Monday, May 5, 2008

The Age of A Racehorse is Not Really Its Age

The age of a racehorse has traditionally been calculated from January 1 of the year it is born. The original purpose was to try and set a standard for eligibility in the various age divisions of horseracing. Over the years this method of determining age in horses has also been applied to show horses and other equine competitors. Using this aging method means a foal born on December 31, 2008 will be a yearling on January 1, 2009, even though it is actually only two days old.

Of course, no one would breed their mare in order to have a one year old that is really two days old, but there are folks who try to have their mares bred so to have foals on the ground as close to the other side of January one as possible. That is because a foal actually born on January one will be a full one year old the next January first. They call that foal a long yearling. On the racetrack, that is an advantage because the yearling will probably be bigger, stronger and faster than the foal born in April or May, the natural time for mares to drop foals. This reasoning in horse showing is pretty much the same, particularly in halter classes. The long yearling is bigger than its competitors, giving it an edge in the judges’ eyes.

To achieve this January birth mares must be manipulated to come into heat at a time of year not natural to horses. This is usually done by hormone therapy, or using artificial lighting to fool the horse’s system into thinking the days are longer and spring has arrived. The foal is born in the dead of winter when it is cold, and before the pasture grasses are up. Everything about this process is artificial.

The racing industry is over-run with health issues, that in my opinion are largely due to the practices of breeding and foaling too early and racing too young. In the year 2004 alone, the Jockey Club, that oversees Thoroughbred breeding and racing, provided $850,000 to researchers to study a host of health problems including foal pneumonia, fertility abnormalities, bone factures and respiratory disorders. Also in 2004 statistics show 243 track horse fatalities in California alone. Each year thousands of racehorses are retired early due to injuries. Many are sold to slaughter, while a few horses are rescued by organizations that try to find homes for them.

I missed the Derby this past Saturday. I’m glad I didn’t witness Eight Belles crumble on the track while giving her heart and life to running the race.

I read an AP article by Richard Rosenblatt, that was posted on my local television station’s website. Rosenblatt quoted Rick Dutrow, Jr., trainer of the winning horse, Big Brown. "No matter what happens, you're always going to see horses break down on the track," he said, "That is part of this game. It's a very sad part of the game, but you have to go through it.”

I guess so. After all we are talking about a multibillion-dollar industry.

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