Dosage: Pedigree &
They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To
by Dennis McKeon
Introduction by Steve Roman: Dennis McKeon is a frequent and erudite contributor to various racing forums under the nom de plume "Modac". In the following essay, Mr. McKeon compares the contemporary Thoroughbred with the Thoroughbred of years gone by and demonstrates how the inexorable shift toward speed has affected Thoroughbred type. As he notes in a convincing manner, the change may not be all for the good.
Mr. McKeon was born in 1950 in the Bronx
and has been enthralled by horses and horse racing for as long as he can
remember. He developed an interest in greyhound racing, and was a trainer during
the '70s and '80s, also acquiring experience breeding and raising greyhounds. He
left the business for ethical and personal reasons in the late '80s and he
currently resides in Swansea, Massachusetts with his wife and two children. Mr.
McKeon also has two other grown children and three grandchildren, all of whom
live nearby. He is employed in the Graphic Arts field.
“They don’t make ’em like they used to.” How many times have we thought or spoken those very words, about any number of things within the realm of our perception? It seems we are all comforted, at times, by the warm, hazy, golden feelings nostalgia evokes, whether we are discussing our cars, our jobs, popular music or even our athletic icons. This seems especially true if those athletic icons happen to be Thoroughbred racehorses. You know the mantra “...they just don’t have the stamina, the soundness, the ability to carry the weight, they’re too fragile, they’ve got to be medicated to run ... ” Why, I might have written it myself.
As the annual weeping and gnashing of teeth begins over who will or won’t be able to get the mile and a quarter come that first Saturday in May, once again I find myself flashing back to those long ago Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Big A, Belmont or the Spa, broadcasts that those of us who grew up in the city were favored with each week. Once again, I am transformed. I can hear the clarion call of Fred Cappasella, quavering with emotion, as the riveting, struggling epics unfold, piercing through the roar of the crowd, as it swells to a thrilling crescendo. I can see them all as clearly in my mind’s eye, as ever they were on that old black and white 12-inch -----Round Table, Kelso, Gun Bow, Beau Purple, Mongo, Dr. Fager, Damascus, Buckpasser----- how brave, swift and magnificent they were----- and wouldn’t any one of them just make a shambles of this current crop of redoubtables?
Is memory more and more sweetly tinged by the passage of time? No doubt it is----still, I can’t dismiss the feeling that something is not right here. Some elusive, tangible, though perhaps inexpressible quality, seems to have been mislaid through the passing of the generations. Certainly, one might propose that horses like Forego, John Henry, and more recently Cigar and Skip Away would not be out of place among those aforementioned, bygone heroes, and get no argument from me. Yet today, as the new millennium dawns, something palpable about the horses themselves seems to be not "as it once was". They don’t make ‘em like they used to...hmmm... Well, one could ponder these things forever. Truth be known, perception is reality, and we must clarify our perceptions.
So let’s peruse the current list of chefs-de-race, and see whether or not there are any clues here that might illuminate this quandary. By my count, there are 254 aptitudinal designations assigned to the various chefs. These are distributed unequally among the five aptitudinal categories. If we figure out the percentage of total aptitudes by aptitudinal category, perhaps it might reveal something. The breakdown is as follows:
Very interesting, but not what I was looking for. What if we form two separate groups of chefs, delineate at about mid-century, and see if there is any difference between them. Bold Ruler was a prepotent sire who emerged about this time, (1954, to be exact) so why not separate the two groups into “chefs foaled prior to 1954” and “chefs foaled after 1953”? Seems fair enough to me.
Now we’re getting somewhere. Aptitudinal designations to the post-1953 group have shifted toward the middle and slightly left, and the Professional aptitude has almost blipped off the screen. So we’ll assign half of the Classic aptitudes toward “Speed”, and half toward “Stamina” and see how our two groups shake out.
Percentage of aptitudinal designations
assigned to all chefs:
Percentage of aptitudinal designations
assigned to chefs foaled prior to 1954:
Percentage of aptitudinal designations
assigned to chefs foaled after 1953:
So we have an aptitudinal shift of about 13% from stamina toward speed, the pre-1954 chefs possessed of more stamina-based aptitudes, the post 1953 chefs possessed of more speed-based aptitudes. Now there’s a treasure trove for students of the obvious----like me----who suspected something was amiss all along. What is one to infer from this information? Is this just a quirk of statistics, or does it have some real relevance to the Thoroughbred and the industry that is built around him? How, why and when did this happen? Is it a good thing, or a bad thing? Perhaps we might arrive at some answers to what appears, at a glance, to be an alarming metamorphosis.
