Citing concerns about a growing lack of diversity in the gene pool of Thoroughbred racehorses, the Jockey Club, which is the registrar of the breed in the United States, in 2020 promulgated a new rule.  Stallions foaled in 2020 and thereafter are limited to breeding 140 mares per season.  In 2021, three prominent breeding farms—Ashford, Spendthrift, and Three Chimneys—sued to overturn the decision.

An article in the Wall Street Journal by Jo Craven McGinty (“Most U. S. Dairy Cows are Kissing Cousins,” May 29-30, 2021) pertained precisely to the sort of genetic diversity concern that prompted the Jockey Club rule.  She began the article by asking:

“Trick question: How many Holsteins…are in the U. S.?  (a) Nine million; (b) Fewer than 50; (c) Both a and b.”

The answer: “…selective breeding…has led to so much inbreeding that virtually all Holsteins in the U. S. and abroad descend from just two bulls [born in the 1960s].  So, while there are roughly nine million Holsteins in the U. S., the breed’s effective population—a measure of genetic diversity—is just 43, according to an estimate published last year in the peer-reviewed Journal of Dairy Science.”  To put this finding in perspective, wild animals with an effective population of less than 50 are considered to be in danger of extinction “because of higher risks of miscarriages, stillbirths, and genetic abnormalities.”

On the positive side, inbreeding optimizes milk production as well as “boosts longevity, mobility, leg and foot health.”  Yet inbreeding is also “responsible for the proliferation of some diseases.”  Specifically, “at least 15 genetic disorders …adversely affect Holsteins.”

Since genomic selection was introduced in the United States in 2008, inbreeding of Holsteins has accelerated and both bulls and cows have been bred at earlier and earlier ages.  The percentage of inbreeding of genotyped Holstein bulls (by birth year) rose from 2 percent in 1980 to 12% recently.

Geneticists said that the Holstein breed might be able to tolerate the inbreeding, but “the worry is that the dwindling diversity of Holsteins could permanently undermine the breed’s fitness.”

All Thoroughbred horses are descended from three foundation sites. Inbreeding has become increasingly prevalent, as more and more mares have been bred to fewer and fewer popular stallions, especially stallions from the Northern Dancer line. Jockey Club records show that in 2007, 9.5% of all mares bred were sent to stallions covering more than 140 mares. This percentage soared to 27% in 2019.

It is not possible–lacking a longitudinal experimental design—to say for certain why the number and frequency of starts for the modern Thoroughbred racehorse pale in comparison to the same statistics for racehorses of 50 years ago and longer.  But inbreeding is a leading suspect for declining durability, resulting in fatalities in training and races that threaten the viability of horse racing as a humane sport.

As with Holstein cattle, the end result of inbreeding in Thoroughbred racehorses is unknowable.  But the potentially negative outcomes of “dwindling diversity” are too great to risk the future of the breed.  Hence the Jockey Club’s 140-mare per stallion rule is precautionary and far-sighted.

Copyright © 2021 Horse Racing Business


Trainer extraordinaire Bob Baffert was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2009.  His enshrinement certainly won’t be rescinded irrespective of a documented record of equine drug violations, including most notoriously Medina Spirit in the 2021 Kentucky Derby and eventual Triple Crown winner Justify in the 2018 Santa Anita Derby.  Suppose, however, in the future a trainer with obvious qualifications comes along who has not yet been inducted into the HOF and has had similar drug infractions as Baffert does now.  Would he or she be deserving of induction?

There are two schools of thought about HOF eligibility.  One line of thinking says that the only standard is an individual’s record of achievement in actual competition. What he or she has done “within the white lines” is what counts and egregious behavior outside competition should not be a criterion.  The other perspective is that a person’s total resume needs to be evaluated and that off-the-field conduct is relevant.

Pete Rose is inarguably one of the most accomplished players in Major League Baseball history. He is not in the MLB Hall of Fame for betting on MLB games as a player and manager for the Cincinnati Reds. MLB classified Rose as “permanently ineligible.” Later in life, he was convicted of tax evasion and served prison time. Thus Rose has both on-field and off-field transgressions.

By contrast, the late great Green Bay Packer running back Paul Hornung is in the NFL Hall of Fame despite being suspended “indefinitely” by the NFL commissioner in 1963 for betting on games and associating with shady characters.  In 1964, Hornung was reinstated.  He was eventually inducted into the NFL HOF, in 1986, due to his redemptive behavior after returning from his suspension. 

If overall character were a criterion for HOF eligibility, at least some of the inductees in the major sporting hall of fames would not qualify.  For example, one of the legendary MLB players was a known racist, which is repulsive but is not illegal.  On the other hand, an alleged murderer and convicted felon like O. J. Simpson, who is in the NFL HOF, would likely have not become a Hall of Famer if his criminal record had predated his HOF induction.

Whether an individual’s infractions should disqualify him or her from HOF induction first and foremost depends on if the infractions were directly related to competition.  For instance, some of the record-holding MLB players of the “steroid era” have not been awarded HOF enshrinement because performance-enhancing drugs contributed to their prowess.

In the case of Baffert, the multiple infractions he has incurred pertained to racing horses on performance-enhancing drugs outlawed by state racing commissions, which, if he had not already been inducted, would make his HOF eligibility problematic. Could one of the all-time best trainers be kept out of the HOF? Ask Barry Bonds, MLB’s all-time home-run leader, or Roger Clemens, one of the most dominating pitchers in MLB history, both of whom have tainted records owing to steroid use.

Rather than leave decisions up to voters, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame needs to craft and publicize unambiguous language about conduct “detrimental to the best interests of racing”–within and outside competition–that automatically makes a trainer ineligible for HOF consideration.

Copyright © 2021 Horse Racing Business


The 153rd Belmont Stakes and the 242nd Epsom Derby were run on June 5, 2021.  Before the day was over, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s Godolphin had accomplished an historic first-ever feat:  winning the 1 ½ mile Epsom Derby and the 1 ½ mile Belmont Stakes on the same day in the same year. 

The Charlie Appleby-trained Adayar won the Epsom Derby at 16-1 odds and less than 3 hours later the Brad Cox-trained Essential Quality won the Belmont Stakes as the 6/5 favorite.  Appleby said that his intention was not to run Adayar in the Epsom Derby, but did so at the insistence of Sheikh Mohammed, who told him that there “is only one Epsom Derby.” 

As if the Adayar/Essential Quality wins were not enough, Godolphin’s Hurricane Lane placed third in the Epsom Derby.  Adayar and Hurricane Lane were both sired by the undefeated Frankel and Essential Quality is by leading stallion Tapit, who has now sired four winners of the Belmont.

The two global powerhouses in horse racing are Godolphin and Ireland-based Coolmore Stud.  While the two entities both have premier breeding operations located around the world, their approaches to racing are quite different.  Godolphin places horses for racing in the United States on dirt surfaces with American-based trainers, whereas Coolmore ships in horses to compete in U. S. turf races and occasionally in dirt races.  The Godolphin method has been more successful in winning dirt-track races in the United States with horses they have bred. 

An owner winning the Epsom Derby and the Belmont Stakes on a single day is a unique record in racing’s long history.

Copyright © 2021 Horse Racing Business