were solid horses. We let our young horses run free except to bring sale yearlings in during the heat of the day so they don't get bleached out. We have been criticized and penalized by the yearling sales beauty contests. A yearling with good confirmation, decent pedigree, and near perfect x-rays and scopes with a superficial scar or blemish is dismissed by the "knowledgeable horsemen". The lack of truly knowledgeable horsemen, versus horse speculators, is also a major contributor to the decline of the thoroughbred, especially in North America. The industry demands, rewards and overpays for "Miss America" and "Brad Pitt" horses instead of professional athletes. Many sale toppers look pretty and have impressive breeding, but the MAJORITY do not hold up or perform at a level that comes close to justifying the price. When a yearling does make it into the top 1 or 2% as a racehorse they are quickly retired to protect the asset and perpetuate the cycle.
Marc More than 1 year ago
I saw a study maybe 35 years ago . It compared humans to thoroughbreds in their progress from the turn of the century. Taking into account changed track surfaces,diet changes, training changes etc. they concluded the following Human beings had gotten faster.. thoroughbreds had NOT. The implication of this could only be that the gene pool was simply not diverse enough . Now today many are pointing to the dominance of the Native Dancer line in pedigrees and while i agree with that as a current issue, the REAL issue is that every thoroughbred today traces to one of three Arabians some 260 years ago. The handwriting was on the wall for this even back in the 1960s when the iron horses like Dr Fager and Buckpasser made light of weights, short turn around times in racing etc.. that the industry ignored these studies is borne out by the fact that they continued to go down a bad path, and when once they bred a stud a maximum of40 times a year.. THAT has also gone out the window. The industry has destryed itself by ignoring these genetic issues.. they only EXACERBATED it by breeding for speed etc.
Marc More than 1 year ago
Actually it might be a simpler answer.. outside of this year with Lookin at Lucky.. when was the last time a two year champ made the same as a three year old?The industry has decided that two year old racing doesnt benefit the horses standing in the long run.. the Euros have always agreed with this by the way.. it's nothing new This industry has no trailbazers anymore.. only sheep.. if Asmussen or Pletcher arent doing it then they wont either
binky mcfadden More than 1 year ago
Marc: The answer is Street Sense. Your point, however, is valid. Two-year old sensations don't generally hold up. Curlin didn't start but three times before the Derby. He wasn't on the two year old radar at all.
Stable Girl More than 1 year ago
Most of the horses you mentioned had trainers who employed Grooms who really knew how to rub a horse. They could both detect and name nearly any kind of lameness, and knew how to keep a horse sound and happy. I had the great good fortune to groom for Buddy Delp for a time and I can tell you other trainers don't require anything like that level of expertise from their grooms. Since the 1990s especially, good grooms have been largely replaced with much cheaper help, and most of the horse care is done entirely by veterinarians. A majority of todays grooms are simply muck shovelers who can adequately run a bandage and give a bath, and when a problem pops up they call the boss to send for the vet. Preventative maintenance is largely a thing of the past. I learned more about the care of racehorses from Mr. Delp than from all of the other trainers I worked for combined. (many of whom are quite successful) I think this is the reason more than any other that today's racehorses are "fragile". They are simply not getting the care that the horses of yesteryear received. They are sour, body sore, and have little problems that get missed until they are big problems. Too many trainers rely on the vet, and owners don't know any better. The barn is clean, the horses are brushed, and the trainer has a decent margin; what more is there to know? They are just happy to keep the training bill a little lower monthly; not realizing that this is the reason their horses run so little. Rubbing racehorses has lost its prestige, but none of the hard work. These guys work 7 days a week and are often caring for 5 horses at a time, and rarely any more get the grooms' 1% of the winning horses' purse, are lucky to clear $500 a week, and to be honest, why should they care to learn the finer points? I'm not sure anything at all can be done to recapture the glory days. Which to me makes modern horses who buck this trend all the more spectacular.
Paul More than 1 year ago
Cigar was the "superhorse" of the 1990's and following him made me a racing fan today.
Scarlett102 More than 1 year ago
Lasix, all Lasix. Rid the Lasix, run the horse. Weren't we told that lasix was going to reduce the vet bills? How about lasix increasing the starts per year, meaning feeding Aqueduct's miserable winter meet. Rid the lasix, it will start solving the other problems.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It isnt the drugs, the system, the way we train. It is the breeding. Pure and simple. Ever since the "pinhookers" started buying yearlings in the late 80's, the game has been flawed. Breeders produce brilliant 2 year olds that are brittle by three. It is all about the sales ring. Durability and longevity went out the back door about 1988. This is about to change. With the downturn in the market and economy, buyers that trully buy to race are going to pass over the inbred Northern Dancer lines and look for the larger gene pools. Give it a couple of years and you will start seeing the iron horses emerge. If not, game over.
EricTheRed More than 1 year ago
A coworker is an owner of several horses (some retired thoroughbreds). When she found out I had gotten into playing the horses, she explained how horses at risk when they are made to race as 2-year-olds because their bones are still not fully grown. I had no reason to doubt her and made a good faith promise not to play 2yo races. Thoughts on this?