Equine advocates often decry the racing of two-year-olds, and for good reason. But what many may not fully understand is that forcing two-year-olds onto the track is only marginally worse, medically speaking, than doing the same to three and four-year-olds, for the horse does not reach musculoskeletal maturity until an age when racing, for the most part, has already deemed him washed up.
First, a little history. A couple centuries back, racehorses were asked to run multiple heats of four miles each…on the same day. Shockingly, at least to us, a race-day in excess of 12 miles was not uncommon. But in the late 19th Century, futurities changed racing forever. As the name indicates, these contests were initially intended to generate interest in tomorrow’s “stars.” But because everyone knew that racing three-year-olds for many miles was a bad idea, futurities were run as sprints instead of marathons. The public loved them, and the profits flowed. And so was born modern horseracing and with it, the decidedly unready two- and three-year-old racehorse.
The science of a horse’s physical maturation is well-established. To simplify, although some bones will reach full length early on, the filling out (girth) takes longer. And the higher up the body, the slower the process. What’s more, growth plates in the spine are still unfused at three, with those in the base of the neck the last to fully close, somewhere around six. Only then, does a horse reach skeletal maturity.
While the current racing model may have begun by accident, preserving it is anything but. Although fully aware that a racehorse will not reach his “athletic prime” – run his fastest – until 6-10, horseracing deftly markets its three-year-old product as the pinnacle of competition. They do this because waiting for maturity would be cost-prohibitive. With this ruse firmly entrenched, media and fans rarely, if ever, question the wisdom of forcing adolescents to perform like developed adults. But make no mistake, a Derby horse is physically more Little Leaguer than 30-year-old pro.
Still, some apologists ask, if considered safe and acceptable to place a 13-year-old gymnast on a rigorous regimen, why not a 3-year-old colt? Well: When injured, she gets rest; he gets dope. When broken, she gets crutches; he gets pentobarbital. When “retired,” she goes to college; he goes to the abattoir. She is an end; he is a means. Not the same at all.