The 2YO Death Spiral
A death spiral is potentially awaiting us. Internationally, there has been a decline in the annual thoroughbred crop with thoroughbred numbers dropping from a high in the mid 1990's towards levels in some areas that have not been recorded since the 1950's. In years to come, there will be significantly smaller foal crops, and without rationalization of racetrack numbers in a meaningful way, racetracks will be putting on races with smaller field sizes which equals lesser betting handle and overall interest in the game, smaller crowds at racetracks, anaemic returns to owners, lower yearling sale prices, lesser foals, and the spiral goes on....
Setting aside racetrack rationalization as an obvious if painful solution (you tend not to be able to get racetracks back once they are gone), there is a greater underlying issue in terms of genetics and performance as it relates to the thoroughbred that may in fact accelerate this potential death spiral. When it comes to dealing with smaller racing populations, racing administrators and indeed Graded/Group stakes committees around the world seem to all gravitate to one easy solution - reduce the influence/opportunity for two year old racing. It is an easy target. After all, horses do have issues from time to time and two year olds are always a day to day proposition especially in terms of shin soreness and airway disease. Indeed Graded/Group stakes committees in Australia and to a lesser extent in North America, seem to have really taken a hatchet to the stakes schedule for two year olds, reducing their influence in a dramatic way. In America, one only has to look at the storied history of the Saratoga 2yo races - the Saratoga Special, Sanford Stakes and Hopeful Stakes and their impact on the breed to understand how important two year old racing is to the thoroughbred as a whole.
A push towards a reduction of 2YO racing is also a somewhat popular theory among those that decry 2yo racing as a cause for the reduction in soundness in the breed as a whole. Setting aside the 2yo in training sales, where horses are often asked to perform at speeds that they will never attain in race competition again, nothing could be further from the truth. In a study released today in the Equine Veterinary Journal, it has been shown that horses that race at two subsequently have longer and more successful careers. The study, which looked at some 4683 horses born in New Zealand, found that horses that raced as 2yo's had significantly more years of racing than those that first raced as 3yo's or older and those that raced as 2yo's had a greater total earnings than those that first raced at a later age. This study in some ways mirrored and Australian study completed over a decade ago which had similar findings, and also confirms other studies (that can be found here, here and here), that showed that exercise early in a horses career conferred significant benefits in overall musculoskeletal health of the horse. The significant associations found in this study are similar to those that were found in a companion study on Standardbred Horses born in the same year as the thoroughbred study. While the Standardbred and Thoroughbred are different breeds, it seems that 2YO performance is of importance to future racing performance outcomes, no matter what the breed. Provided proper training and management practices of 2yo's are adhered to, having horses in training and racing at this age seems to benefit the musculoskeletal health of the horse and confer survival time in terms of the number of years that the horse races.
Studies have shown that up to 50% of all thoroughbreds born fail to race. More concerning is that ~32% of that 50% are horses that never even reach a trainer to attempt to race. If it is not just a factor of oversupply, this my be an area where the scientific community and the racing administrators can come together and work out why this is occurring and how to change this in order to optimize the utilization of the racing population. Regardless of this, it is just as imperative that racing administrators maintain a strong and robust 2YO racing schedule, even if it is a 'loss leader' in terms of betting handle. As this study confirms, in reducing the opportunity for two year old racing, which is going to be the most likely initial reaction of smaller racing crops, racing administrators may in fact be doing the exact opposite to ensure that they have full race fields in years to come and accelerate the industry into a death spiral.