RSS Feed for this Blog

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Talkin' Breakdowns

- My post on Royal Livingston inspired a rash of comments about breakdowns; and though everyone is not quite in agreement on everything, I think we all realize that they are unavoidable, at least to a certain extent. Much thanks to reader Erin, who was nice enough to share her exchange with Dr. Larry Bramlage in a recent session of Bloodhorse's Talkin' Horses. Erin just provided the link, but hell, I ain't paying for the bandwidth, so here you go; it's well worth the read.

Shawnee, KS:
With the push for more tracks to go to a synthetic surface do you think it really it helps prevent catastrophic break downs or are we just trying to gloss over problems within our breeding industry. I.E. too much inbreeding and or an over saturation of less than quality individuals being bred?

The data is pretty strong that catastrophic injuries are decreased. The jury is still out on routine injuries. I don’t think they decrease nearly as much. Because, it is not the track that presupposes that a horse is at risk for injury. It is the fact that each Thoroughbred must design and build the perfect skeleton for him to use as a race horse. This is done with training. The yearlings are not born with racehorse skeletons; they have to mold their skeleton into a skeleton that will carry their weight and their mechanics competitively around the track. This is done by progressive small episodes of overload, and then over-repair. This is training. The overloads are small stress fractures that result from training and cause the bone to over-repair and get stronger. These small stress fractures make bones vulnerable to uneven loading. This is where the track comes in. An even, consistent surface does not present the uneven foot plants and abnormal stresses that an inconsistent surface does. That is where the artificial surfaces have an advantage. They are consistent for the top seven inches or so. Dirt tracks are layered, and the cushion and base can vary more readily, leading to uneven landings for the horse’s limbs at high speed. Most of the time the horse can compensate for these uneven spots, but sometimes the uneven spot, the horse’s balance, fatigue, and the presence of a small stress fracture combine to result in failure of the bone, as we know. We could race draft horses over most any surface, and their bones are strong enough it wouldn’t matter. But, the Thoroughbred maintains only the minimum skeleton that is sufficient to carry them around the track. Excess skeleton is added weight and penalized the horse’s speed. So, the light skeleton is a speed advantage, unless it gets too light to carry its owner, and then it fails. This is why we will never eliminate injuries totally. Success is predicated on the fact that our athletes carry the minimum skeleton necessary. They run right on the edge of their physiology. But, we have the obligation to mitigate anything in our power that may make it safer for them. Artificial surfaces may do that, but they have to stand the test of time. Remember when artificial turf came into sports. It was lauded as the ideal surface only to be cursed a few years later when many sprinted back to grass fields. This is a long answer, but questions about artificial surfaces are a hot topic right now. [Bloodhorse]


Anonymous said...

Now take that fragile skeleton, change its natural structure further by introducing steroids, and ask it to carry the extra muscle mass associated with the use of those drugs and you see the result every day.

They run faster, bounce back quicker but do not last very long.

Excellent as a business model, not so excellent for the horses.

Anonymous said...

Thus "improvement of the breed" as the primary mission of thoroughbred racing when it was the sport of kings, and others similarly affluent known as "sportsmen", e.g. the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts, the Phipps, et al. It's when racing became big business that breeding for anything other than speed went out the window and the problems really began. Drugs, steroids, and synthetic surfaces only serve to delay the inevitable breakdown of overraced, poorly bred horses and never get to the root of the problem. /S/Green Mtn Punter

Erin said...

Glad you agreed Bramlage's comments were worthy of sharing - just wanted to clarify that I wasn't the one who asked this question. Bramlage's answer has really stuck with me since reading it, and comes to mind every time I see this discussion now.

Superfecta said...

I think it's a very useful comment from Bramlage; I doubt the casual fan understands that you can't simply start training a horse at 3 or 4 to be a racehorse -- they need to be doing serious training from quite a young age to build up the strongest skeleton possible.

There are some great studies that suggest that more 'old school' (and European) training methods were perhaps more effective at this goal than the light schedules we see in some barns these days. The whole '2 year olds are too young' argument doesn't hold much water against them. (A quick search of Google Scholar for 'thoroughbred bone density' or related keywords turns up plenty of articles).

Drugs and bad breeding, on the other hand, can open up an entirely different set of circumstances.

Teresa said...

If I recall correctly, Landon Manning made the point in his book The Noble Animals that the "improvement of the breed" phrase was mainly a political tool to make the introduction of horse racing in Saratoga a more palatable proposition to citizens than a plain old gambling attraction would be. Worthy words, yes, but I'm not sure that the goals of those early horsemen were any more noble than those of today.

Anonymous said...

Just don't try to tell those old time KY breeders that "improvement of the breed" was merely a political "sound bite" for the Saratoga locals in 1863. Improvement of the breed achieved the main goal: A better, sounder racehorse. Breeding for lucrative auction sales was not the main goal of early thoroughbred horsemen but rather it was to produce the most consistent stakes winners on the racetrack. Stakes winners brought status, multiple stakes winners by the same stud or out of the same mare brought the highest possible status to the stud or mare. I don't recall that breeders were interested in breeding to make a killing at the yearling sales, probably because the Dubai sheihks of the day were still nomads living in tents. Breeding was to produce the soundest "stayers" to win as many rich stakes as possible, not studs that would bring exorbitant stud fees and offspring that would command equally exorbitant auction prices. The best bred horses were thought to have the best chance to win lucrative stakes races, simple as that, thus "improvement of the breed". That was the game. Not sure when all of that changed but certainly by the 1960's and '70's speed began to take over as the be-all, end-all of thoroughbred breeding, auction prices began to skyrocket in the 80's, and somewhere along the way "speed"- and ever higher prices- became the only thing that mattered at the auction sales. Improvement of the breed went the way of the 5 cent cigar. Now, did racehorse breakdowns increase as speed came to dominate the pedigrees? Many suspect that is the case but don't know if there is empirical evidence to support the hypothesis. Anyone know? /S/Green Mtn Punter

Anonymous said...

The chat that Alan linked to is just one of two Bramlage chats on Bloodhorse. The second was posted the following week. There's a bit of fluff in them, but overall they were exceptionally informative, at least for me. I commend the full chats to anyone who has the time.