Death of The Iron Horse

September 20, 2019

How Breeding is Killing Thoroughbred Racing

Blame it on Secretariat. Before the brief but brilliant career of the 1973 Triple Crown winner, champion Thoroughbreds often raced up until the age of six and career longevity was a trait desired by many breeders. Although Secretariat was the first Triple Crown winner to retire at the tender age of three while still sound and healthy, his career did encompass twenty-one starts, including wins against older horses and two turf victories.  

Flash forward to the 2018 Triple Crown, won by Justify whose entire career consisted of a paltry six starts over a period of four months. Then racing’s shooting star burned out, retired over a minor, easily treatable injury. Fans will never again see their hero race. Such is the standard in horse racing today. Thanks to rising insurance costs and stud fees, horses like Justify are retired after abbreviated “careers”.  Fans barely have time to build a rapport with one horse before he’s whisked off to the breeding shed. Imagine if every football season fans of the NFL had to choose a new team. Sorry Philadelphia Eagles fans, your team has been retired but here’s the new Harrisburg Hawks, you can root for them instead. Ridiculous right? Yet that is exactly what happens year after year in horse racing.

Blame it on the breeding industry.

Thoroughbreds are no longer being bred based on their actual racing performance but according to their perceived potential. Fearing that a loss will decrease their colt’s future stud value, trainers seem reluctant to actually race their superstars, electing to use workouts to prep for the classics instead.  Soundness used to be a desired trait yet many breeders will happily send their mares to stallions with shortened racing careers or worse, those have never even raced at all. “But he’s got good bloodlines!” they cry. Prove it.

It has become so rare for superstar colts to race beyond their three year old season that when horses like Curlin, California Chrome and Gun Runner do, it is not only a gift to the fans, it also enhances their legacy of being much more than just a failed Triple Crown contender. Racing needs more brave owners, willing to actually race their horses instead of sending them to the breeding shed at the first opportunity. Also, there’s no guarantee that a superstar racehorse will translate to a superstar stud. Remember War Emblem? It turned out that the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner hated other horses to the point of refusing to cover mares. He’s now a happy gelding living the good life at Old Friends Equine Retirement home. 

What racing needs is another iron horse, slugging it out year after year, giving fans something to root for after the Triple Crown season has ended. Horses like Cigar and Zenyatta, putting their win streaks on the line or golden geldings like Kelso, Forego, Wise Dan and the ageless John Henry. Recently it has the “weaker sex” who have taken up the iron horse mantle, mares like Elate, Beholder, Goldikova, Azeri, and Royal Delta. 

The casual fan needs a hero, a reason to watch more than just the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup and racing needs to do more to promote these four legged warriors. Racehorses are more than just flavor of the month Triple Crown fodder and breeding prospects. It’s time that owners and trainers to use their horses to do what Thoroughbreds were originally bred to do – run them.

Dawn LeFevre

Jonathan Stettin is a New York Legend. He's been a Horseplayer, earning his living at the track, since he was 19 years old. @jonathanstettin

OTMB @OnTheMarcBet View testimonials




  1. Sep 22, 2019 at 3:30 am

    What IMO has been needed for some time is the Graded Stakes Committee to have the guts to put in rules that mandate that any progeny of a stallion who was five years old or younger when conceived is ineligible for ALL Grade 1 & Grade 2 stakes until said stallion turns 13 UNLESS said stallion ALSO made 10 or more starts during the year the foal was conceived. That would force many changes in the way horses are bred to where they are much more sound.

  2. Dec 14, 2019 at 6:03 pm

    There’s a lot that’s wrong with racing nowadays. Just yesterday everyone was up in arms when the #5 jockey at a race track provided his whip to a fellow #6 jockey. Number #5’s horse was failing & #6 had lost his whip. What Jockey #5 did was true sportsmanship something that was once commonplace in racing. Nowadays the attitude is very much whatever goes goes as long as you’re not caught.

    But the excessive usage of lasix in America is another issue. This lasix has compensated for bleeding & has allowed for weaker animals to reproduce. If lasix wasn’t available the heavy bleeders wouldn’t have been successful at the race track & thus entirely removed from the gene pool. It’s not like the greats per-Secretariat needed lasix.

Leave a Comment