A friend of mine last week was telling me about the yearling Hanoverian she purchased for her daughter to be used eventually as a hunter/jumper. I asked what the plans were and she said that the filly would be readied to ride when she is a 3-year-old. The idea is to wait until the youngster has had time to develop and mature, which evidently is the norm in all performance horses except racehorses.

My friend was too polite to say so, but I could tell that she was contemptuous of the way racehorses are rushed to the track.

I thought how different this philosophy is from the prevailing Thoroughbred culture. Outstanding Thoroughbred colts are routinely retired at the end of their 3-year-old season when horses of this age in other performance breeds are just getting started. Similarly, yearlings sold at sales in the late summer and fall are often racing by a year later, whereas two-year-olds in various other breeds may never have had on a saddle.

Several days after having this brief conversation with my friend, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Not So Fast: Critics Decry Horse Auction Experience.” It was an expose of sorts pertaining to the 2-year-old in training breezes held by Fasig-Tipton and the Ocala Breeders Sales Company. The article reported that “…two horses died in such exercises earlier this year.” As expected, PETA is opposed to the modus operandi, but, significantly, so are some credible horsemen from within the Thoroughbred enterprise.

In an ideal world, the Thoroughbred sport would add one more year. A racehorse would not be eligible to start a race until his or her 3-year-old year and the Triple Crown races would be for 4-year-olds. Under the current rules, a horse can run in the Triple Crown races even if he is a late foal and is not yet 3-years-old. How many of the entrants in this year’s Kentucky Derby are still in training? Certainly not the winner.

These changes are obviously not going to happen because of the underlying economics and the tradition of glamorizing 3-year-old races. For example, it is not likely that a partnership would do very well by buying yearlings that the partnership prospectus states won’t race until they are at least 3-year-olds.

However, that does not mean that changes should not be made in the marketing and preparation of young horses, as long as the modifications are based on strong evidence and not on emotion. It would be helpful, for instance, to know how graduates of 2-year-old in training sales turn out as compared to animals that are not sold in this manner. On average, how many actually make it into a race and how much do they earn? Is a horse’s ability to run fast for a very short distance predictive of future performance in a race?

Some well-known trainers, past and present, have made a name for themselves primarily with older racehorses. Charlie Whittingham did not win the Kentucky Derby until late in his life and, furthermore, rarely tried. Bill Mott and the late Bobby Frankel are/were not regulars in the Triple Crown races but are in the Hall of Fame.

These trainers generally don’t get the acclaim that goes to their higher profile colleagues who, year after year, have Triple Crown entries and a plethora of young horses to choose from. Fortunately, some owners appreciate the discipline it takes for a trainer to bypass the limelight while waiting on an immature 3-year-old to realize his or her potential as an older horse. There is much to be said for giving a fledgling racehorse time to grow one more year. It is good for the horse and good for horse racing to have older stars.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business


  1. I agree with your analysis. I think fans miss out on the opportunity to see really great racehorses in their prime because by the time they mature they are in the breeding shed.

  2. Ron McAnally is a trainer out here on the left coast who is sensational with older horses but has never won a Triple Crown race. He is most remembered for John Henry. If Kelso and Forego had not been geldings we probably would have not seen them as older horses.