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.