Have We Reached The Equine Physical Limit'

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Last weekend, just before the Belmont Stakes culminated this year?s Triple Crown, I read a brief and dispassionate analysis of why the finishing times posted by Thoroughbred racehorses have only rarely improved over the last 30 years or so. The piece was in an online publication called The Post Game (http://www.thepostgame.com/features/201106/humans-keep-getting-faster-why-not-horses). Being a racing fan, I've long known that Secretariat?s 1973 Kentucky Derby time (1:59 2/5) still stands as the stakes and track record and that his Belmont time (an astounding 2:24 for the 1 1/2 miles) has never been approached on any track since then. This year?s Belmont time was a bit slower than 2:30, and even when Affirmed and Alydar locked horns for almost the entirety of the 1978 Belmont, Afirmed?s final time was only 2:26 4/5. That means that Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown, would have lost to Secretariat by 14 lengths. As I started writing this, I looked up the Thoroughbred American record times, and what I noticed right away was that that records for the 22 distances listed (from 2 furlongs to 2 miles) have been set only six times in this century. And five of those were for sprint races (at 2 furlongs, 3 furlongs, 3 ? furlongs, 4 furlongs and 6 ? furlongs). The sixth record, set by Najran at Belmont Park in 2005, only equaled Dr. Fager?s mile record of 1:32 1/5, set in 1968. Racing folk like to say, ?Time doesn't matter unless you're doing it,? and that's often true, as the time depends a lot on the track condition, the weather, and how the race unfolds. But time is really the only indicator we have of how fast Thoroughbreds are running, and the author of this article cites four reasons why equine speed records haven't fallen with the regularity of human speed records: the shoes, the track, human vs. equine ego and equine structure. All are likely reasons. Horse shoes, especially the ones racehorses wear, have changed little in decades, while human running shoes are a bout half as heavy and yet many times more supportive. Horses are still racing over much the same surfaces they did decades ago (the synthetic surfaces, which were supposed to cause fewer injuries but haven't, aren?t faster than dirt), while human tracks now provide a firm base that feels as soft as if you're running on a Tempur-Pedic bed. Those are the human-engineered factors. I think the other two are even more important. Horses don't have egos like we do. Yes, they can certainly be proud and combative, unwilling to lose. But we can't motivate a horse by telling him, ?If you run your heart out and set the record in this race, you'll be remembered as the greatest of all time.? Good racehorses only want to beat the other horses, in that race. They can't read the teletimer on the tote board. And then tHere's structure or anatomy. A Thoroughbred weighs four to 10 times as much as a human runner, and on every stride that weight, at a speed more than twice as fast as ours, is being supported by a single leg that's nowhere near that much bigger than ours. It would appear to be a simple matter of physics, that an unbelievably faster horse simply could not stay sound. Thus, he (or she) won?t win races and would not likely reproduce. So the horses racing today at tracks across the country look basically the same as the Thoroughbreds racing 25 or 50 years ago, and they're doing almost exactly the same thing?galloping around left-handed ovals over distances from 2 furlongs to 2 miles. We could certainly argue whether today?s Thoroughbreds are as sturdy as their distant relatives, but that might be for another time. Now, let's compare those horses and their sport to the three Olympic horse sports. The horses (and riders too) competing in these look and perform almost nothing like their pre-World War II predecessors. The jumps are far more diverse and creative and better built; the courses that include those jumps are far, far more demanding physically and mentally and communication-wise; and the footing those courses are built on is, generally, more weather-resistant and often shock-absorbing. Today?s sport horses are generally bigger and more muscular, because they're more highly trained than their predecessors. In all but a precious few cases, the horses who competed in the 1932 Olympics wouldn?t be at all competitive today. I'm afraid that almost all would be literally laughed out next year in London, if they could even qualify to get there. THere's even a noticeable difference in technical difficulty and, thus, the level of training from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics to today. Would 1984 gold medalists Ahlerich and Charisma and Touch of Class still be competitive today' I would argue that they were such extraordinary athletes, with three of the greatest riders and trainers of all time (Reiner Klimke, Mark Todd and Joe Fargis), that, yes, they could be trained to win in 2012. But I don't think the same would be true of the majority of their competitors. No sane person could argue that the technical proficiency and standard of competition has not increased dramatically at the international level (and national level too) in the last several decades. Dressage horses now perform to music, doing double canter pirouettes and passage half-passes, and performing a piaffe barely dreamed of earlier. Event horses gallop through precise gymnastic combinations (often involving jumps with faces only 4 feet wide) in the middle of ponds; jumpers make demanding changes of stride length and balance in three or four strides to leap over jumps a family of hobbits could live in. If today?s sporthorses are doing so much more than today?s racehorses, does it mean that sporthorse training has dramatically improved, while racehorse training has not' You could certainly make that argument. Or has breeding made a difference too' We've now been purposefully breeding sporthorses for some 40 years, selected largely on their trainability and their ability over fences or in the dressage ring, so we should have more suitable horses. Perhaps too sporthorses are benefiting from a hybrid vigor that Thoroughbreds cannot because of their closed studbook' And, yet, like racing, horses aren?t jumping bigger?in fact, Olympic and other international show jumping courses usually aren?t as big as 30 or 40 years ago, and the maximum height of cross-country fences hasn?t changed in 80 years. In fact, three-day event courses are shorter than they used to be. Dressage tests are harder, but while riders have developed variations on movements for their freestyles (the piaffe pirouette, the passage half-pass), no one has created a new movement or even suggested adding the airs above the ground to the Grand Prix. It makes me wonder if we reached the limit of equine ability decades ago. Maybe all we can do is fine-tune things from here