Obviously, we see a reflection of the ever-decreasing opportunities for stamina-bred horses, typified by the leftward bent of the more recent group of the breed’s most influential progenitors. So why have these opportunities decreased? Was there a nationwide conspiracy among racing secretaries to deprive the owners and trainers of stamina-bred horses equal convenience? Was the genetic potentiality for expression of stamina improperly nurtured by the breeding community, so that it recessed to the degree we have observed? Were there other, peripheral factors involved? Needless to say, at this point, it would be problematical for a breeder or breeders to begin to “retrieve” the waning Professional aptitude from existing gene pools. The most recent chefs who express that aptitude are Stage Door Johnny and Vaguely Noble, both foaled in 1965, Run the Gantlet, foaled in 1968, and Ela-Mana-Mou, foaled in 1976, placing at least three of them pretty far back in most contemporary pedigrees. Should the task be undertaken merely upon a whim of nostalgia, or is there a greater, practical, ethical imperative to be heeded here?
The aptitudinal shift toward the expression of speed that we have observed between our two groups of chefs---- considering their profound influence on the breed---- must inevitably result in the emergence of a median Thoroughbred type with more muscle and correspondingly less bone. This type would thus possess a physical predisposition toward more dynamic acceleration and also more frequent and traumatic injury. The basic tenets of selective breeding, inheritance, and physical dynamics, would compel it to emerge. Whenever men have undertaken the selective breeding of animals for utilitarian or sporting purposes, type has always adjusted toward purpose. In a holistic sense, I perceive to be in the majority today a noticeably more muscular, less angulated and conformationally less graceful, less elegant type of Thoroughbred----- who although perhaps faster than his forbears----for shorter distances---- lacks their endurance and soundness. Has the breed fashioned the marketplace, or has the marketplace genotyped the breed?
The paradigm shift toward speed, and its inherent unsoundness, was radicalized by the advent of modern veterinary medicine and rules changes that allowed horses to race on medication. This enabled many individuals who without the aid of science, would have fallen by the wayside, to prosper on the track and later on in the breeding shed. A large enough percentage of these individuals then became genetically influential---- enough to engender the emergence of similar types, with similar infirmities and genetic legacy. Their offspring were then inherently less and less able to endure the rigors of route racing, weight carrying, and racing without medication---- as races became shorter, weights less burdensome, medication rules more liberal and the attrition rates more debilitating. Like tends to beget like----it is the essence of selective breeding. Hence, the type we see today . . . tilted dramatically toward speed, self-perpetuating unsoundness, and not so incidentally, precocity.
“Precocity”----sounds nice, doesn’t it? Webster defines it as “premature development”. Purveyors of “fashionably” bred thoroughbreds have recently chosen to define it as the 10-second furlong, toward what practical purpose one can only imagine. Precocious speed, passed on by precocious sires, who have little else to show for their careers as racehorses, doomed to an early demise by their own precocity---- we’ve all read the sire advertisements. It is the number one buzzword of the commercial breeder, it is the quality most sought-after by the Thoroughbred “investor”. Precocity, I would suggest, is the last refuge of those who are unable to imply a sense of longevity, and the first concern of those who lack a sense of propriety. It is damnation with faint praise. Precocity betrays the Thoroughbred. It is the subtle admission that his soundness and physical well-being have been compromised for quick return on investment. It is the final stage of a phenotype distorted by human greed. Think about it.
Should the racing industry have the ethics and foresight to adopt a pro-forma geared toward re-establishing a more comprehensive and results-oriented program of stamina-based venues, Thoroughbred type would be impelled to emerge toward it.
Breeders who sense deterioration toward speed could also impel a more balanced type to emerge, by gearing their programs toward making use of the present stamina-based venues. By so doing, they could motivate the industry toward reinforcing the reversion to a more sound, balanced type as reflected by our pre-1953 group of chefs. As the demand for these venues increases, it should be met. Eventually, it may even become feasible to reassess medication rules, without crippling either the industry or the breed.
Either way, it won’t happen overnight or by serendipity. It will require a highly evolved sense of husbandry, horsemanship, sportsmanship and fair play, and for some of the “prime movers” to dismiss their notions that “it’s all about the money.” Because, when it comes right down to it, if we have nothing else, we have our fondly smiling sense of nostalgia to remind us----as it does every now and then, in those hazy, golden moments----its all about the horses.