The Thoroughbred Race Horse:
As Kentucky Derby fever moves into high gear, it would be appropriate to take a look at thoroughbred racing as a whole, in order to understand, appreciate, and honor the athlete.
Much as in the human arena, in the equine industry most of the athletes are groomed with their particular sport in mind. Whilst it would be true that many an athlete comes to the forefront due to a natural ability, in thoroughbreds this predisposition is often the result of human intervention and breeding. This appears to be an extremely influential part of the equation, and may ultimately be its downfall as the pitfalls of inbreeding are well documented throughout many species. Mating two athletes with the intention of creating one graced with the finest qualities of both is an imperfect science at best, and strict regulation of the industry removes many of the random variables that might broaden the bloodlines. However, the result is an elite and discrimanatory class that is then driven purely for our entertainment, and inherently carries the frailties that inbreeding will create. These athletes by nature are predisposed to compete, but would generally not drive themselves to the extremes that human intervention takes them, and are often times forced to take themselves to catastrophic extremes before they have the mental capability to know better.
The thoroughbred racehorse matures physically at a fairly rapid pace. This is their nature in order to be able to survive in their natural habitat in the wild. Once these majestic creatures reach 2 years of age, they have for the most part grown to their full height and stature, yet in reality these are still infants both mentally and physically, and as such are really quite unprepared for the tasks and challenges they are about to be put to. Much as a 6 or 7 year old human gymnast they are certainly capable of incredible feats, but should hardly be considered the champions of their sport.
Yet in horse racing, this is the case. At 2 years old, they have already been pushed through a gruelling training regimen, broken to surrender themselves to an alien species, and forced to compete. By three years old, they are considered to be at the pinnacle of their abilities, and by 4 years old they are generally considered past their prime for their sport, broken down, and unless they are fortunate enough to enjoy financial success and go to stud, often discarded in favor of the next generation. After grooming these incredible athletes for mindboggling feats of prowess, just as they are about to start understanding their roles and reaching for their greatest performances, the most successful of them have these skills stripped away as they are forced into a life of servitude and luxury in the breeding pen.
At 2 years old, these majestic creatures have an awesome stature, rippling with raw power and the gleam of young beauty. Yet in reality, their bone structure is still developing, their understanding of their surroundings is under developed, and they are physically unprepared for a true career as athletes. This forced servitude is merely the result of an instant gratification economy that wants a rapid return on investment at any cost. The reality is that to be fair to these athletes, they should begin to start to learn their competitive manners at 2 years old, start sport training at 3 years old, begin competing at 4 years old, and might be ready to compete at the highest levels from 5 to 12 years of age. Nonetheless, the entire industry of racing horses is geared towards the adolescents, from breeding, to training, to racing and the rewards for racing, and to the number of times they will be able to inbreed during their lifetime.
Only the industry can change itself. It is time to start offering some recognition to the athlete beyond its expected progeny. It is time to incentivise the racing of horses in their prime by tailoring the industry to have the most prestigious races and the highest purses become available to the mature thoroughbreds. The industry needs to encourage the competition of older horses for the benefit of the sport and the industry. This benefits the horses themselves as the best athletes get to shine and truly be the envy of their sport. They get to compete when they physically fully equipped to do so, which would prevent many a catastrophic injury and the euthanising of these majestic creatures that were simply not fully grown into their skins. It allows the racing fan to develop a relationship and following for particular contenders that can span many years as opposed to the fickle and random loyalty for a horse for just one year. Imagine if Secretariat had been afforded the opportunity to win the Kentucky Derby 3 or 4 times! Imagine the incentive if the Breeders Cup Classic with a purse of 3 million dollars, was limited to entries by horses that were 5 years old or over. How great might Barbaro have become if he had not started his racing career until he was 4 years old. Imagine if Mohammed Ali had been retired from boxing after winning the Gold medal at the Olympics! Imagine if Tiger Woods had been retired after winning his first masters.
Surely this would be as good a time for a reality check in this sport as any, but alas I suspect it will never come to pass. Until the basic structure of the sport becomes realigned to embrace the athlete at its best, it will remain a frantic stepping stone to the breeding pen, and many "John Henry's" of the sport will go the way of Barbaro.