Because of breeding practices, horses not what they used to be

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Though Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro will never race again, the owners of the powerful colt will spend tens of thousands of dollars while the hind leg he shattered in the Preakness Stakes slowly heals.

Their motivation -- the millions of dollars he is sure to fetch in stud fees -- is one of the many reasons some experts believe the modern thoroughbred is more prone to injury.

Barbaro's breakdown Saturday reignited the debate that's kicked up in recent years: Are modern training techniques, an obsession with speed and the almighty dollar making thoroughbreds weaker?

Those who think so cite the lack of a Triple Crown winner since 1978 and the drop in the average number of annual starts per horse as evidence.

Some blame modern trainers' obsession with speed over stamina and durability. Others say the economics of the sport drive a tendency to breed horses for looks -- which brings big money in the sales ring -- than the racetrack.

And many believe the lure of millon-dollar stud fees is taking horses off the track much earlier in their careers, making it hard to detect durability.

The average career for an elite racehorse, such as Barbaro -- or, in recent years, Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex -- is becoming shorter all the time. Smarty Jones ran only nine career races, Afleet Alex raced 12 times, and neither ran past his 3-year-old season.

By comparison, 1941 Triple Crown champion Whirlaway raced nine times as a 3-year-old after winning the Belmont.

There is general agreement that the qualities valued in a thoroughbred have narrowed, favoring swiftness over strength, distance running or durability.

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